Volume I Number 1, January 1994

Building an Accessible CD-ROM Reference Station

Rochelle Wyatt
Charles Hamilton
Washington Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped


The Washington Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped created a CD-ROM reference station to provide access to reference materials. The project tests commercial CD-ROM products in conjunction with adaptive technology and provides ways for patrons who cannot read standard print to use reference materials and obtain hard copy in accessible formats. We are pleased to share some of the experiences, observations and recommendations that have come out of this project. In this article, we will discuss the hardware and software used and provide information on vendors when the products described are not widely available. The prices listed are what was paid at the time the products were purchased. Keep in mind that prices change very quickly.

The CD-ROM station is located in our lobby, an area easily accessible by the public. Patrons are encouraged to come and try it out, although we will assist patrons in obtaining information if they are unable to drop by. The station is frequently used by the staff for reference work or just for fun.

The original plan for the CD-ROM station was to build a system that library patrons with little or no vision could use without assistance. To that end, we put together a menu system that would guide patrons through the process of using the CD-ROM products and producing output in regular print, large print and Braille. At the touch of any key, patrons are welcomed to the library and provided with information on how to use the system. They can choose to view the screen's standard text mode, to enlarge the screen text from 1.4 to 12 times standard size, or to access information via voice synthesis. Creating menus is a simple process using DOS batch file techniques. By using multi- disk CD-ROM changers that treat each CD as a separate disk, we were able to develop batch files that open each program without requiring any physical swapping of CDs.

We also developed online help for each menu item. Help batch files display text files that describe using a CD-ROM or accessibility product, step by step. These files are adapted from the manufacturer's documentation, and have been expanded to discuss accessibility issues for each product. Printed copies of this help information is also available at the station in regular print, large print and Braille.

In order to provide users with several choices of hard copy, the system is set up with a a Braille embosser as well as a laser printer that can produce standard and large print. Both are connected via an automatic data switch. Through a free utility called PRN2FILE, we have redirected all printing into a specific file. When users "print" while in the CD-ROM products, the information they want is saved to this file. Upon exiting the program, users are presented with a menu that offers them the choice of printing in regular print, large print or Braille. Making a print choice is as easy as responding with one key after being prompted for a choice. Each menu choice sends the appropriate code to the data switch and the appropriate setup string to the printer. Then it automatically prints the file.

The main accessibility problems seem to be related to interactions between the speech software and the search programs used by the CD-ROM products. Each program has a different format and a different way to access the information. None of the programs were set up to be used with screen access, so some work better than others.

Because of the limitations of accessibility products, and because some patrons are not comfortable using computers, we developed a job description and advertised for volunteers to assist patrons in using the station. To date, we have five very qualified and enthusiastic patron/volunteers who assist others three days a week.


Micro computer - 486 33Mhz

Video Card

dAK VGA with 512K memory


NEC Multisync 6FG 21" 1024 X 768 This is a high resolution, flat screen monitor. This size is probably overkill, especially when using a screen enlargement program, but it's a real attention-getter.

Microsoft-compatible mouse

Screen-enlargement program users can use the mouse with many of the CD-ROM products, in Windows, and to navigate in the magnified screen.

CD-ROM drives

Two Pioneer DRM-604X CD-ROM changers (each changer holds six CDs). They are daisy-chained together and attach to a SCSI interface card inside the computer. The Pioneer CD changers are expensive, but worth it. They allow us to have 12 different programs available, without having to load and eject CDs. This certainly makes it easier for the patrons, as well as the less technically-sure staff. They also have an easy-to-use feature that disables the magazine eject, helping to prevent the CDs from walking out the door.

Laser printer

Panasonic KX-P4430. This printer is used for both large print and regular print.

VersaPoint Braille printer/embosser from TeleSensory Systems.

TeleSensory Systems, Inc.
455 North Bernardo Avenue
P.O. Box 7455
Mountain View, CA 94039-7455

DECtalk PC voice synthesizer

The DECtalk speech synthesizer is, by far, the most understandable, flexible, and expensive of the speech hardware with which we are familiar. It features seven different voices; an internal dictionary that allows it to recognize and correctly pronounce a large number of words; and the ability to control talking speed, emphasis, use of punctuation and spelling. On the downside, the product has a reputation for being difficult to install, although it was pre-loaded by the vendor when we bought the computer. It uses unusual interrupt and port address settings, which may create problems when adding additional peripherals. The documentation is skimpy, at best.

DECtalk PC
Digital Equipment Corporation

Surge and spike protector

Started with two Isobar protectors--barely enough outlets to plug all the equipment into. We now use a console-type protector (the Isobars are plugged into this), which has a master switch that turns everything on and off.

Emco Autoswitch

This is used to make it easier for patrons to print materials in the format they prefer. They do not have to manually set the switch; through the batch files, the computer "knows" where to send the information.


