Adaptive technologies in public libraries

by Penny Garrod, Public Library Networking Focus, UKOLN

An issue paper from the Networked Services Policy Task Group
Series editor: Penny Garrod (UKOLN)

Number 1 - January 2004

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1. Introduction:

There are 8 million disabled people in this country and most will be users of local authority services and will of course pay Council Tax; but many of those services aren't accessible for disabled people either because of the design of the environment....or because of the way the service is delivered or the lack of particular equipment or facilities. This is an issue for everyone involved in local authorities, from Council members to front line staff and isn't just something for social services or the building division [1].

Part III of the UK Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 has broad implications for public sector service providers. [2] Local authorities will have carried out access audits to ensure that buildings comply with the legislation, but services also have to comply. Universal access to ICT and web-based services, including e-government, is a fundamental tenet of current government policy, and this includes removing barriers which prevent disabled people from participating fully in every aspect of society.

The People's Network has equipped every public library in the UK with computers offering Internet access, email facilities, and a wealth of e-services and online resources. The People's Network forms part of the Government's overall strategy for social inclusion, which aims to ensure that no-one is excluded from accessing ICT facilities due to personal or social circumstances. Public sector service providers are taking steps to ensure they comply with disability legislation, but it is worth thinking in terms of helping the wider community - many of whom have special needs when using standard IT equipment. For example, older people may find a standard keyboard and mouse difficult to use, and may have impaired hearing and/or vision; learners of all ages may have reading difficulties, or a specific learning difficulty, such as dyslexia. When introducing adaptive technologies the ultimate aim is to establish a level playing field for all users and to establish the right mix of technologies which will support local communities. Simple, inexpensive options are available, and they can make a difference. This paper seeks to explore the range of technologies available. and provide examples of what is currently in use in public libraries.

2. Examples of adaptive technologies

Adaptive, accessible, enabling, assistive (technologies) are interchangeable terms, all of which describe the equipment and software packages that enable people with a range of disabilities, or special needs, to use a computer and gain access to the Internet. [3] A wide range of equipment is available, for example:

These options are dealt with further below. A comprehensive and authoritative database of accessible technologies can be found on the Techdis website [4], which is targeted at the higher education community. AbilityNet [5] provide a wealth of information, including free and cheap solutions for specific disabilities which are particularly useful and relevant to the public sector.

3. Preliminary issues prior to ordering equipment

Before purchasing adaptive equipment it is necessary to undertake some preliminary ground work, for example:

4. Consulting relevant organisations within the community

Within your region you will find organisations that work closely with local disabled people who understand their needs and are able to offer advice and information. Local Access Groups are a good example as they actively campaign on behalf of local disabled people and have specific expertise. In addition, field workers within social services departments and schools have knowledge and experience of potential client groups; they may be able to suggest how libraries are best able to cater for the needs of these groups and encourage them to use library facilities.

In the London Borough of Bexley a member of the library service regularly attends meetings of the Bexley Access Group [6]. Another example is the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames library service, where local disability groups were consulted prior to ordering adaptive technologies for the 13 borough libraries [7]. Richmond Advice and Information on Disability Centre, and the Sensory Impairment Action on Disability (a council-run service)are both involved in campaigning for local disabled people, and they also helped to promote the People's Network by raising awareness among members. Richmond also work in partnership with the local adult and community college to provide short courses on specific disabilities, and IT 'taster sessions' are timed to coincide with key events like 'Adult Learners Week'.

5. Inexpensive and free solutions to enabling access

Public libraries should aim to make the best use of standard ICT equipment before deciding to purchase expensive adaptive equipment. A good starting point is to encourage staff to become familiar with the standard accessibility options available on the operating system in use (e.g. Windows, Unix, Linux (Open Source) or Mac OS).

5.1 Windows Accessibility Options

AbilityNet publish a series of 'skill-sheets' on the standard accessibility options in Windows XP which can be adapted for Windows 2000 users. AbilityNet also provide a comprehensive step-by-step guide to making a PC accessible which is aimed at the end-user, but libraries should find it useful and easy to implement. [8] By making a few simple changes it is possible to overcome some of the common difficulties people experience when using a computer.

Staff may also find keyboard shortcuts or key combinations useful to know as alternatives to using a mouse. These can be used for frequent actions such as saving, printing, cutting and pasting text and files, and can reduce the risk of RSI (repetitive strain injury), and help people with tremor or upper limb impairments. To execute a keystroke in Windows the Control (Ctrl) key is held down whilst another key is pressed e.g. Ctrl + S to save a document, and Ctrl + P to print. A full list can be found under the 'help' pages in Windows.

