Tuesday, August 12, 2008

IFLA 2008 (part 7): E-reading for disabled persons

[From Part 6]

Monday, 11 Aug 2008, Quebec City. Libraries Serving Disadvantaged Persons Section.
E-reading for disabled persons

"E-reading for disabled persons: The French digital library for the Disabled" by Monique Pujol.

Monique spoke in French but her slides had English explanations so I was able to follow (good thinking, 'cos translation receiver headsets might fail.)

E-reading for disabled personsShe shared about their digital library serving people with disabilities, based in the city of Boulogne-Billancourt. The project was a multi-party collaboration. It involved the Paris Public Hospital Network, commercial companies (who provided digital content, computer hardware) and disabled persons associations.

The service is offered via this website - bnh.numilog.com


Collections
  • They acquire recent (i.e. popular) & classical works
  • 55% Fiction and 45% Non-fiction items
  • So far they have1,120 written works, 210 audio items, and 7,000 documents.
  • The use the PDF format, as it works with Text-to-Voice softwares like JAWS
  • Something about adopting "PRC for palm PDA smartphones", as it allows text enlargement (I think it's this)
  • Audio formats would be WMA and MP3

Costs
About 50,000 Euros per year to maintain the website and for acquiring the digital books

Users & Fees
  • The service is for individuals or institutions
  • It's only for users with disabilities of any form. Proof being the disability association they belong
  • There's an annual joining fee between eight Euros (for city inhabitants) to 20 Euros for non-residents
  • There are 400 registered users, out of which 40% have some form of motor-disabilities and 47% have some form of visual-disability

Results of evaluation
They conducted a study with the help of university students. It was a national sample, using an online questionnaire. Some person-to-person interviews were also done to collect testimonials.

On the minus-side, Users reported an insufficient number of "copyrighted resources" ( I think this means current and popular materials that aren't free or in public domain). The formats and technology was also a challenge to users.

On the plus-side, users liked the remote access service and some felt they had a greater degree of independence in obtaining information materials.


Future plans
Overall the project was deemed as feasible. They now plan to create a telephone hotline for users who need assistance on how to use the service. They intend to expand to youth collections, start a selection committee, and plan to hold discussions with hospitals and agencies.


My thoughts
I wondered how many persons with disabilities in Singapore currently use the digital books and audio collections that are already available via the NLB library website (National and Public libraries). I suspect not many. It's something my colleagues and I can try to ascertain.

Compared to five years ago, the NLB digital collections have improved a lot in terms of quality. There's ebooks and audio. Access and use of digital resources has steadily increased. I suspect a lot is via word-of-mouth.

I don't forsee the quality of collections to be the major issue (although there will always be the issue of bestsellers not in the digital collections, but this is really the publisher's perogative).

Part of the issue may be the lack of awareness of our current digital services, by people with disabilities. This can be addressed through regular promotions and publicity activities, via the organisations serving people with disablilities.

I've a feeling the biggest issue would be web accessibility, where the site is accessible to people using screen-to-voice softwares etc.

It's not easy to create a 100% disabled-accessible site AND still make the site "interesting" to majority of users. I think most developers (and the organisations who commission them) don't really make sure there is web accessibility for people with disabilities. Either because of cost and time constraints, or lack of awareness of such a need, or they feel the priority is for the general population. Frankly, my employer is no exception.

But in truth, it's easy to hide behind the excuse of "organisation inertia".

I think things will happen when someone wants to make it happen. That someone don't have to be a person at very senior levels. Of course the lower down in the organisation hierarchy, the longer time it will take.

I'll have to start with myself then.

Seems there are two options here:
  1. Re-design the existing site (or sections in the website) to ensure the digital resources are disability-friendly
  2. Don't try to aim for a disability-friendly site that is exactly the same. Build a sister-website. A no-frills one. Aim to just provide access to the digital resources.
Option 1 would take a long, long time to achieve. And probably not go anywhere. It could cost a lot more and likely to result in compromises in design and features.

I'm inclined towards option 2. The sister-site could be a blog (costs nothing to set up if we use free online services). Include "hardcoded" links on the site to selected e-resources.

Idea needs more work. Maybe the users feel this won't be useful at all. I'll need to discuss with colleagues, and also people in agencies like DPA, SPD, SADEAF.

We need to talk to some of their clients. First we ascertain how many of them are aware of the current digital services and content. If they are already using it or have tried to use it, what are the problems.I'd like to think of this sister-site as a side door to some (not all) of the content and services.

A no-frills "side door"
It's unlikely the site will be a full one-stop portal to the digital content. The different digital content sources have varying degrees of disability-access (in the digital content business model, the service providers own the content and merely gives us a right to access for a subscription fee).

For those cases, users who want more could email the librarian for assistance. Will the librarians be overwhelmed? Who knows until we try?

My point is that the site could be a poor cousin to the full web service. And users won't be fully independent in using the service.

But at least it's there.

[Next: Part 8]

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