Building an Accessible CD-ROM Reference Station

Article excerpt


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 130 megabyte SCSI hard drive (We have used only 60 megabytes of this space to date) 4 megabytes of RAM (memory) (We are now using 8 megabytes, which mainly increases the speed of applications under Microsoft Windows) 5. …