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Workshops - Solutions to Library/Print Material Access

A DIY Accessible Hardware Solution for Material Access for Post-Secondary Students with Disabilities

Ryan Vernon

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Ryan Vernon is a librarian at BC College and Institute Library Services (CILS), a provincially funded unit mandated to provide information services in alternate formats for post-secondary students with print disabilities. In addition to supervising the creation of alternate formats at CILS, he is an adviser to various stakeholders on current accessibility issues relating to information access, on-line learning, multi-media formats and universal design. He also develops and presents training workshops on alternate formats, adaptive technology and other media formats. He lives in the Vancouver area with his wife and son.


Increasingly, accessible information is digital information; therefore, service providers charged with the provision of information to students with print disabilities must not only concern themselves with the production and acquisition of accessible content, they must also provide students with the tools and training to access digital materials. As such, those who provide information services to individuals with print disabilities must consider a continuum of service encompassing content, tools and training.

This presentation will focus on the middle, often neglected point on this continuum: the tools with which individuals access accessible formats. It will cover, in laymen’s terms, a number of free software solutions, including screen readers, optical character recognition (OCR), text to speech (TTS), DAISY and digital audio playback, as well as general DIY accessibility optimization.



Ryan Vernon emphasized resourcefulness in his talk on taking a do-it-yourself approach to accessing print materials electronically.

Although technology will not work in every situation, Vernon said, two trends for creating timely, cost-effective solutions are cheap hardware and free or cheap software. He showed his ASUS Eee notebook computer, which costs about $400 and is loaded with accessibility software, including a screen reader, text-to-speech program, and a DAISY player.

For hardware, he said any desktop PC or laptop will do, but to run the free and cheap software that is available it must have Windows 2000 or a newer operating system installed. Optional hardware includes onboard sound, speakers, a custom input device, and an Internet connection.

Vernon presented a list of popular free or cheap software for blind and visually impaired people. Thunder, similar to JAWS, is a screen reader that uses a synthetic voice to read a computer screen out loud. Thunder is useful when combined with other programs, such as the accessible browser WebbIE, which turns normal websites into text websites.

WebbIE, combined with Thunder, allows users to listen to as well as navigate web pages. WebbIE includes an accessible RSS reader, Accessible Podcatcher, Project Gutenberg catalogue of free electronic books, and an accessible directory that uses the Open Directory Project (ODP) database. The ODP, useful for those with screen readers, is a human-compiled set of links to the Web.

ReadPlease is a text-to-speech program that converts computer-readable text into spoken language. While ReadPlease is free, TextAloud is a similar program that costs about $30 and can produce an MP3 file quickly. Both programs are helpful for people who learn best by listening and reading simultaneously. Canadian-made SpokenText is another free text-to-speech converter and can automatically generate an audio file.

Vernon explained that DAISY (Digital Audio Information System) is a digital audio book format navigable by chapter, section, heading, or page number. AMIS is a free open source software DAISY player. There are also hardware DAISY players. Another free media player is Winamp, which is similar to Windows Media or VLC media players. Adding the free PaceMaker plug-in to Winamp will allow users to adjust the playback speed.

There are also screen magnifiers, such as ZoomText and Iconico.

“Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty, to try, to ask. You can do it!” said Vernon.

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