Volume II Number 4, December 1995

The AD-A-P-T-A-B-L-E Approach: Planning Accessible Libraries

Alan Cantor
Toronto, Ontario


On the road to making libraries more accessible to people with disabilities, librarians often get stuck in technological mud. The choices are overwhelming, and many librarians feel they lack the technical expertise to select appropriate equipment. They have many questions about assistive technologies (AT): Should we buy a monochrome or colour CCTV (Close Circuit Television)? Which scanner works best? Can scanning software be used independently by someone who relies on synthesized speech output? How much RAM (Random Access Memory) and how large a hard drive are needed to run assistive technologies? What size monitor is optimal for for screen enlargement software? Is the screen enlargement program compatible with the voice output program? Do we need a Braille printer? a refreshable Braille display? a personal transmitter/receiver system? If yes, FM or infrared? And what about a voice recognition system?

It is perfectly understandable that many librarians become confused by the surfeit of technological choices. AT is a vast, constantly changing field. Keeping abreast of AT trends is a full-time job that many librarians have neither time nor inclination to take on.

Technological paralysis had already set in at the Ontario Ministry of Labour when I was asked to help choose assistive devices. In early 1995 the library received funding to make its collections and facilities more accessible to persons with disabilities. The three members of the project team spent a month meeting ministry employees with disabilities and combing the literature on AT. They amassed a fabulous collection of books, journal articles, pamphlets and promotional materials. When I met the team for the first time, I was impressed by their knowledge of assistive technologies, and by the fact that they had realistic expectations of what was achievable. But when it came down to choosing the equipment, the team was stumped. They simply did not know how to decide.

This article is intended as an antidote to technological paralysis. It is practical guide for librarians who are overwhelmed by AT. I describe an approach for choosing accessibility aids that puts high-technology devices into a broader context. I call the approach AD-A-P-T-A-B-L-E, an acronym formed of the first letter of eight distinct workplace accommodation strategies:

The ADAPTABLE approach stresses that there are many ways to accommodate people with disabilities, most of which do not involve high-technology. ADAPTABLE implies that one should strike a balance among the various accommodation techniques. Emphasizing high-tech approaches at the expense of the other seven categories jeopardizes the goal of ensuring equal access. When embarking on a project to enhance library accessibility, selecting a broad spectrum of accommodations guarantees that the needs of the majority are more likely to be met. Following a description of the ADAPTABLE approach, this article presents eight strategies for choosing access aids for the library, and concludes with some thoughts about the potential role high-technology might play in creating a more equitable society.


As a workplace accommodation consultant, I am responsible for devising and implemeting alternative ways for individuals to work and study. Workplace accommodation planning is a form of creative problem solving. There are no recipes for success; each individual's accommodation needs are unique. People having the same functional abilities often demand different access techniques. For example, a person who is legally blind might prefer to study literature by (1) listening to a synthesized voice; (2) reading Braille; (3) using an illuminated magnifying glass; (4) using a CCTV; (5) reading large-print on paper; (6) reading large-print on a computer screen; (7) listening to books-on-tape; (8) being read to by another person; or (9) a combination of the above.

When developing an accommodation plan, I work closely with the individual to generate as many accommodation options as possible. To spark our imaginations I present the client with ten or more distinct accommodation approaches. Eight of the approaches are relevant to planning accessible libraries:

  1. 1. Assistive Devices: High-technology apparatus, usually (but not always) computer-based, that extends a person's sensory and/or bodily powers: text enlarging software; reading machines; voice activated computers; adapted keyboards and pointing devices; hearing aids; environmental control units.
  2. 2. Alternative formats (or Communication Services): Print-materials presented on cassette or on computer disk, in Braille or in large-print; real-time captioning at meetings; captioned videocassettes.
  3. 3. Personal support (or Human Support Services): Readers; personal care attendants; sign language and oral interpreters.
  4. 4. Transportation services: This accommodation strategy refers to various means to bring people to the library, or alternatively, to bring the library to the people. Examples include book delivery and bookmobile services; bus and taxi service provision.
  5. 5. Adapted furniture (or Workstation Modifications): Wheelchair accessible desks; adjustable office chairs; articulating monitor arms; keyboard trays and other computer accessories.
  6. 6. Building modifications: Wheelchair ramps; lowered elevator control panels; automatic doors; retrofitted bathrooms; high-visibility signage; visual notification systems.
  7. 7. Low-tech devices: Book holders; magnifying glass; tape recorders; ladders; easy-to-grip pens.
  8. 8. Environmental adaptations: Special lighting; quiet zones; climate controlled areas; air purifiers.


