Report back from: Mission impossible? Satisfying disabled students’ library needs

 Last month I attended this conference about what libraries could do in order to better satisfy the needs of disabled users.  The abstracts & slides of all of the very interesting talks from this conference can be found at

 The talk by Alistair McNaught dealt with how libraries could work with new technologies in order to support students and included lots of very practical tips and advice:

 Alternative formats: the secret life of librarians, Alistair McNaught, JISC TechDis

Supporting info for this presentation can be found at

 Key, practical outcome of the Equality Act is to make info accessible in a variety of formats.  Aim of session:

–          demonstrate range of alternative formats & technologies we can use

–          make us aware of the need for dialogue between different stakeholders (e.g. library, disability services, lecturers)

Need to be inclusive – not just offering services for the disabled.  Some people might not identify as having a disability, e.g. visual impairments)

 How can we make a difference?

–          Information: find alternative formats

–          Communication: with disability services, student support, etc

–          Technology: facilitate use of different formats

–          Advocacy: demand better!


Ebooks promote inclusivity – can be used with screenreaders, magnification, different text colours, etc

Be aware of tutor ignorance: tend to teach particular subjects in particular ways i.e. this is the key textbook.  But there might be alternative resources they haven’t considered – PDFs, ebooks, podcasts, etc.


Collaboration in gaining alternative formats between library, tutors, disability services, etc.

Be aware of jargon!  Showed example of very dyslexia-unfriendly dyslexia guide.


Lots of useful tips on how to manipulate info on screen with inbuilt tools in Word, PDF, and free technologies.  E.g.

PDF – don’t pay for screen magnification software!  Use zoom reflow (View>Zoom>Reflow) to magnify the text and have it displayed as a single column with no need to keep scrolling from left to right because its magnified.  Can also use auto-scroll (View>Automatically scroll) to remove need for lots of mouse work.


–          Use in-built Word headings for titles.  This creates an easy to navigate screen view – useful for students with visual impairments or dyslexia as scanning the document quickly becomes easier.

–          Using headings you can also send directly to MindMap.  Again, useful for students with dyslexia

–          If using zoom, use ‘web layout’.  As with Adobe, this means the text is displayed in a single column no matter how magnified and prevents you having to keep scrolling from left to right.

Reading aids (download from

Vu-bar – an on-screen slotted ruler to highlight text whilst reading.  Useful for dyslexics who tend to skip or drop lines whilst reading.

T-Bar – a coloured bar to highlight text whilst reading.  The online version of coloured bits of acetate!

RapidSet – allows easy changing of background and font colours.

Text to speech software (download from

RoboBraille – voice isn’t great, but converts digital documents into Braille or audio files


Other technologies

Xerte online – templates for producing interactive resources

CamStudio – instant video guides for downloading onto phones, etc from website


Suppliers, publishers, disability support staff, IT, other LS staff, etc etc.

In particular, I was impressed by the variety of free and easy to use tools available.  Personally, I had no idea what was out there and how easy it is to make a significant difference to the way info is displayed on the computer screen.  This is a clear benefit not only to those with learning and/or physical disabilities but also to anyone who spends a lot of time working at a computer. 

As someone who’s had trouble with RSI and back/neck issues from working at a PC, I think these tools are great and have a much wider application than just for students with disabilities.

Post by : Sarah Pittaway

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