ASSOCIATES (2007, March, v. 13, no. 3) -

Jim Jackson
Law Library, University of Exeter

In recent years there has been a steady flow of legislation here in the UK, as well as other countries, on disability issues. Most recently these laws effect the provision of services and physical access to buildings. All this is to provide a better chance for those people who have extra needs to those that assume that running up stairs, listening and general life skills come as second nature.

I have spent the best part of the last 12 years helping what have been termed disabled students, special needs students, or assisted service students. The terminology changes but the bottom line is that some people need extra help with some activities. I have been a member of various groups whose sole aim is to help those students, and to inform those less knowledgeable that just because some one has a physical or mental problem there is no reason why they should not take part in all activities.

The problem has always been, and continues to be, how to provide these services in terms of cost, and to ensure that other able-bodied students are not disadvantaged as a result. If you provide additional help for one person but not another in terms of extra resources it could be argued that this is an unfair advantage. For example, suppose a library user wants to borrow a restricted loan item for 24 hours but fails to return it on time. Others may need that item, so do you punish the student who borrowed it in some way, or look to provide the same resources in some other way such as accessing the text electronically or scanning it? It is as the saying goes ‘opening up a whole new can of worms.’

There are always demands on budgets and the provision of specialist services does cost money and justifying that budget for a small group can be difficult. If you adapt a more radical solution to this problem then it might help solve it. If you spend your budget in such a way that differences between disabled and able-bodied should not arise so much. Courses can be designed to be accessible to all via the use of hearing loops in all lecture halls, providing video streaming of lectures to web sites, and audio transcription to Braille if required. The availability of lectures to be downloaded as pod casts is a recent innovation. Buildings should be designed from the beginning with access in mind not as a second thought requiring extensive remodelling at a later date. Money spent previously on the provision of disabled access becomes money spent for the good of all. The increase in part-time and distance learning allows greater participation in courses. Of course increased student numbers means extra income for the academic community. Most disabled students want to be part of the crowd; these developments alone allow this to happen. It does require to a certain extent a ‘leap of faith’ but it is surely in the hands of library designers, managers and front line staff to take this leap.

How do students and staffs know about your services? What sort of marketing campaign should you run? Here I think that novelty and innovation are required. Consider the use of freebies, such as highlighters, note pads, and pens with your logo or web site on them, which maintain their message long after the balloons and stunts are forgotten. Of course these are costly to produce and may require collaboration from other sources. Funding coming from other departments or courses running by the institution or commercial firms with a campus presence such as financial services are keen to promote their awareness credentials.

Having a high profile on your organisations web pages is important, as is clear and logical navigation to other supporting pages. Communication here is clearly the key. So is the use of students newspapers, corporate newsletters, and generic emails to all those registered at the institution, while good old fashioned talking to people is still a vital activity. Having someone to talk to requires staff to be available close to students working areas rather than in some distant office block. So the creation of small subject teams might be the answer here.

While web content is important, the web can only do so much, the old saying of ‘rubbish in equals rubbish out’ still holds true. The new Microsoft Vista operating system seems to offer lots of built in help. Having read various reviews of it I can see that a variety of new innovative programmes have been included as well as improving existing ones. For example there is the Sharing Wizard, which allows you to choose which users you might want to share files with on your PC. The advantage here is that you do not have to share access to all your files with people, however trusted, as the shared items are kept in special public access folders. Accessibility options are now located in an area called Ease of Access Centre, via the Control Panel. Here you will find a magnifier and narrator function that is smart enough to read text content of web pages out loud, as well as describing online videos. We still have to use the standard keyboard designed for typewriters albeit with some modifications. However if you have bad wrists or are simply a bad typist you can now use an on-screen keyboard using your mouse control. There is also a speech recognition programme. In the Star Trek movie ‘The Voyage Home’ Scotty tries to speak to a 20th century computer but gives up in disgust when it does not respond. Now your voice lets you browse the web by speaking the name of the web link, ‘write’ emails and control other applications. There’s even an interactive tutorial and the main programmes adapt to your voice over a period of time, and is supposed to become more accurate.

It is staggering the number of students who are diagnosed with dyslexia and require additional help and confidence building, as well as those needing other types of support. By expanding our horizons to allow staff to send more time with every student and using the latest technology, we can provide specialist services to all students. With self-issue systems taking over the bulk of work for staff, many issue desk staff could be redeployed into subject support teams. I think that it is most important that this should not be used as an opportunity to reduce staffing levels, or generally save money. It should be an opportunity to allow the library staff greater chances to develop new and existing skills. By taking staff forward, libraries in the near future can be reinvented or refocused on supplying what people what, but in a more relaxed atmosphere and personal way.

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