Beginning the process

When beginning the process of enhancing library accessibility, consider the following preliminary steps:

  1. 1. Tour accessible libraries. Visit people who have set up and manage accessible library facilities. Our project team met several librarians, all of whom were happy to make suggestions and share their insights.
  2. 2. Ask persons with disabilities to suggest accessibility aids for the library. Ask library patrons which assistive devices they prefer, which low-tech devices are most helpful to them, and what kinds of human support services the library should consider. By talking with computer users who are blind, I learned which synthetic speech program, scanning software, and Braille translation software were generally favoured. They also told me about the limitations of Windows-based screen reader programs and the advantages of a particular flatbed scanner. Further, I learned how important is can be to provide simple, inexpensive items like a good desk lamp and a lightweight, hand-held magnifier.
  3. 3. Ask your staff for suggestions on making the library facilities more accessible to them. During one of my visits to the Ministry of Labour library, I learned that several staff members over 40 years of age had difficulties reading the call numbers on book spines. To remedy the problem, I suggested that a larger, darker typeface be used in the future; and that a plan be drawn up to replace the old labels with "large-print" labels.

Applying the ADAPTABLE approach

The following suggestions are based on my recommendations to the Ministry of Labour library. I allotted approximately 70-75% of our accessibility budget toward the purchase of high-technology devices -- computer upgrades, a reading machine, a scanner, a speech synthesizer card, and the like; and 25-30% toward adjustable furniture, hand-held magnifiers, book holders, a walker, a wheelchair, training, and so on.

Prices are given in Canadian dollars. (At the time of writing, US $1.00 buys Can $1.40.)

1. Assistive Devices

Acquire big tower cases for computers. A computer in a roomy box is easier to maintain and upgrade. Use several computers to house assistive technologies. Do not install all computer-based assistive devices on a single computer. Computers packed with assistive technologies are difficult to configure. Use several computers, and limit the number of assistive devices to two or three per computer. (Note: Some products are designed to work together, such as a speech synthesizer and screen enlargement program made by the same manufacturer.)

Shop around for the best prices: The cost of assistive technologies and computers varies from dealer to dealer. Differences of $100 - $150 per item are common. For one item, price quotes ranged from $483 to $885 -- a spread of over $400! By shopping around, I saved 8-10% of the total equipment budget, or about $2000. Get an extended warranty on computers. Expect hardware problems during the first year or two after purchasing a computer. Buy from a retailer who guarantees their computers for at least two years (parts and labour).

Negotiate the price of configuring the computer before buying. If you lack the ability to configure a computer system, ask the vendor of the assistive devices to do it. Some retailers will configure a system for free; others charge a modest sum. Tell the vendor exactly which peripherals and programs you expect to run on each computer.

Back up the hard drive: The hard drive of public access computers are often deleted or reformatted. To protect against accidental or deliberate data loss, back up your computers as soon as they are configured. I recommend buying tape backup units to streamline the task of backing-up and reloading the computers.

Reserve funds for repairs of computer-based assistive devices. Mechanisms with many moving parts, such as refreshable Braille displays, are especially prone to breakdowns.

2. Alternative formats (or Communication Services)

Use existing resources creatively: Your library probably already has equipment that can be used to produce large-print documents, e.g., an enlarging photocopier and a laser printer.

Create brailled key-cap covers: Apply adhesive-backed Braille labels to the keyboard. The key-caps help to orient blind computer users to an unfamiliar keyboard. Although key caps can be placed on all keys, they usually are affixed only to keys that are used to control access software. Let your patrons guide you in placing key-cap covers.

To produce key-caps, use a special Dymo Braille tape-writer. Dymo also makes a large-print label maker. Each model costs about $80. Dymo products are available from organizations that support persons with low-vision or who are blind.

Produce or buy large-print key-caps: You can make large-print key-caps yourself with a Dymo large-print tape-writer, or they may be purchased ready-made. The key-caps come in various colours, and cost about $40 a set. Large-print key-caps are also available from organizations that support persons with low-vision.

3. Personal support (or Human Support Services)

Train librarians to serve people with disabilities: Library staff may not possess the skills to communicate and interact with patrons with disabilities. At least a few staff should learn American Sign Language and the skills to guide a person who is blind. Staff development is an important element in making a library more accessible to persons with disabilities.

4. Transportation services

Provide book pick-up and delivery services for people who cannot get to the library building. Such a service is valuable for people who are terminally-ill or whose mobility prevents them from using the library facilities.

5. Adapted furniture (or Workstation Modifications)

Provide adjustable chairs. For many people who have back problems, seating comfort is contingent on them having an adjustable chair. The best value in adjustable seating is the so-called "ergonomic" office chair.(1)

Look for a chair with these eight features:

  1. Adjustable seat height
  2. Swivelling seat
  3. Adjustable seat angle
  4. Rolling casters
  5. Adjustable back height
  6. Stable base of five legs
  7. Adjustable back angle
  8. Padded seat with rounded front edge

Adjustable chairs are sold at office and ergonomic supply stores, and each can cost up to $500.

