Hopkins, Janet. 2004. school library accessibility: the role of assistive technology. Teacher Librarian.31(3):15- (Feb2004).
Database: Academic Search Premier

school library accessibility: the role of assistive technology

While doing research into the topic of assistive technology in libraries, I found many examples of libraries providing assistive technology and special services for clients with disabilities. However, most of those examples are in post-secondary and public libraries. It was difficult to identify K-12 school libraries that are providing access to assistive technology for students with disabilities.

This is understandable for a couple of reasons. Assistive technology is a relatively new and rapidly developing field of educational technology specialization. Additionally, many special educators remain unaware of the range of enabling technology options for special needs students. Teacher-librarians can help students with disabilities make the most of media-rich school library resources by implementing accessible technology options.

Most people visualize a school library as a room with many shelves filled with a variety of reference, fiction and nonfiction books. These traditional resources certainly have the potential to influence students' knowledge of themselves and the world they inhabit.

Teacher-librarians have further expanded these collections with the multimedia resources and information technology now available in school libraries. It is easy to take for granted the ability to gain knowledge through print and electronic resources -- unless one lives with a disability that makes this difficult or impossible.

Inclusive education presents many challenges for schools and educators. Diverse student groupings in K-12 classrooms have prompted education leaders to explore new ways of meeting the needs of all learners. Most schools now address accessibility issues in the architectural design of buildings and classrooms (see National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, 2003). Wheelchair lifts and ramps are part of the modern school structure. But how do we move beyond structural accessibility issues and make K-12 learning materials more accessible as well? How can library resources be of greater use to students and staff with special needs?

Fortunately, more students with physical, perceptual, communication, cognitive and learning disabilities are now benefiting from the wide range of assistive technologies being developed to facilitate educational participation and access to learning.


What is assistive technology and how is it being used? Assistive technology (AT) refers to a broad range of enabling strategies, technologies and devices that allow individuals with special needs to work around their areas of challenge. Appropriately selected AT helps people with disabilities to provide or access information or perform a task more independently and efficiently. In an educational setting, AT can assist a student with a disability to participate in an activity or complete a task that he would have found difficult or impossible to do on his own.

Assistive technology differs from reference and instructional technology such as encyclopedia and learn-to-read CD-ROMs. These products may include accessibility features such as enabling hyperlink, multimedia and text-to-speech options built into the software, but their primary purpose is to provide selective instruction and information.

This definition of assistive technology comes from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA), which is federal law in the United States:

"As used in this part, assistive technology device means any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of a child with a disability" (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 1999, 300.5, from IDEA Practices, 2003).

AT applications are used by many professionals in the fields of health, rehabilitation and education. Low-tech strategies and tools that are frequently used in libraries include large-print books, colour-coding techniques and the use of symbols as visual cues. Audio books and videotapes are other popular resources used by disabled and non-disabled persons. A diverse collection of materials helps to create an inclusive library. However, other more sophisticated high-tech options are also available.


Assistive technology services in the school library provide new opportunities for students with disabilities and the people who interact with them. K-12 teacher-librarians have a new and important role to play in helping youngsters with disabilities develop skills with assistive technology that will allow them to enjoy literature, research and learning throughout their lives.

AT products can help students living with a disability to function more productively in a variety of circumstances. The functional value of an AT product is one obvious benefit and usually the primary reason for institutions, individuals and families to acquire these products. This important functional role of AT often has a positive psychological influence on users and those who interact with them (Community Research for Assistive Technology, n.d.).

AT can be applied to address a variety of personal needs. For example, students with visual difficulties can make use of portable magnification devices, specialized software with screen reading and magnification capabilities, CCTVs (Closed Circuit Televisions or video magnifiers), audio products (talking books), Braille computer technologies (Braille translation software, refreshable Braille displays and Braille printers) as well as large-print resources.

Students with hearing challenges benefit from various assistive listening devices, captioning features and text telephone (TTY) or telecommunication devices for the deaf (TDD).

Students who are unable to communicate verbally make use of portable augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices to speak for them. These devices allow customized programming to facilitate communication in multiple environments. A variety of specialized AAC hardware and software is available. Some AAC users have a dedicated device to speak for them, which functions exclusively for communication. Other AAC users prefer to install AAC software on a multifunctional laptop or handheld computer. (For information on assistive technology devices, see the online journal Assistive Technology Journal http://www.atnet.org/news/).

Students with limited movement can take advantage of environmental control units, mobility devices such as wheelchairs and alternative computer access technologies such as head mouse tracking systems or switch controls with scanning software (Phillips, 2003).

These are just some examples of the assistive technologies available to support students with special needs. Consult an online searchable database such as ABLE DATA or assistivetech.net to learn more about the range of products available.



Here are 10 ideas for addressing library accessibility issues for students with disabilities: 1.

  1. Consult with special educators at your school to learn about your students with disabilities and their challenges. Do these students use the library? Why or why not?
  2. Seek out colleagues or members of the school community with assistive technology expertise. Find out which resources and services already exist in your school or district.
  3. Tour your own library to identify barriers to learning and assess the variety of technology and resource formats available for students with diverse needs.
  4. Allocate professional development time for learning about library accessibility and assistive technology. Visit other libraries, schools and suppliers, meet with district specialists or attend conferences where you can learn more.
  5. Consider forming a focus group including colleagues who share an interest in library accessibility issues.
  6. Become familiar with the built-in accessibility features already available on your computer operating systems. (See resource list below for links.)
  7. Assess your need for funding and identify budget and grant options.
  8. Talk to administrators about the library accessibility issues that you consider most urgent.
  9. Ask vendors to provide trial products before purchasing products. Most assistive technology software companies provide time-limited downloads through their web sites. Use the trial to consider hardware and software compatibility issues.
  10. Publicize your accessibility initiatives and new technology acquisitions. Inform the school community of your progress in newsletters, staff meetings and other announcements. Share your experiences with your colleagues.


Assistive technology is making a difference in the lives of many students with disabilities. Teacher-librarians, in partnership with special educators and other members of the school community, can assist in expanding the educational opportunities available to all students by promoting and developing accessible school libraries.



The Designing More Usable Computers and Software page on this site from Trace Research and Development Center includes links to major technology company accessibility resources.


The Equal Access to Software and Information (EASI) site has a page devoted to library accessibility issues, including a collection of useful links.


Library services for visually impaired people: A manual of best practice was produced by the UK's National Library for the Blind.


Created by the New Jersey State Library, the publication Equal access to information: Libraries serving people with disabilities is available online, and includes links to print and online services.


This page from the DO-IT link on the University of Washington web site includes helpful resources on technology and universal design.


Community Research for Assistive Technology. (n.d.). Success story: Assistive technology and function. Retrieved October 20, 2003 from http://www.atnet.org/CR4AT/Position Papers/Function.html

IDEA Practices. (2003). IDEA '97 law & regs. Retrieved October 17, 2003 from http://www.ideapractices.org/law/regulations/index.php

National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities. (2003). NCEF resource list: Accessibility in schools. Retrieved October 20, 2003 from http://www.edfacilities.org/rl/accessibility.cfm


By Janet Hopkins

A certified teacher and certified assistive technology practitioner, JANET HOPKINS is the author of the forthcoming book, Assistive technology: An introductory guide for K- 12 library media specialists. Moderator of the Assistive Technology Canada discussion list , she can be reached at AT_Consulting@canada.com or through her web site .


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Source: Teacher Librarian, Feb2004, Vol. 31 Issue 3, p15, 4p
Item Number: 12450976