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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Fall 2001

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[Board accepted]

Enabling Scientists: Serving Sci-Tech Library Users with Disabilities

Bryna Coonin
Coastal Resources Management Librarian
East Carolina University
Greenville, North Carolina


Service to library users with disabilities has been the subject of numerous books, articles, and presentations, but it is useful to consider this issue specifically in the context of science libraries for several reasons. In the United States we acknowledge an established need for scientists, but have long overlooked the pool of scientific interest and talent among individuals with disabilities. Sci-tech librarians can play a significant role in the encouragement of scientific talent among library users with disabilities by making the library environment accessible and ensuring as much as possible the independent access to information that is so critical to scientific endeavor. Some of the specific ways librarians in sci-tech libraries can contribute to an accessible electronic library environment include developing basic familiarity with relevant assistive technologies, creating accessible web pages, monitoring accessibility of electronic databases purchased for the library, and by preparing accessible bibliographic instructional activities.


In his book The Challenged Scientists, Robert Weisgerber asserts that the established need for scientists in this country can be lessened by utilizing a long overlooked pool of scientific talent among people who are scientifically oriented but who happen to have physical or sensory disabilities (Weisgerber 1991). Lacking opportunity and encouragement from educators, high school graduates with disabilities who enter college are less likely to go into the sciences. Often they have not had the advanced courses needed and believe catching up would be very difficult or impossible (Hoffert 1998). Areas of science such as engineering, chemistry, physics, biology, and mathematics have traditionally been less accessible to students with visual impairments in particular, because the complex visual information generally associated with these disciplines has not been readily accessible. The obstacles to this information create a barrier to students who might otherwise be interested in these fields, and they are sometimes discouraged from even approaching them. Other barriers to successful completion of science courses may include lack of assistance with note-taking, problems operating instruments, seeing or reading lab experiments, graphs, or data.

According to the National Science Foundation report on Women, Minorities, and Persons With Disabilities in Science and Engineering 2000, reliable data on the number of science and engineering bachelor's and master's degrees awarded to persons with disabilities are not readily available because "data on disabilities do not tend to be included in comprehensive academic institutional records; and, if they are, such information is likely to be kept confidential as a means of providing special services to students" (National Science Foundation 2000). Data is available at the doctoral level, however. The number of science and engineering doctorates earned by persons with disabilities was 318 in 1997, only about one percent of the total number of science and engineering doctoral degrees awarded. The percentage of science and engineering doctorate recipients with disabilities has not changed appreciably since 1989. Higher proportions of doctorate recipients with disabilities than of those without disabilities earned their doctorates in psychology and the social sciences; lower proportions earned their doctorates in the physical sciences, biological sciences, and engineering. Employment figures also reflect the underutilization of persons with disabilities in the sciences. In 1997, people with disabilities constituted six percent of the scientists and engineers in the labor force, which was about the same as in 1993 (National Science Foundation 2000).

The concept of an "untapped" pool of talent was the subject of a recent article in the online publication, Prism, published by the American Society for Engineering Education. "They (students with disabilities)are talented students who are also high-achieving students. They are also problem-solvers who have been solving problems all their lives" (Grose 2000). As librarians serving the scientific community and supporting the educational mission of our institutions, we can play a distinctive role in encouraging the successful learning and practice of science by individuals with disabilities.

The Elements of An Accessible Electronic Environment

Adaptive Technologies

An important component of service to sci-tech library users with disabilities in the electronic environment consists of assistive, or adaptive, technologies.

Magnification of the computer screen for users with low vision may be accomplished with a flexible enlarging software such as ZoomText. Users completely without sight often make use of standard screen-reading software packages such as Henter-Joyce/Freedom Scientific's JAWS, or GW Micro's Window-Eyes, which read aloud what sighted users are able to read onscreen. Microsoft Corporation incorporates a number of accessibility features into its Windows and Internet Explorer products that make it easier for people with physical impairments to access information. One of the available features, "mousekeys," permit users without sufficient dexterity to use a mouse to substitute use of the numeric keypad portion of the keyboard to move the mouse pointer and execute the task.