For users of Mackintosh computers the Command (Cmd) key is held down whilst another key is pressed. Key combinations soon become automatic with constant use, and around 6-8 key combinations should cover most people's needs. Keystrokes combinations can be printed on large laminated cards and placed next to terminals.

The UK government has developed its own system of 'access keys' to make navigating Government websites easier and faster, which the Department for Culture, Media and Sport uses on its' web site. [9] Details of the access key system, and how it works on different browsers, can be found on the Cabinet Office web site. [10]

5.2 Accessibility kit and 'Mini-kit' from AbilityNet

AbilityNet supply an 'Accessibility Kit' for under 4000 (all prices as at October 2003 and rounded up. See organisational websites for current prices). The package consists of 'tried and tested' equipment which is designed for use with public access PCs. The package includes: a variety of keyboards and pointing devices (trackballs, touchpad and joystick); a screen reader and magnifier; text-to-speech and voice recognition software, plus a range of 'sundries' e.g. wrist rests, large character keys, switches, and headphones.

The London Borough of Bexley has 13 libraries. They purchased one AbilityNet 'Accessibility Kit' for evaluation purposes, as they did not have sufficient funds to purchase one for each library. LunarPlus from Dolphin [11] was chosen as the standard magnification software for each library, and Keytools [12] and Inclusive Technology [13] supplied various other items. Bexley spent around 20,000 in total on equipment and training. AbilityNet also provided training for Bexley libraries: 13 library supervisors attended disability awareness training, and 6 staff received specialised training on LunarPlus. This initial training was supplemented by in-house training [14].

AbilityNet have now introduced a basic and inexpensive (around 600) 'Mini-Kit' to help organisations on tight budgets comply with disability legislation. AbilityNet describe the kit as a 'practical set of hardware, software and information aimed at full time usage', which includes alternative keyboards and mice, word prediction and speech synthesis software, and laminated instruction sheets for 'tuning' windows. A one-day course is also available to enable staff to gain hands-on experience of using the kit - it includes training on Windows Accessibility features.

6. Matching equipment to people's needs

Disabilities come in many shapes and forms - many of which are not outwardly apparent to the observer e.g. dyslexia, epilepsy, autism and mental health problems. People may have had a recent accident, illness or an operation, and need help for a temporary period. There are also older people to consider, and people with specific learning disabilities, such as dyslexia - all of which impact on their ability to use Information and Communications Technology.

6.1 Older people

In the UK we hear a lot about the aging population - around 9.4 million people are aged over 65 [15]. Older library users may have deteriorating sight or hearing, and may be less mobile; they may have poor dexterity or co-ordination, which affects their ability to use a mouse or standard keyboard. However, older people with such needs are not 'disabled' simply because they cannot read the text on a screen or use a mouse, but they will benefit from many of the solutions designed for disabled people. Magnification and text-to-speech software, for example, will help them to read the screen or have it spoken to them, whilst alternative input and pointing devices can help with data entry and navigation. Other inexpensive items are keyboard 'gloves' which fit over standard keyboards to provide large keys with good contrast. The Kidglove from Keytools is an example at around 50. [16] A cheap alternative are keyboard stickers which stick over the keys on standard keyboards to provide large keys with high contrast and high visibility.

6.2 Dyslexia

Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty affecting between 4% and 5% of the population [17]. It can be 'diagnosed' at any stage in life, but is often discovered in adults returning to study. People entering higher education, who experience difficulty with course work, may be sent for an assessment. If they are diagnosed as dyslexic they may qualify for the 'disabled student allowance' to cover books and adaptive technologies. Libraries may encounter people of all ages with dyslexia and their needs need to be considered in relation to reader development and support for lifelong learning.

It is worth experimenting with the accessibility features in Windows, and other operating systems, before purchasing equipment designed for people with dyslexia. Changing the font size and colour, to provide a good contrast between text and background, can improve text readability in some cases. Specialist equipment products are available, such as TextHELP from Sight and Sound Technology [18]. These feature text highlighting, spell checkers, word prediction, thesauri and text to speech software, and prices vary with a single licence costing around 400-500, depending on the number of features available. A flatbed scanner is also useful for print resources.

The Kurzweil 3000 [19] is a computer-based scanning system for people who are blind, or who have a reading disability or learning difficulties, including dyslexia and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). The machine is used with a scanner, enabling books, magazines and newspapers to be read aloud. Kurzweil 3000 is an expensive product, and is probably outside the budget of most libraries. The library at Papworth Everard was built specifically for disabled people, and is equipped with a wide range of adaptive technology, including Kurzweil 3000.

Papworth library is a fully accessible community library built in partnership with the Papworth Trust - an independent registered charity that helps disabled people to be more independent. Disabled people on the Papworth Progression Programme work alongside staff from the library service.[20]
The library has a range of specialist equipment including: five PCs fitted with Supernova; one PC fitted with JAWS; one PC with a 21 inch screen; Kurzweil 3000 and a Closed Circuit TV Magnifier (CCTV) which magnifies print and makes it easier to read newspapers, books, reference material etc.

6.3 Visual impairment

Magnification software is an obvious choice for those with visual impairments, and several packages at various prices are available. Suppliers often offer a 'standard' version of software and a more expensive 'professional' version. Some packages offer magnification only, whilst others e.g. Dolphin's Hal and Supernova also feature 'braille for Windows'. Few adaptive technologies have been developed for other operating systems due to the market dominance of Windows. [21]


Dolphin software and Zoom Text are both popular in the UK. They are similar products but offer slightly different functions e.g. Lunar allows 'smoothing' of text to aid readability, and Zoom Text offers synthesised speech output at two levels. [24]

JAWS software is for people who are blind or visually impaired. It features an integrated voice synthesizer to produce speech from text displayed on a computer screen, and can also be used with refreshable Braille displays. JAWS is available from Sight and Sound Technology and costs around 700 for the standard version and 800 for the professional version. JAWS can be used with web browsers, email programs, databases and standard Microsoft applications, plus more sophisticated development tools and advanced software. JAWS is a complex product requiring prior knowledge or training.

Essex Libraries provide ZoomText on every new PC, and JAWS is available in the 16 largest libraries in the County. Bournemouth library has both Zoom Text and JAWS. In the academic sector, Southampton University, the University of Central England and the Open University have Zoomtext and JAWS, plus a range of other technologies. These are just a few illustrative examples, as many universities are introducing a range of products in response to the Special Educational Needs Disability Act, and widening participation initiatives in higher education.

In addition to magnification/screen reader software, keyboards with big keys, trackballs and Kid Gloves help visually impaired people to see the keys and interact with the computer. Many visually impaired users navigate the Internet using <tab> <arrow> and <enter> keys, and large keyboards are helpful. However, much depends on the level of accessibility of the individual website (see below), which is why this is such an important issue.

6.4 Deaf and hearing impaired people

The Internet is a multi-media environment and sound files increasingly feature on websites. The BBC website, for example, now offers sound archives of many popular radio programmes, enabling listeners to hear programmes outside the scheduled broadcasting slots.

Library users with a hearing impairment (as opposed to those who are Deaf) may be helped by simply adjusting the volume settings on a PC, and providing a set of headphones to avoid disturbing other library users. People fitted with hearing-aids will also find it easier to use a terminal which is sited away from busy public areas where there is constant background noise.

The British Deaf Association (BDA) [25] is a useful source of information on how best to support Deaf people. The website provides access to an Information Directory listing 1,700 organisations, groups and services serving the Deaf community in the UK. It also has a factsheet on producing a video in British Sign Language (BSL) as a way of ensuring Deaf people are able to access information services.

Examples of good practice include Gateshead and Essex library services. Gateshead provides services through 'AIRS' - Access to Information and Reading Services. [26] AIRS provides a range of services and resources for Deaf and hearing impaired people including: free talking newspapers; tapes and CDs in BSL; a BSL video translation service; a videophone for users to contact staff; closed-captioned videos, and subtitled DVDs. Essex libraries have induction loops at counters and enquiry points, and caption video readers to lend to people with hearing impairments, enabling them to watch videos featuring closed captions.

6.5 Location of adaptive equipment

It is important that adaptive equipment is readily available for staff to demonstrate to users, as and when required. Having the equipment laid out near a PC shows users that alternatives to standard equipment are available, and are ready for use as and when needed.

7. Staff training

7.1 Disability awareness

Staff training is important, and disability awareness training will help to develop understanding and instil confidence in front line staff, who are the first point of contact for users. The social model of disability is widely accepted by social services, teachers and the disabled community, and an understanding of this model and what it involves, will help foster a positive attitude in library staff. The social model of disability focuses on what disabled people can do; it does not treat them as sick or ill, but as having to overcome a series of barriers in order to participate in every day life.

Disability awareness training is a starting point, and it should precede any specialist training in using adaptive technology. The following statement clearly illustrates the importance of training in relation to delivering services to disabled people:

"Training is a starting point for increasing the number of disabled people who use your services and therefore is likely to improve the public profile of a museum, archive or library. Disabled people will tell each other about improvements in your practice. One happy customer, it is said, introduces seven more by word of mouth". [27]

This quotation is taken from one of twelve leaflets in the Disability Portfolio published by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (formerly Resource). The leaflets cover a range of topics, including the Disability Discrimination Act, staff training and using technology. [28]

7.2 training in adaptive technology

Front line staff need to understand when and how to use the adaptive technology in their library authority. They need to be able to:

Tasks may range from plugging a keyboard into a USB port, to demonstrating how to surf the Internet using screen magnification software. Front-line staff are often employed on a part-time basis, so it may help to set up a system to record the equipment they have used with a particular user and any advice given. This will save time and will also help the user, who otherwise may have to repeat the process with different members of staff on subsequent visits.

