REAL PUBLIC LIBRARIAN

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...

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