Hardware Price (each) Total
486/33 Micro computer, including:
  • 4 MB RAM
  • Maxtor 130 MB SCSI hard drive
  • 1.2 and 1.44 floppy drives
  • SCSI controller card
  • 16 bit VGA card with 512K RAM
  • Mouse
  • Keyboard
  • Autoswitch box
  • 6' parallel printer cable
  • One surge suppresser
  • MS - DOS
$2,100 $2,100
Panasonic KX P4430 Laser Printer $955 $955
Pioneer 6 disk changers $1,465 $2,930
NEC 6FG 21" SVGA Monitor $2,635 $2,635
DECtalk PC $1,680 $1,680
Stereo headphones $17 $17
Versapoint Braille Embosser $4,500 $4,500
Delivery and Installation of all products was included
One year on-site service $500 $500
HARDWARE TOTAL: $13,852 $15,317


Operating System Software

Operating System MS DOS 5.0

Memory Management Program

QEMM 6 from Quarterdeck. Memory management is a must, since the CD-ROM drives, the DECtalk and the sound card all require drivers for operation. This product has worked very well and is fairly easy to use.

Quarterdeck Office Systems

Print Redirection Program

PRN2FILE is a freeware program that redirects output from CD programs to a file that is then automatically formatted and output in Braille, large print, or regular print, depending on which format is selected.

Batch File Enhancer

KEY-FAKE is another freeware program that allows keystrokes to be sent from batch files to the CD-ROM software programs.

Communication Program

PC-VT is a shareware communication program that allows us to turn the CD-ROM station into an accessible terminal for the library's Online Public Access Catalog. The program also allows transfer of data between the station and our Kurzweil Personal Reader.

Accessibility Software

Screen Enlargement Program

MAGic Deluxe. We tried several screen enlargement programs, and found MAGic Deluxe the easiest to use (it has been compatible with every piece of software we've tried, including Windows programs). Also, it was less expensive than the other screen enlargement programs we tried. We can provide a free working demo copy of this software (it's fully functional, but only lasts 20 minutes before one needs to reboot to use it again). Microsystems Software may still provide free demos, too. MAGic Deluxe magnifies screen text and graphics from 1.4 to 12 times normal size. It includes programs for DOS and Windows. The program is extremely easy to set up and use. Simple hotkeys allow users to magnify and change sizes. Once magnified, users can move around the screen with the mouse or the arrow keys. The program also has a "pan" function that moves across the screen line-by-line. The display can be stopped and started, and the display speed can be changed. The program operates smoothly with the CD-ROM products and was less expensive than some other magnification programs. The only problem we've experienced with this program is an occasional lockup when the screen is magnified while changing from a text to a graphic screen. We recommend that users return to unmagnified mode before displaying a picture or other graphic. Some patrons have requested being able to magnify a portion of the screen while the rest remains unmagnified. This feature is included in the Windows version of MAGic.

MAGic Deluxe
Microsystems Software Inc.
600 Worcester Road
Framingham, MA 01701-5342
(508) 879-9000

Braille Translation Program

Hot Dots 3.0. Correct translation to Braille requires manual manipulation by skilled Braille transcribers. Any computerized program will make errors of translation and of format. Generally, though, Hot Dots appears to do a fairly good job of translation for short pieces of text of the sort found in most reference materials. It will not work very well with tables and other complicated formats. We have added a disclaimer to Braille materials explaining the limitations of electronic translation. Although output may not be formatted perfectly, it has met our patrons' needs without any complaints. We've heard that Hot Dots' big sister, Mega Dots, is even better.

Hot Dots
Raised Dot Computing
408 South Baldwin Avenue
Madison, Wisconsin 53703
(608) 257-9595 or
TeleSensory Systems, Inc.
455 North Bernardo Avenue
P.O. Box 7455
Mountain View, CA 94039-7455

Screen Reader

The most consistent problems that we have encountered in setting up the CD-ROM station seem to be related to the software packages needed to read screen text aloud. We have tried three: VOS, Jaws and Flipper. All three have their advantages and disadvantages. We ended up using VOS because it worked with the hardware and software we have. (At this writing, we are waiting for an upgrade to Flipper that is supposed to be compatible with the version of DECtalk we have.) Those with simpler systems may wish to use a different program, since VOS is somewhat difficult to operate, and its documentation is sometimes confusing and not well-written. Many of the difficulties encountered can be traced to the CD-ROM software rather than the speech software. The following types of programs are likely to create difficulties when using speech:

In conclusion, voice synthesis can be extremely useful, but it is limited, not easy to learn, and it sometimes leads to system conflicts. If your budget permits, and your users read Braille, refreshable Braille displays are an expensive, but easier-to-use, alternative:

Computer Conversations, Inc.
6297 Worthington Road SW
Alexandria, OH 43001
614) 924-2885
From Omnichron
Raised Dot Computing
408 South Baldwin
Madison, WI 53703

Software Costs

Software Cost
Flipper $395
Hot Dots $350
Screen Magnification (MAGic Deluxe) $225
MS DOS Came with computer
QEMM Memory Management Software $68.33
Software total: $1038.33

Rochelle Wyatt & Charles Hamilton
Washington Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
821 Lenora Street
Seattle, WA 98129
Wyatt, R. & Hamilton, C. (1994). Building an accessible CD-ROM reference station. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 1(1).