7.3 courses

AbilityNet has already been mentioned as a supplier of equipment, but they also offer a range of short affordable courses. These range from disability awareness training, to training in specific software e.g. magnification and screen reader software. AbilityNet also offer more general courses such as Enabling technology - Low cost, No cost, which focuses on implementing cheap solutions to computer access.

8. Web site accessibility and usability

Web site accessibility and usability is beyond the scope of this paper, but it needs to be considered in relation to meeting the needs of disabled people when using the Internet. Many local authorities are developing web pages, lists of approved resources, and portals, which are compliant with national and international standards e.g. W3C guidelines [29], and the Government's guidelines for local government web sites [30]. However, users will also access external sites and generally 'surf' the Internet, and they will inevitably find sites which cannot be accessed with a screen reader, or which use colours and fonts which are hard to see - plus a host of other examples of poor usability and accessibility.

Suffice it to say that for library websites pages should be tested by actual users performing a range of everyday tasks. Within the local authority, staff with a disability may be prepared to help with user testing, or you may have disabled societies and groups who can be called on to take part.

Good practice includes the use of style sheets, ensuring good contrast between text and background, and left alignment of text with no right justification. Online forms should be able to be completed by people using screen readers/magnification software. Content is also important, so plain language with no jargon will help those with dyslexia or learning difficulties. Overcrowded screens are also hard to read and navigate, so lots of white space should be incorporated into web pages.


  1. Disability Rights Commission. Guidance for Local Authorities on Duties under Part 3 of DDA.
  2. for further information see: Resource Disability Portfolio Guide 4 - Audits.
  3. Linda Corrigan, Reader Development Manager, National Library for the Blind speaking at the 'Opening the Net' taster session for visually impaired people and library staff held at Papworth Library on 12 June 2003. The session was one of several held as part of the UK Online centre campaign 'Get started'.
  4. Techdis Accessibility Database: See also Techdis:
  5. AbilityNet: Freephone advice line: 0800 269545
  6. personal email communication from Peter Marshall, Project Development Librarian, Bexley Council on 15 May 2003
  7. information provided by London Borough of Richmond library services at meeting held on 3rd April 2003.
  8. AbilityNet. My Computer, My Way!:
  9. Department of Culture, Media and Sport:
  10. Cabinet Office: Access keys.
  11. Dolphin Computer Access: Supernova reader magnifier offers combined magnification, speech and braille for Windows. LunarPlus is an 'Enhanced Screen Magnifier'.
  12. Key Tools:
  13. Inclusive Technology:
  14. personal email communication - see reference 6.
  15. Office of National Statistics:
  16. Kidglove (now part of Key Tools):
  17. Dyslexia information from the BBC:
  18. Sight and Sound Technology:
  19. Kurzweil products:
  20. The Papworth Trust - Papworth Progression Programme:
  21. For more on accessibility across operating systems see: AccessIT. National Center on Accessible Information Technology in Education, University of Washington. How does accessibility differ across operating systems?
  22. ZoomText from AI Squared: UK dealers: Sight and Sound Technology:
  23. JAWS is produced by Freedom Scientific and available from Sight and Sound Technology:
  24. Linda Corrigan - see reference 3.
  25. British Deaf Association.
  26. Gateshead Council: AIRS - Access to Information and Reading Services- Library services for deaf people:
  27. Resource Disability Portfolio Guide 3. Training for Equality by Sarah Playforth. p.7.
  28. Resource Disability Portfolio - see reference 27 above.
  29. W3C World Wide Web consortium Web Accessibility Initiative:
  30. Web guidelines: Framework for local government [Published June 2003]

Additional resources

Barbara T. Mates. (2000) Adaptive technology for the Internet. Making electronic resources accessible to all. Chicago: American Library Association

Dyslexia Institute: - has tips on viewing options for Windows and customising Internet Explorer.

Trace Center, University of Wisconsin:

Adobe utility to convert files into text only files which are more suitable for screen readers:


I would like to thank the following for their help and advice: Sheila Harden, Paul Donaghy, Tony Finerty and Monica Vidana, London Borough of Richmond Public Libraries.

Robert Happs, Library Access Manager, Cambridgeshire County Council. Linda Corrigan and Joanna Widdows, National Library for the Blind. Peter Marshall, Project Development Librarian, London Borough of Bexley.

Alex Barker, Information Officer, AbilityNet.

Web page by Shirley Keane
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Page last revised on: 21-Jan-2005