Get proper computer workstations. People with disabilities are especially prone to computer overuse injuries (RSI -- repetitive strain injuries). (2) When a computer keyboard is placed on a regular desk or library table, most people are forced into biomechanically hazardous typing postures.

Look for wheelchair-accessible computer tables. All computer tables should have, at minimum, adjustable keyboard and monitor shelves.

6. Building modifications

Budget for building modifications: Even libraries that have wheelchair ramps and electronic doors may lack these amenities:

A. A wheelchair-accessible drinking fountain.

B. A unisex, wheelchair-accessible toilet is convenient for a patron whose personal attendant is of the opposite sex.

C. Emergency notification system. This device connects to the main fire panel. In case of emergency, warning lights flash to signal an evacuation. Information about notification systems are available from your local hearing society.

7. Low-tech devices

Build a collection of low-tech devices. The activities of daily living are greatly enhanced by well-designed tools. For example:

Book holders. Office supply stories sell metal book holders for a few dollars each. Book holders are indispensable for persons with upper-body mobility difficulties.

Magnifiers. There are magnifiers that are held in the hand, rest on the desk top, or clamp to the edge of a piece of furniture. Magnifiers are sold at some office supply stores and at stores that specialize in aids for people who are blind or who have low-vision. I found a 6.5 inch rectangular bar magnifier with a handle for $4; a hand-held, illuminated, 10 x 5 cm, 2x magnifier for $27, and a table-top, 60 mm diameter, 4x magnifier on a goose-neck for under $100.

Perkins Braillers. A Perkins Brailler is a sturdy, seven-keyed typewriter that embosses Braille on paper. Expensive when purchased new, a Brailler can be bought second-hand and/or reconditioned. Perkins Braillers were popular items in every accessible library I visited. Special paper for the Brailler costs about $15 for 250 sheets.

Cassette recorder. A tape recorder works as a note-taking machine for people who cannot use their hands, are blind, or have certain learning disabilities. A basic model with voice-activated microphone costs about $50.

Telephone aids. If your library has a public telephone, consider exchanging it for a model with volume control, a speakerphone and/or a headset.

Manual wheelchair. Not every person who uses a wheelchair needs it all the time. Many individuals use a wheelchair only after they tire. Medical and hospital supply stores sell used, manual wheelchairs for a few hundred dollars.

Walker with a hanging bin for books. Like a wheelchair, a walker helps a person whose energy is ebbing to continue on with their activities. A hanging bin for the walker is a convenient place to carry books. Medical and hospital supply stores sell used walkers for about $125.

8. Environmental adaptations:

Provide desk lamps. Many people who have partial sight benefit from having a good light source. A desk lamp with a goose-neck head may be bought for under $10.

IV. Conclusion: High-tech in perspective

At the 1995 CSUN Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference in Los Angeles, I heard speaker after speaker sing the praises of high technology. At moments I felt I was surrounded by a great chorus chanting variations of a single theme: "Computers are empowering tools; they bestow unprecedented power on those who master them..." or "High technology is breaking down the barriers... closing the gap... levelling the playing field, etc." I am deeply troubled by this perspective, for I do not see how any technology can be held responsible for effecting social change. Technologies do not cause social change; technologies only make social change possible.

I believe that as a society, we are easily mesmerized by the promises of high technology. Computer-based technologies, in particular, are so quick and responsive that they appear almost alive. Notwithstanding our culture's fascination with high-tech, equity workers must not lose sight of our ultimate goal: to create a social climate in which all people are treated fairly and have equal opportunities. There is still much work to be done before it can be claimed that microcomputer-based technologies have ushered in a golden age and introduced an equitable social order.

We must not confuse means with ends. I believe that for some workers in the accessibility field, technology has become an end rather than a means. But the goal is not assistive technology; the goal is accessibility. This confusion of means and ends is observable in the policies of vocational rehabilitation programs that fund assistive devices for individuals, but refuse to pay for appropriate workstations, training or human support services. Underlying this practice is the belief that technology equals access, and that access automatically bestows social power. I promote the ADAPTABLE approach as a way to show that these equations are wrong. Applying the ADAPTABLE principles means providing a balanced approach to workplace (and library) accessibility.

The accessibility of your library will not be judged by the sophistication of the technologies you have, but the comprehensiveness of the services you offer. In this article, I have argued that high-tech accommodations represent but one route on the long road to a more equitable society.


1. No piece of furniture is ergonomic unless it is adjusted and used properly. An adjustable chair encourages, but does not guarantee healthy posture.

2. Cantor, Alan. (March 1995). "Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSIs) at the adapted keyboard: preventing computer overuse injuries in persons with disabilities." CSUN 1995 Conference Proceedings. Los Angeles, CA. See also Augmentative Communication News, March-April 1995, Vol. 8, No. 2. The issue is devoted to RSI concerns in persons who rely on augmentative communication devices.

Cantor, A. (1995). The AD-A-P-T-A-B-L-E approach: Planning accessible libraries. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 2(4).