For the last fourteen years, Jane Vincent has worked for the Center for Accessible Technology providing consultation to libraries on assistive technology acquisition and use throughout California, as well as evaluating Web site accessibility for businesses and organizations and performing assistive technology evaluations for individuals. She recently turned her expertise to writing Implementing Cost-Effective Assistive Computer Technology: A How-To-Do-It Manual for Librarians®, newly published this October. Here, Jane dispels some of the fictions surrounding assistive technology and shares her thoughts on how to implement assistive technology in libraries successfully.
· Assistive technology is usually thought of as equipment specifically for people with disabilities. Do you think this is accurate?
Not at all! I often say that assistive technology exists not because people have disabilities, but because computers are badly designed. Take the standard keyboard—the key markings usually take up about a fourth of the available space, instead of using large print that would make the keys easier to read by elders, children, and others. Inexpensive stick-on labels can greatly improve keyboard legibility. Another example is software that reads text aloud, which is a powerful tool for blind people and people with learning disabilities, but can also be helpful to beginning readers, ESL students, and anyone whose eyes are too tired for proofreading. And so on.
That said, many libraries will likely need to implement policies to ensure that the people who most need assistive technology to use computers will have priority access. Among several checklists and guides in the book is a series of questions to work through in setting policy guidelines relevant to the specific needs of your library. This will give staff a clear way to address issues such as when one patron might legitimately have a priority claim to a specific workstation over another, and when it would be appropriate to allow someone with a disability to reserve a computer for two hours instead of one.
· Libraries have sometimes seen “cost-effective” and “assistive technology” as being mutually incompatible. What’s the most important thing libraries can do to stretch their funds?
The best way — as with any service the library implements — is to find out and respond to the needs and preferences of the community. This can be done by conducting surveys and interviews with community members — patrons, of course, but also members of local organizations who provide services to people with disabilities, and other interested groups; in fact, developing an ongoing partnership with these organizations can have a great deal of mutual benefit. Once you know what will be most relevant to your patrons, you can acquire and implement technology that will have the largest likelihood of being used regularly, rather than trying to guess what will work and ending up with equipment that just gets dusty.
Note that “cost-effective” doesn’t automatically equal “free.” For example, there are many good assistive utilities already built into Windows and Macintosh operating systems, but even these have some cost.
At a minimum, they will probably require a discussion with IT staff to ensure that there is a way to provide access to them without compromising the integrity of security systems already on the computers. You’ll also need to check whether the assistive technologies you’re considering will work with your login system, databases, and mainstream applications. The book covers strategies for addressing these and other “hidden” issues.
· Once the technology is in place, how do you let patrons know it’s available?
You’ll want to use your usual channels, such as newsletters and Web sites, to reach not only your target audience, but also their friends, family members, and other supporters who can pass the word along. This is also a good example of why having partner organizations can help; these groups will have proven ways to reach their own memberships with your messages.
Before the patrons start coming, you also want to make sure your staff has had an appropriate level of training. They don’t need to know all the details of using the assistive technology, but they do need an overview of what the library has implemented and what it’s used for, along with an awareness of disability etiquette and how to refer people to patrons to services that the library can’t provide. The book includes several interviews with librarians about how they implemented assistive technology, and I’m particularly pleased with the one from the Ann Arbor District Library, where I had talked to several staff members at random, each of whom had obviously been well-trained in the assistive computer services that the library was newly providing.
· You’re maintaining a blog (at www.janevincent.com/iceact) to accompany the book. What’s the most exciting thing you’ve written about?
I’d have to say the Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure (GPII), which is working to create an entirely new model of assistive technology provision. Today, assistive technology in libraries is installed on individual computers, or maybe on a network; users often need to wait for specific computers to become available, and may then need to spend precious time reconfiguring settings to their preferences. In the future, with GPII, users will configure their preferences one time, and then by entering a code they can have their assistive technology come up fully configured to their needs. It will work from any Internet-connected device — not just computers, but also mobile devices, kiosks, and so on. I presented on GPII at the ALA conference in New Orleans, and was gratified to see the overwhelmingly positive response from librarians. The project’s website is www.gpii.org.
Feel free to contact Jane with your own questions—her email is jane [at] janevincent.com. Learn more about Implementing Cost-Effective Assistive Computer Technology: A How-To-Do-It Manual for Librarians® on the book’s Web page.