Assistive Technology Tips from Expert Librarians

Assistive technology continues to be an important topic as public libraries strive to become more inclusive spaces for all members of the community. The American Library Association has a clear policy on accessibility:

"Libraries play a catalytic role in the lives of people with disabilities by facilitating their full participation in society. Libraries should use strategies based upon the principles of universal design to ensure that library policy, resources and services meet the needs of all people." 

Accessibility is also a big part of the Edge Initiative, an assessment program that provides libraries with benchmarks, best practices, and resources for public technology services. 

Edge Benchmark 11 states:

"Libraries ensure participation in digital technology for people with disabilities."

Sounds pretty straightforward, but how do you actually implement this practice? We invited three speakers on our February webinar to share their unique experiences with assistive technology:

Familiarize Yourself with the Types of Assistive Technology

Because the term "assistive" can apply to many different types of technologies, Dina broke it down into different categories:

  1. Low Vision/Blindness
  2. Deaf/Hard of Hearing
  3. Mobility Impairment

Dina suggested some low cost and free accessibility programs for users with low vision, such as NVDA (Non-visual Desktop Access) and Clarix iCam, a free magnification app for iOS. 

Dina provided a helpful graphic that breaks down the different categories of assistive technology.

Different types of assistive tech

Learn About Disability Etiquette

Dina also gave a brief overview of basic etiquette for working with patrons who have disabilities. For patrons who have low vision, speak in a normal tone of voice, give clear directions, and offer your arm, shoulder, or elbow (don't grab them without asking!). It's also important to understand that there are different levels and types of vision.

Visual impairment do's and don'ts

For those who are deaf or hard of hearing, speak to the individual and not the interpreter and look directly at the person. Make sure to not block your face/mouth while speaking and be patient if the person has a speech impediment. Finally, be open to different forms of communication: interpreter, lip reading, or pen and paper. 

For working with those with mobility impairments, never touch a person's wheelchair, cane, or assistive device without permission. Offer assistance first, but realize that people who use wheelchairs or scooters might have some ability to walk.

Finally, with all types of impairments, you should refer to the person first, then the disability. For example, you should say "a person who uses a wheelchair" versus "wheelchair bound."

Team Up with a Local Assistive Organization

Nancy Murillo of the Pittsburg Camp County Library, located in Texas, discussed how they teamed up with the East Texas Lighthouse for the Blind. With the help of the Lighthouse, they identified 38 visually impaired people in Camp County and about 100 in the surrounding areas. The plan was to provide modern assistive technology to these community members.

Nancy also connected with the Lighthouse organization to identify what technology the library actually needed. They got a Windows 7 all-in-one unit with touch technology and a very clear screen. It has JAWS technology, which is a comprehensive screen reading program that helps low vision or blind users complete tasks. The Lighthouse staff provides IT support remotely for the all-in-one computer.

The library has a high resolution CCTV displays that allow users to enlarge both text and images from printed materials. CCTV displays can reverse colors, offer additional colors, and enlarge text as much as one letter at a time.

The Lighthouse staff trained the library's staff on using the technology. They also got a community volunteer who has low vision to assist patrons and staff with the assistive devices.

The Forsyth Public Library in North Carolina also partnered with local agencies and organizations, such as the Winston-Salem Industry for the Blind to provide best practices and technology recommendations.

"These agencies have helped us stay abreast of assistive technology trends," Clay said.

He also remarked that these local partners serve as an additional resource if the library can't meet a patron's needs. For example, if the patron asks about a technology the library doesn't provide, the staff can direct them to an assistive tech organization.

Get the Word Out About Your Assistive Technology

Forsyth's assistive workstation

"Publicize, publicize, publicize!" said Nancy. The only way your community is going to know about your assistive technology is if you tell them about it. Luckily, the Lighthouse organization had some marketing materials that the Pittsburg Library could use. If you're working with a nonprofit on improving your accessible technology, make sure they're letting their network know about the great work that you're doing.

Clay agreed that partnerships are a great way to market your assistive technology. If a partner organization has an influx of customers who need tech access or training, the organization will send their customers to the library.

It's Okay to Not Know Everything (and Be Flexible!)

Many times the patron will know more than the staff about assistive technology, Clay remarked. They've been using it their whole lives and simply want access to it. And the patrons knowing more is a good thing: they're often up-to-date on assistive technology trends and can make recommendations for the library.

Clay offered this piece of wisdom:

"Take AT [assistive technology] as a case-by-case situation. What worked for the last patron might not work for the next patron."

More Resources


Interested in learning more about JAWS and other assistive technologies?  If so, check out the TechSoup donation program training courses below: