RLI 281 6
Print Disabilities, Libraries, and Higher Education
n the United States, library services for the blind began in the 19th century, in the large public
libraries of Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Detroit. In 1931, the Pratt-Smoot Act
established the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped through the
Library of Congress.6 The Canadian Free Library for the Blind was established in Toronto in 1906.7
The universe of publishing consisted of printed books, magazines, and journals, and only a small
percentage of that annual output was made accessible first in braille and later in “talking books.” Blind
readers, well aware of the inherent limitations of the printed page and the resources required to reformat
it into braille or performed audio, refer to the era of print publishing as a “book famine.” The digital
revolution in publishing, including electronic texts, was supposed to end that famine—as electronic texts
could, in theory, be processed directly by adaptive technologies designed to serve the print disabled. But
an analysis of information technology and digital publishing instead tells a mixed story of progress and
regress, of decentralization, lack of industry standards, and a host of reasons why, in 2012, advocacy for
technological accessibility for the print disabled is urgent.
A print-disabled person is someone who cannot effectively read print because of a visual, physical,
perceptual, developmental, cognitive, or learning disability. The definition and measurement of “learning
disability” entered the educational parlance in the 1960s, and the US government increased funding for
K–12 resources to address this growing concern. By the 1970s, this newly identified population began to
enter colleges and universities. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, established nondiscrimination
requirements for all entities receiving federal funds, and in 1977, a critical mass of campus entities serving
students with a range of disabilities formed a national association, the Association of Higher Education
and Disability (AHEAD), establishing professional and service standards.8 The world of higher education,
at this point, consisted of physical structures to be navigated, traditional classroom instruction to be
effectively conveyed and captured, and printed texts to be studied.
In 1990, a new social and cultural vision of disability and public participation was expressed and
compelled by the ADA. Inclusion and mainstreaming prevailed in K–12 special education, and that
population entered colleges and universities in the 1990s and 2000s.9 In the still largely analog world of
1990, most books were not available in formats accessible to the blind. Assistive and adaptive technologies
to reformat printed text emerged and made a great impact.
Adaptive technology, also known as assistive technology, refers to a wide variety of tools to help
people with disabilities. The adaptive technology needs of print-disabled users vary. Tools used by
the blind differ from those with severe or moderate vision impairment. The adaptive technology
for compensating for visual impairments can take a variety of forms and typically utilize a
combination of technologies. Below are examples of some of the most common building-block
technologies used in adaptive technology tools to address visual impairments.
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