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Last Updated: 02/23/2018

 Article of Interest - Accessibility

Intellectual Accessibility in the Library
by Mitch Jeserich, December 16, 2002, California Foundation for Independent Living Centers
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Public Libraries are a unique governmental entity. A person does not have to live under the federal poverty line to be eligible for a library card. There is no medical exam, no asset limit test, not even an interview with a social worker for access to all the things a library contains. A Library is a place where African Americans, Asians, Whites, Latinos, the poor and the rich alike have access to all types of information in a world where information is king. Still, access to a library is lacking for some, especially the disabled. "Intellectual access at the library is what is important now," said Lynn Cutler, accessibility coordinator at the Oakland Public Library.


When thinking about accessibility, most people think of a ramp or an elevator. Though these are issues with which all libraries deal, both disability advocates and librarians are finding it is the learning disabled, the blind, and the Deaf who are not accessing the library's services. "People with learning disabilities avoid the library because they have difficulties comprehending printed text," said Michael Parker, Director of Access Ingenuity. "People with learning disabilities have strong audio processing skills, but they struggle with reading and writing, so it is important to have the (library) materials in an audio format." Most libraries have audio books, but the selection is limited to the classics and recently published books. Audio versions of newspapers or magazines are rarely found anywhere, if at all. One way to alleviate this problem is to install adaptive programs that read aloud what is in print on the libraries' computers. Many libraries are in the process of installing such adaptive technology. The most effective type of programs, according to Parker, highlights the words that are read aloud on the computer screen. This offers a bi-model approach to learning, in which a person visually and aurally processes the information-which can be an invaluable tool for a person with a learning disability. Kurzweil Educational Systems, located in Massachusetts, markets two computer programs that integrate text on screen with audible accessibility.


Its' newest model, the Kurzweil 3000, has Internet capability and allows a user to access on-line books at such websites as, Project Gutenburg, or Baen Free Library. The Kurzweil 3000 also has interactive capabilities so a user can highlight sections of a text and can take an exam on it. The price can be as high as $1,875. For a price of about $800 cheaper, Kurzweil offers the 1000 model, which still scans words and reads them aloud. Both models have built in dictionaries and a spell checker. A computer must have at least Windows 2000 to run these programs. There is more information on Kurzweil products at Kurzweil is not the only company to offer technology that scans printed text and converts it into an electronic version and speech. Freedom Scientific offers two software programs, the Wynn Reader and the Wynn Wizard, for the personal computer. More information on these products can be found at


The prices for these adaptive programs are expensive, but accessibility advocates say such programs are a necessary investment to make public libraries accessible for all. At the same time, California's librarians are scratching their heads on where to find the funding, as they fear huge cuts are looming with a state a budget deficit that may be as high as 30 billion dollars.


Not all actions to make a library accessible are expensive. Access technology expert Lucy Greco, who is blind, said audio books found in libraries are often times not labeled in Braille, making it impossible for the blind to independently find what they are looking for. "I'm not going to the photography section," Greco told a conference on Libraries and accessibility held in Oakland Library's Rockridge Branch.


"But I am going to the audio section, the DVD section. And those areas need to be accessible. Braille labeling is not expensive, it is just time consuming." Most libraries now have their card catalogs on computers, but Greco said that most of these programs are not compatible with adaptive software, making it harder for the visually impaired to find the books they are seeking. The San Francisco Public Library is attempting to reach out to the Deaf community with lectures and other events organized by its Deaf Services Center. Orkideh Sassouni, a library assistant in the Center, said many Deaf people don't use the library because they feel it's books, lectures, and other events are geared towards hearing people. "Deaf people want to feel welcomed," said Sassouni, who is deaf herself.


"If a library wants more Deaf people to patronage it, it needs to provide lectures in American Sign Language (ASL). "But having an interpreter is not enough. To get Deaf people to attend the lectures, they need to be about Deaf people, such as violence against Deaf women." Sassouni said that with such an event, the library could provide an ASL translator for hearing people - if requested two weeks in advance. She also said the first step a library should take in improving accessibility for the Deaf is to hire at least one employee who speaks ASL-preferably someone who is Deaf.


The Oakland Public Library has an annual Deaf Culture Celebration, which exhibits Deaf writers, performers and storytellers. The Library also has held other disability events: including events in coordination with Disability Advocates of Minority Organizations to highlight the experiences disabled people of color.


Both Cutler of the Oakland Public Library and Parker of Access Ingenuity agree that a fully accessible library should have employees that speak ASL and that every computer station should be equipped with adaptive technology-though a couple of fully accessible stations suffices. Main obstacles to complete accessibility, according to Cutler, include funding for assistive technology and convincing the library staff of the importance of accessibility.


For more information on how assistive technology can aide people with disabilities, check out Michael Parkers web site at

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