Assistive Technologies in the Library

reviews by Melissa Fortson Green

Mates, Barbara T, and William R. Reed. Assistive Technologies in the Library. Chicago: American Library Association, 2011. Print.

“The preamble to the Library Bill of Rights states, ‘all libraries are forums for information and ideas.’  By removing the physical, technological, and procedural barriers to accessing those forums, libraries promote the full inclusion of persons with disabilities into our society” (Services to Persons with Disabilities: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights).

ALA Policy 54.3.2, Library Services for People with Disabilities instructs libraries to “work with people with disabilities, agencies, organizations and vendors to integrate assistive technology into their facilities and services.” Library staff, it states, “should be aware of how available technologies address disabilities and know how to assist all users with library technology.” Having been charged with utilizing technology to ensure access to information for people of all abilities, how are libraries to accomplish this? Assistive Technologies in the Library (Mates and Reed, 2011) provides guidance in doing so.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act defines “assistive technology” (sometimes called AT) as “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities.” Given this definition, one might expect Mates (former head of the Ohio Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled) and Reed (OLBPD regional librarian) to address technology selection and web and electronic resource accessibility. The book’s scope is much broader, however; chapters on “establishing access policies, training staff to work with patrons with disabilities, funding accessible technologies, and marketing the services using both traditional methods and new social networking tools” (x) are also included. Accessible spaces are also discussed, as “architectural accessibility is as important as technical accessibility” (100) and “universal design benefits people of all ages and abilities” (3).

Readers will benefit from the author’s concise overviews of accessibility-related concepts. The book’s first chapter provides a foundation for understanding by discussing laws relating to access, American Library Association policy, and potential solutions for people with varying access needs (people with vision or hearing loss, people with mobility disabilities, library users with cognitive disabilities, etc.). While specific disabilities are discussed, the authors remind us that “people and their disabilities are unique” (6) and “users seek solutions to make their computers easier to use, not solutions based on their disability” (6). This focus on users and their access needs, as opposed to their abilities, is seen throughout the book, particularly in the chapter devoted to training (Chapter Nine, “Staff Make It All Work.”).

Faced with limited resources, libraries seek solutions that are both practical and easy to implement. Checklists and rubrics such as “Twelve Yes Answers Required” (23-26) and “Ten Items Libraries Should Put on the Front Burner” (165) provide quick and easy means of evaluating access needs and implementing potential solutions. The book reflects a realistic understanding of library decision-making processes and day-to-day operations. This is evident in the caution that resolve is required “not to incorporate the latest electronic applications just because they are available, as they may be inaccessible to some computer users” (15) and statements like the following:

Library administrators and assistive-technology staff may assemble the most accessible website and workstation for persons with disabilities, but it will be for naught [without appropriate training]. If the library environment does not provide the support the person with a disability needs, he or she will not return (119).

This practical, realistic approach is also seen in Mates’s discussion of options that are likely already available in the library, such as browser and operating system accessibility features, free and low-cost programs like Skype, and even paper and pen. It is also seen in her caution that libraries should purchase products that are easy to use and can “best be supported by the IT Department and the staff who will be doing training” (41).

The use of a particular technology, product, or tool is not easily explained in print. Mates addresses this by including images whenever possible, using tables for product comparison, and providing information about specific products and vendors (Appendix A, “Vendors”). Persons wishing to expand their knowledge beyond what is covered in the book will benefit from the book’s extensive notes and lists of additional resources. Readers with less time on their hands will appreciate the book’s thorough indexing, its end-of-chapter summaries, and Mates’s assessment of a particular product’s “learning curve” for staff and patrons.

Early-career librarians may lack experience in serving library users of all abilities. This book can help the new librarian better understand the access needs of library users with disabilities and the technologies available to help meet those needs. The discussions of basic etiquette and People First language are must-reads for early-career professionals; they may also be of benefit to staff trainers, human resource departments, and experienced librarians who may not be aware of changing practices in this area.

“An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.” Services to Persons with Disabilities: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights. American Library Association, 2009. Web. 9 Feb. 2012. <>.
“The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.” Building the Legacy: IDEA 2004. U.S. Department of Education, 2004. Web. 9 Feb. 2012. <>.
“ALA Policy 54.3.2, Library Services for People with Disabilities.” Library Personnel Practices. American Library Association, n.d. Web. 9 Feb. 2012. <>.


Web Review: Library Services to People of All Abilities

Interested in learning more about library services to people of all abilities? The following sites can provide a good start:

Association of Specialized & Cooperative Library Agencies (ASCLA)
According the website: “The Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies (ASCLA) enhances the effectiveness of library service by providing networking, enrichment and educational opportunities for its diverse members, who represent state library agencies, libraries serving special populations, multitype library organizations and independent librarians.” Recommended reading:

Other resources from the American Library Association:

ALA Connect
ALA’s online professional network offers several disability-related Member Communities, including ACRL’s Universal Accessibility Interest Group ( and communities associated with ASCLA’s Libraries Serving Special Populations Section (

Library Services for People with Disabilities Policy

From the policy: “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.”

Schneider Family Book Award
From the site: “The Schneider Family Book Awards honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.” Recommended reading: listing of past winners and the Select Bibliography of Children’s Books about the Disability Experience.

Services to Persons with Disabilities: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights

Applies principles of the Library Bill of Rights to library services and people with disabilities.

Other sites:

AccessLibraries | DO-IT
Materials produced through a year-long collaboration between DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking and Technology) and the University Libraries at the University of Washington.

Awareness & Etiquette resources from Easter Seals, United Cerebral Palsy, and VSA arts.

From the UCP site: “The rules of etiquette and good manners for dealing with people with disabilities are generally the same as the rules for good etiquette in society. These guidelines address specific issues which frequently arise for people with disabilities in terms of those issues related to disability.” Recommended reading: UCP’s Interaction & Etiquette Tips and “Suggestions on How to Relate and Communicate With and About People with Disabilities”; Disability Etiquette, Myths and Facts About People With Disabilities, and Understanding Disability from Easter Seals., a federal web site whose mission is “to connect people with disabilities, their family members, veterans, caregivers, employers, service providers and others with the resources they need to ensure that people with disabilities can fully participate in the workplace and in their communities.” Recommended reading: the Technology and Laws & Regulations  sections. Visitors can use the Information by State feature to locate information and resources close to home.

The Disability History Museum and Museum of disABILITY History both offer collections whose focus is the history of people with disabilities. The latter also offers resources for educators.

Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI)

From the site: “The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) works with organizations around the world to develop strategies, guidelines, and resources to help make the Web accessible to people with disabilities.” Recommended reading: the Introducing Accessibility section and its Introduction to Web Accessibility and Introduction to How People with Disabilities Use the Web.


Melissa Fortson Green is a Research and Instructional Services Librarian at The University of Alabama Libraries and serves as the Libraries’ liaison to the Office of Disability Services.