Thursday, July 28, 2005

MAGic access for borrowers with print disabilities

We installed some pretty nifty software last week, to enhance access for borrowers with print disabilities (I hope that's still the politically correct term). Not a big deal for a big library, I'm sure, but hey, for us small fry it's pretty revolutionary.

The first bit of wonder software is called JAWS which I believe stands for "Job Access With Speech" but that is never used now, the product is only known by its acronym (a bit like KFC I guess). JAWS is designed for totally blind individuals. When switched on, JAWS will read everything on the screen including web pages. Blind people who are trained in the many shortcut keystrokes can navigate around a web page just as quickly and efficiently as a sighted person. After practice, they usually prefer to speed up the speech to levels that sighted people can't comprehend. Linked to a scanner, JAWS can read text from library books. It can also assist blind people to write (say, to send emails) by "speaking" either letters, words or sentences as preferred as the writer types their message. And of course, it also lets blind people check the library catalog - books are no longer "off limits".

The second bit of software is called MAGic and basically it magnifies the screen for partially sighted individuals. It has a nifty feature called "smoothing" that smooths out the big pixelation you would usually expect when magnifying the screen. Coupled with the stick-on large print labels for the keyboard (that are available from the Blind Society for about $30 a sheet) this extends access to Internet for many seniors with sight impairments - who seem to especially love to keep in touch with family and friends by email.

The third bit of software is called WYNN and is strictly speaking literacy software which enhances reading and writing for people with reading difficulties and learning English as a second language. It also reads the page aloud at varying speeds; can set a page of text to different fonts or background colours (sometimes helpful for people with dyslexia); and has literacy tools such as in-built simple and harder dictionaries and writing aids.

Our first customer learned to use JAWS at TAFE. He is very active in the community and lobbies and advocates for several causes so he was pretty keen. He has booked in for several sessions to reacquaint himself with the program.

Our second potential customer was a lady with failing sight who wanted to see if the MAGic program could help her. She tried it and it did! She was thrilled, and rushed off to buy her own copy for home (we should get a commission!)

The whole suite of software, supplied by US firm Freedom Scientific and sold under licence in Australia by Quantum Technology, cost around $5,000.

Our next challenge is promoting it. We had the launch during Disability Action Week and got good media coverage. We have links to the Low Vision Group. I wonder what else we could do...

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Armchair Travel

This is not a new idea for a library activity, but we're pretty proud about how our series of "Armchair Travel" sessions went in our small community.

The idea is simple - ask some community members who have travelled somewhere interesting or who have connections with another country to share thier experiences. Sorta like an old fashioned slide night. Finding them is easy - so many of our borrowers are just busting to tell library staff about their trip. So much great stuff to share, but in our modern impersonal society they can't exactly invite 50 strangers over to their house to look at their holiday snaps - so the library "facilitates" the sharing in a safe and neutral environment.

Some of our presenters went to extraordinary lengths to prepare their Powerpoint presentations with heaps of photos, info and travel tips - if they didn't have those technical skills library staff scanned and captioned their photos. Add food especially prepared for each event (library staff again excelled themselves in the out of hours effort they contributed in cooking and preparing) and in some cases music and dancing and we had a magic library event.

We value added by issuing "passports" which were stamped with a special rubber stamp prepared for each country, which was then given to the presenter as a gift. We also had an Armchair Traveller newsletter that expanded on topics covered in the formal presentations, and that went out to participants each month for the 6 months of the program (it's great when you have a journalist on staff).

The program had 360 attendances in total over 6 evenings, of which 36 were "regular" travellers. In response to our evaluation questionnaire, 100% of respondents "enjoyed" the program, 90% of respondents made additional community connections (ie they met other people!); 100% gained knowledge; and 97% rated the program as value for (Council) money. (Although the event was free to participants, in staff time and materials each event cost around $400 to stage. I let the participants know this so that they could make some judgment about cost/benefit of library $).

We visited Vanuatu (complete with dancers, singers and traditional food), Italy (with a couple, one of whom is an Italian chef who demonstrated how to cook real pizza)- they had heaps of excellent travel tips; China with a young couple who just spent 6 months teaching English there; India with a lady who spent 20 years in ashrams and is a practicing Hindu nun; South Africa with a family of expats who had just recently made a return visit; and Galapagos with fantastic wildlife shots from recent travellers. Every presenter spoke with passion about their experiences and unique perspectives.

Here are some of the comments from attendees (only the good ones of course!):

- "Great to meet people from different countries, wonderful way to enhance views/understanding of other peoples/ways of life. Also wonderful that free activity..."

- "I look forward to the continuation of this event and will use the information when planning my overseas itinerary, much better than the recommendations given by even the best travel agent..."

- "Best PR out to involve community in library activities"

- "What a wonderful way to showcase the knowledge, experience and brilliance of members of our community."

And of course the ones we really like:

- "The library staff did a great job."

In a way we are also doing our bit for international understanding. Branding it as a "travel" experience rather than a "multiculturalism" experience perhaps drew in conservative people who would shy away from events that they perceive as preaching a certain point of view.

All in all a great result. Will we do it again? Yes, but after a breather which is needed for the staff and also to keep the program fresh. People tend to take an ongoing program for granted, but if they know there is a finite number in the series, say 6 evenings over 6 months, they may think that they'd better make the effort to come or they miss out. I wonder where we'll being going next time...