1999 Conference Proceedings

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INCREASING ACCESS TO INFORMATION AND COMPUTER TECHNOLOGY FOR PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES THROUGH PUBLIC LIBRARIES

Dagmar Amtmann, M.A.
Project Manager
Assistive Technology Resource Center
University of Washington
Box 357920
Seattle, WA 98195-7920
Voice/TTY/Message: (206) 685-4181
FAX (206) 543-4779
Internet: dagmara@u.washington.edu

Debbie Cook, Director
Washington Assistive Technology Alliance
University of Washington
Box 357920
Seattle, WA 98195-7920
Voice/TTY/Message: (206) 685-4181
FAX (206) 543-4779
Internet: debcook@u.washington.edu

Public Libraries as Storefront Access to the Information and Computer Technologies

An ever increasing number of people use computers and the Internet frequently in their places of work or homes, but there are still many individuals who do not have access to these technologies for a variety of reasons. For instance, people with disabilities may not be able to take advantage of public access to computers and the Internet that is increasingly available in places such as libraries, internet cafes, community centers, schools, etc. At the Washington Assistive Technology Alliance (Washington state's Tech Act Project) we strongly believe that accessible computer stations in public libraries and other public places considerably increase access to information for people with disabilities. For an expanded version of this article please visit http://wata.org and follow the link called publications.

Incorporating Accessibility Features into Internet Stations for Rural Washington State Libraries

In 1996, the Washington State Library (WSL) received a state legislative appropriation and other funds to place one Internet workstation in each of 22 rural libraries throughout the state. $1,500 per station was allocated for making the stations more accessible to people with disabilities. To better assess various accommodation options, WSL requested technical assistance from the Washington Assistive Technology Alliance (WATA). The Gates Library Foundation (at that time called the Technology Resource Institute) provided assistance with the development of documentation and training for library staff regarding physical access and other features of the workstations. While working on this project, WATA staff had to address several misconceptions by some WSL staff and contractors; i.e., that an "ADA compliant" work station existed and could readily be implemented in the Microsoft NT environment; that a single work station in each library can and must accommodate all patrons, including those with a wide range of functional limitations; and that the $1,500 would be best spent on high-tech assistive technology without regard to for the fact that supporting such technology often requires considerable expertise and effort.

Before we could select assistive technology for the workstations we needed to know what functional limitations current and potential public library patrons ter workstations in public libraries that would be more accessible to people with different functional limitations. Most of the constraints and issues related to the GLF project were very similar to those we encountered while working on the library project in Washington State: space limitations, lack of technical expertise and computer experience at recipient libraries, staff turnover, insufficient staffing, etc. All GLF computers are distributed with the NT operating system (selected partially because of its excellent security features—an extremely important issue in public settings). All computers come with preloaded software (including Microsoft Office applications, Internet Explorer, Encyclopedia Encarta and other reference applications, children’s educational software, and many others).

The software had been selected and purchased by the time we came aboard, so accessibility of the software applications was not considered during the selection process. The models also came with pre-configured settings developed to provide or limit access to different applications (word processing, Internet, system settings) depending on the type of the user (child, adult, library staff, system administrator, etc.).

Following the recommendations developed for the WSL project, GLF included in all standard models a 17" high resolution monitor and a laser printer capable of printing high quality large print. In addition, the GLF staff developed a comprehensive guide to the accessibility options available in Windows NT 4.0 (StickyKeys, FilterKeys, MouseKeys, ToggleKeys, SerialKeys, ShowSounds, High Contrast Mode, etc.). The reference materials are not only distributed to the libraries in hard copy, but are also available on the World Wide Web, where they are continually updated and expanded.

To accommodate patrons with mild to moderate low all people with low vision, and we have been experimenting with including some kind of screen magnification technology. WATA and GLF continue to work on solving these problems, and we have improved the Bigprint profile with each new version of the model.

Lessons learned

Working on providing better access to computer and information technologies via public libraries has been an exciting learning experience for WATA staff. In our experience, for any project of this nature to be successful, at least the following must be in place:
  1. Librarians must be comfortable with the idea of helping patrons with disabilities, and at least some disability awareness training or reference materials should be provided;
  2. Training and reference materials must be offered to library staff which helps them support the use of adaptive access devices and features;
  3. A public awareness campaign needs to be planned to make patrons with disabilities aware of the accommodations available;
  4. Clear policies need to be developed about how the adaptive access equipment is to be used (for instance who has the priority for using the workstations with adaptive equipment when they are used by both able bodied and disabled users, time limits when others are waiting, etc.), and
  5. A plan for measuring outcomes of the accessibility portion of the project must be developed and implemented. We have found that, while an overall program evaluation plan is usually included, data regarding accessibility features are rarely collected and analyzed. A survey -- consisting of perhaps only a few questions that could be answered by the librarians at the time of training -- or other instrument for measuring a project’s effectiveness in increasing access to library services for people with disabilities would be extremely helpful.

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