On July 19, the HLS Accessibility Design team hosted a wonderful pair of speakers for a talk about accessibility for blind and visually-impaired library users. We were thrilled to welcome two colleagues from the library at the Perkins School for the Blind: Executive Director Kim Charlson, and Assistive Technology Specialist (and Perkins alumnus) Cory Kadlik.
The library at Perkins provides accessible reading materials to anyone with disabilities that prevent them from reading print books — not only the blind and visually-impaired, but also those who have double-vision, those who cannot read print because of severe migraines, those who cannot hold print books still or at all due to physical disabilities, and those who have reading disabilities.
Perkins library services are free to anyone who qualifies for it–the application form is available online.
Kim and Cory took us on a “lower tech to higher tech journey.” They started out by demonstrating an NLS Digital Talking-Book Player, which is the most widely-used device among Perkins Library patrons. This device is shown in the photo below. It looks like a cassette player and has just a few large buttons, which makes it relatively easy for people with many types of disabilities to use.
A book for this player is recorded on a flash drive, which is then housed in a hard plastic case that is about the same size as as an audio cassette. The Perkins Library collection includes many audio books for use with this reader that have been read by local volunteers.
They also showed us what they called a “stream device.” In the picture below, Kim is holding one of these devices.
Several different types of content are available through this device, including books from the Library of Congress, internet radio from iTunes and TuneIn, podcasts, and the Newsline service from the National Federation of the Blind, in which newspapers are read aloud. Interestingly, when Kim demonstrated this device to us, an article from the Boston Globe came up about technology for older disabled Americans, which was highly relevant to our discussion!
For more information about the NFB-Newsline service, visit the NFB-Newsline website.
Cory and Kim discussed a few text-to-speech options that can help users with computer-based research and writing, including Kurzweil software, JAWS, and NVDA for Windows computers, and the built-in screen reading capability, Voiceover, for Mac computers.
There are also Braille note-taking devices. Although advancements in audio technologies have helped blind people gain access to more information, Kim made it clear that it is also very important for blind people to still learn Braille because, by doing so, they also learn writing, spelling, grammar rules, and math. She stressed, in fact, that there is “no excuse for blind people not to learn it.”
Kim showed us her own Braille note-taker (shown in the picture below), which has served her well for more than 20 years.
She discussed the next generation of Braille note-takers, specifically mentioning the Orbit Reader, a relatively affordable new model that is compatible with iPhones.
Speaking of iPhones, Kim and Cory also demonstrated how blind people use touch-screen devices, since they cannot see the icons. There is a special setting on all major devices, including Apple and Android, that allows for this type of navigation. Swiping the screen will prompt the device to read the icon names aloud. To select an icon, the user taps once. To perform a function, the user taps twice. To use the keyboard, the user slides a finger around the screen to hear the letters read aloud, and then lifts up when he or she hears the desired letter (“drag and lift” technique).
Kim and Cory made several excellent points about how modern technological advances have really improved the lives of blind people. For example, accessible websites are easier to create now than ever if the W3C accessibility guidelines are followed. Cory pointed out that there is no reason you cannot have a good-looking website that is accessible if you work on it from the beginning.
Finally, they discussed virtual assistance options, like Siri for Apple devices and Echo/Alexa from Amazon. These technologies have completely transformed the lives of blind people, especially by making shopping so much easier for them. They no longer have to consider transportation barriers or other difficulties. Both Kim and Cory admitted, however, that the advantages these technologies have to offer to their community have overshadowed concerns they might have regarding data privacy.
This was such a rich and wonderful experience for the HLS Library colleagues who were able to attend! We learned so much about considerations that we should be making with regards to our blind and visually impaired patrons. We are very grateful to Kim and Cory for making the trip to the law school to offer us this excellent program.