For materials such as printed journals, or other science reference materials not yet available electronically, helpful technologies include closed circuit TVs (CCTV) or closed circuit displays (CCD) such as those made by Optelec, which magnify printed items and are particularly valuable for users with low vision. Users who are completely blind may scan printed materials into the computer using optical character recognition (OCR) reading devices and hear the scanned text read aloud. Arkenstone's products such as Open Book and Very Easy Reading Appliance (VERA) are examples of this type of device. The Kurzweil and TeleSensory companies also produce established lines of OCR reading devices. Barbara Mates provides an excellent overview of adaptive technologies designed to make the electronic environment more accessible in her book, Adaptive Technology for the Internet, available online at {} (Mates 2000).

On many campuses, adaptive technologies are located in locked rooms in the "main" library, or in branches associated with the social sciences or humanities, on the assumption that students with disabilities in need of library resources are more likely to be found there than in branches housing science materials. In many cases assistive technologies may not be housed in a library at all, but might be found in the office of disability support services for that campus. When housed in a library, the responsibility for these resources are frequently assigned to one individual, with the result that awareness and expertise is not widely distributed. (There are some very good explanations for this. Much of this equipment is specialized and expensive. Using it properly does require expertise, and painstakingly configured machines usually cannot be placed unattended in public areas where software may be altered intentionally or accidentally. In addition, many students with disabilities do appreciate a room set aside, to accommodate the use of human readers, voice-activated and screen reading software, or tape recorders, without disturbing other students.) There are certainly exceptions to the generalization that science libraries and science librarians rarely come into contact with assistive technologies. The Rodgers Library for Science and Engineering at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa lists specific services for students with disabilities on their {web page}. The University of Michigan's Shapiro Library houses an assistive technologies lab in the building shared by the Undergraduate and Science Libraries, as described at: They are, however, exceptions rather than the rule.

In the end, though, the location of adaptive technologies is actually less critical than thinking ahead about how science students with disabilities who use these technologies will have access to experienced science librarians. When science students with disabilities seek assistance with electronic library resources, are they automatically put into contact with the individual assigned to oversee assistive technologies? If this individual is not a science librarian, when and how is the science librarian's expertise brought into the mix?

Accessible Librarian-Created Web Pages

We spend considerable time and thought constructing web pages to assist our users in making full use of the science resources to which we provide access. It is important that we design these web pages in a manner that allows access by users with disabilities. One authoritative source to consult for guidelines for accessible web design is the {Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). The WAI was created in 1997 under the auspices of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), currently under the direction of WWW "inventor," Tim Berners-Lee. In preparing a web page according to these guidelines, it is helpful to make use of an accessibility measuring tool called "{Bobby}", an online accessibility validator based on WAI guidelines, offered as a free public service by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST). Running the URL of a web page through Bobby allows the web page creator to test the web page to determine whether users with disabilities are going to experience problems accessing the page. Some of the most common accessibility problems flagged by Bobby are images that contain no ALT tag or LONGDESC attribute, frames that do not carry titles, and tables that have been constructed in such a way that a standard screen reader cannot read them properly.

There is a wealth of material available on the web itself about the topic of accessible web design, but those just getting started in making accessible web pages may want to begin with the WAI's Getting Started page, or the {web accessibility "toolkit"} created by the Easy Access to Software and Information (EASI) organization based at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Michael Paciello's Web Accessibilty for People With Disabilities provides a good summary in book form of the principles of accessible web design (Paciello 2000).

Including scientific and mathematical notation presents unique problems for web page creators. Often the notations are presented as GIF images, which are not accessible. The problem of rendering mathematics for electronic communication is actually older than the web itself. At least one markup method for mathematics, TeX (pronounced "tek") was in use before the web became ubiquitous (Knuth 1986). (TeX has been described as unstructured, where LATEX was designed as a layer on top of TeX which specifically supports structured markup. For librarians with access to the JSTOR database including the mathematics module, examples of TeX and LATEX encoding may be seen in a number of the abstracts contained in that portion of JSTOR.)

