IFLANET home - International Federation of Library Associations and InstitutionsAnnual ConferenceSearchContacts

61st IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 20-25, 1995

The Information Highway and the Print Handicapped

Norman Coombs, Ph.D., Professor of History, College of Liberal Arts, Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester NY, USA


While the invention of the printing press increased the availability of written materials for most people, it served to widen the gulf between the so-called print handicapped and their access to information. The advent of the computer and of adaptive technology to facilitate its use by users with disabilities is making information available to persons with disabilities as never before. The global linking of computers expands the accessible world of information and brings it to the users' fin gertips. Libraries are increasingly adapting to electronic documents and catalogs, and now are capable of accommodating a whole new class of patrons.



The invention of the printing press increased the availability of written materials for most people, but it served to create new barriers to information for the visually impaired. Similarly, those w ho could not hold books or turn pages found themselves excluded from the world of print information. The invention of braille and other tactile reading systems partially helped those who were blind, but its expense and bulk limited its usefulness. The computer has created a new world of access to information for print handicapped persons.

When information is digitized and stored in a computer, it can be manipulated in many ways. Visually impaired readers can use software that enlarges the display on the monitor to permit their r eading it. Speech synthesizers can speak the material on the screen for the reader who is blind. Alternate input devices permit persons with motor impairments to operate a computer and to move thro ugh the text without having to hold a book or turn pages.

Digitized information is also changing dissemination systems. Stores, libraries and postal delivery continue to play an important role in getting information to the user, but the so-called information highway has become a major mechanism to bring the u ser and the electronic text together.

While the price of computers continues to fall, the fact is that most persons with a print handicap are also people with severely restricted incomes. This means there is still an access dispari ty for this population. While the US government may lag behind some more socially conscious nations in providing economic support for individuals with disabilities, it is a leader in drafting legis lation that aims at providing more equality for this population. The best known of these laws, of course, is the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Electronic Texts:

The computer stores information as binary numbers which can then represent mathematical numbers, alphabetical letters, graphics, pictures and sounds.

To be certain that one brand of computer can 'talk' to another and that information stored in one country can be used meaningfully across the globe, the International Standards Organization has established rules to guide hardware and software producers. The codes that relate only to texts are complex and highly technical. However, the International Committee on Accessible Document Design (ICADD) is working to see that international standards include the kind of information needed to guarantee that such digitized texts can readily interface with software displaying it for print impa ired readers.

Many library reference works are now on CDROM disks rather than in print. These permit easier updating and also more efficient searching of material. In most cases, if the computer used to ac cess the information is equipped with screen enlarging software and/or screen readers with synthesizers, this material will be accessible to print impaired patrons.

Scholars in many disciplines are pushing to have many of their resources digitized for better storage and searching. The best known and largest of these is the Oxford electronic archives of tex ts. It contains a rapidly growing number of texts of academic and primarily humanistic interest. The Center for machine readable texts in the United States, is also working on standardizing require ments around a widely accepted set of standards, (SGML) Standard Generalized Markup Language.

This is only to touch on the tip of the iceberg in English and does not venture into other language collections. While most, if not all of, these specific materials is stored in forms accessibl e to print handicapped readers, some digitizing of texts is not in such a format. It is possible to store a page of text as a picture of the page and not as letters. Turning a picture of words into spoken output is a much more complex topic.

The document scanner interfaced with optical character recognition, (OCR) can scan a picture of a page into computer format and then analyze it into letters, words and sentences. Many such sys tems have been developed for the special reading needs of the visually impaired. The resulting electronic text can be output through large screen software or through a speech synthesizer. It is com mon in the US for major city libraries and most university libraries to have a "reading machine" for their patrons.

The Electronic Highway:

The internet is a loose collection of computer networks, some governmental, some academic and some commercial. It spans the globe and connects uncounted millions of computers and people. It i s amorphous and ever-changing and for that reason difficult to describe with any accuracy.

The internet carries thousands of discussion lists. These systems enable large numbers of people to carry on discussions on topics of common interest. The most popular list on library matters is PACS-L, the public access computer system list. The most popular discussion group with a focus on access to libraries for persons with disabilities is AXSLIB-L. It presently has several hundred subscribers in over two dozen countries. It is sponsored by EASI (Equal Access to Software and Information) an affiliate of the American Association for Higher Education. EASI is dedicated to diss eminating information on disability access to computing and information technology. It also sponsors, EASI, a more general discussion list on adaptive computers. EASI has also created an electronic journal, Information Technology and Disabilities, which has an international board of editors, and its fall issue in 1995 will be devoted to libraries and patrons with disabilities.

While there are many ways to travel the information highway, more and more systems are providing some kind of menu-driven interface. Some of these are referred to as gophers and others as brows ers for the world wide web (www). Without being technical, the user selects menu items which connect to further menus which may be on a local computer or may be across the ocean. While access to a world of information is exciting for anyone, thi s new power is liberating for those of us who have been starved for information. I remember the first time I independently accessed our college's library catalog and located my book. I felt strange ly authenticated as an author and human being.


Information technology has brought help for the hungry print handicapped. Electronic text can be manipulated in many ways to assist persons with disabilities in accessing its content. The fac t that information is increasingly becoming networked manes that distance becomes no barrier. Information technology can increase access to both procuring material and displaying it. However, libr aries and librarians will continue to play a pivotal role for all readers in finding and using materials. They also need to be alert to the needs of on-site patrons with disabilities in using electronic data. Libraries have a responsibility to meet the needs of these new patrons with disabilities. In the United States, EASI (Equal Access to Software and Information) is joining with the Association of College and Research Libraries in a project to develop and disseminate materials to libraries that will assist them in meeting this challenge.


Listserv Discussions:

To join the general library discussion, PACS-L, send e-mail to: listserv@sjuvm.stjohns.edu

with text that reads either:
sub easi (first and last names in quotes) or
sub axslib-l (first and last names in quotes)


The EASI gopher materials can be found by using gopher to reach sjuvm.stjohns.edu. From the top menu, select "Disabilities and Rehabilitation Resources", and from there select the EASI item on that menu.

The EASI materials on the web including its library access information is at url: http://www.rit.edu/~easi/


Norman Coombs, Ph.D.
Professor of History
College of Liberal Arts
Rochester Institute of Technology
92 Lomb Memorial Dr.
Rochester NY 14623 USA