Volume 26, Number 3, Fall 2004


Accessibility at the Galludet University Library

Sarah Hamrick

Gallaudet University is the world’s only liberal arts university for students who are deaf or hard of hearing, so accessibility issues at the Gallaudet University Library are a little unusual. Gallaudet is a bilingual community where everyone is expected to be fluent in both written English and American Sign Language. Deafness is not a disability on campus; it is the norm.

Most academic libraries invest a great deal of their accessibility budget and staff time into equipment and software that literally reads text – converts text to audio so students with visual disabilities can listen to it. Like other universities, Gallaudet provides equipment and software that enlarges text on a monitor, but technology that converts text to speech has not been used.

Gallaudet students with disabilities are encouraged to register with the campus Office for Students with Disabilities (OSWD), which provides comprehensive services, including orientation and mobility, brailling, low-vision interpreting, and note-taking. The library works with individual students and with OSWD to provide access to services and collections. Library staff arrange appropriate services to meet each student’s needs, and requests were mostly routine until a new graduate student was admitted several years ago. This student was blind and hearing. He did not know tactile sign language (a method of signing by touch and movement used by deaf people with visual disabilities), so communication was an obstacle. He could communicate only with hearing staff members. Readers (individuals who read text and translate it into ASL) were of no use to him because OSWD readers are Gallaudet students, all of whom are deaf.

Library and OSWD staff met with the student’s faculty advisor to create workable solutions. OSWD purchased screen reading equipment and software and contracted with an outside trainer to provide extensive technical instruction. Library staff planned to simply adapt their normal system of serving deaf/blind students: a librarian would teach him how to search the online catalog and databases and would then deliver the materials selected to the OSWD offices (for brailling or to use with the scanner and screen reading software). This was not easy. It took a long time for the student to learn how to use the screen reader, and some of the databases the library provides through commercial vendors are not entirely accessible. Like many students he wanted a librarian to create a search strategy, perform the search, interpret the search results, and select appropriate records from those results. The library’s goal is to teach students how to perform research themselves, so staff had to find a way to provide him with the individualized learning he needed. There was some trial and error, but eventually he was assigned a personal librarian (the liaison to his academic department) who consults with him to create the best search strategies to find the information he needs. After they have worked together she completes the searches and sends the results to OSWD, where they assist him in reading the results.

This process has been time-consuming and is, admittedly, not entirely satisfactory for either the Library staff or the student. It is, however, a good example of the way accessibility in academic libraries often works. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Each student must be treated as an individual.

For more information, contact Sarah E. Hamrick, Director of Information Services, Gallaudet University Library, by phone at (202) 651-5214 V/T, or by e-mail.