Enter, the World Wide Web. Although the WWW was implemented "by scientists for scientists," the capability to include mathematical expressions in HTML is very limited. In response to this, the W3C began developing a new XML language for mathematical expressions called MathML. The details of this markup language are explained in detail on the MathML web site. Nemeth math code was (and still is) used in Braille texts for the blind. If the individual is a proficient Braille reader, this code can be used for computations. The developer, Dr. Abe Nemeth, who is blind, taught mathematics for many years at the University of Detroit. Another approach to this problem is offered by T. V. Raman, in a software system called AsTeR, which Raman developed while he was a doctoral candidate at Cornell University. AsTeR performs audio formatting and rendering of mathematical notation, and it allows the listener to browse actively through complex mathematical expressions and other forms of structured text (Hayes 1996).

Most sci-tech librarians creating web pages will never need to employ TeX, MathML, Nemeth code, or AsTer directly, but it is useful to develop familiarity with the issues faced by our users as they operate within their disciplines in the electronic environment.

Accessible Commercial Products

We can and must exercise responsibility for accessibility of the web pages we create ourselves. What, then, of the web-accessible commercial products such as indexes and electronic journals we purchase on behalf of our users? Are these accessible to users with disabilities? If not, what is our responsibility and our recourse?

A recent study examined eleven major electronic research journal services for accessibility to users with visual or mobility impairments (Coonin 2001). Included among the resources examined were a number of e-journal databases with science content, such as HighWire, IDEAL, JSTOR, Science Direct, BioOne, SpringerLink, and Wiley InterScience. Accessibility was measured according to the guidelines and checklists developed by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), using Bobby. Findings indicated that awareness of accessibility issues is low among these electronic research journal service providers, to which many of us do subscribe and upon which we have come to rely.

The Americans With Disabilities Act serves as a critical foundation for the legal mandate of web accessibility. Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act (1998), which quietly went into effect on June 21, 2001, specifically addresses issues of equal access to information technology for individuals with disabilities (Paciello 2000). It is we who are the direct providers of the electronic resource to our users, not the vendors and publishers who sell them to us. The responsibility falls upon us to press vendors and publishers for accessible products, because it is we who bear the liability in this situation.

In e-mail communications with technical support staff at Science Direct concerning issues of the accessibility of this product, the question was raised concerning how many users with disabilities were actually affected. This is a reasonable question to ask from the standpoint of marketing, but it is the wrong question to answer. It is not the comparatively small number of scientists with disabilities who are at issue, but the customer base of subscribers who operate under the legal mandate to provide accessible electronic resources to their clientele. The United States is not the only country with an interest in equal rights for individuals with disabilities, and the customer base of readers who desire access to electronic journals for their research is not confined to American shores. Australia, Canada, Portugal, and the United Kingdom have also passed legislation in recent years that reflect this stance, and computer accessibility guidelines have been created by the Commission of the European Union and the Nordic Council of Ministers, with the support of the governments of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden (Paciello 2000).

Science librarians who have input into decisions regarding purchase of electronic products for their libraries have both the right and the obligation as customers to ask whether these products are accessible according to WAI guidelines. If we do so consistently, awareness among vendors and publishers will eventually increase, and the result will be electronic resources that are accessible to all of our users.

Even if all vendors and providers of commercial electronic products suddenly committed to accessibility tomorrow, it would still be incumbent upon sci-tech librarians to understand how specific products handle scientific and mathematical notation. Sci-tech librarians can perform a valuable service to their clientele by understanding and communicating how individual electronic science database products handle these. Sometimes this information can be obtained from HELP screens. SpringerLink HELPs, for example, contains an explanation of how chemical and mathematical formulae are encoded in their product, which differs depending on document format (HTML, PDF). This is followed by some hints for effective searching to accommodate the situation. Where this information is not readily available via HELP screens, librarians will need to unearth it, through experimentation and through contact with product representatives, and with one another.

Bibliographic Instruction

More often than not, librarians are reactive rather than pro-active in structuring bibliographic instructional services for users with disabilities. It is only when such services are requested that we consider the preparation and resources needed to accommodate the user. (Applin 1999). A service gap could also develop where students are reluctant to call undue attention to their disabilities, and may not speak up for the necessary adjustments.

The most efficient way to prepare and structure bibliographic instructional services is to adopt a universal design approach that assumes participation by individuals with disabilities in all activities and instructional sessions.

Librarians teaching in instructional services classrooms that offer computer access should consider pushing for at least one machine with a 19" or better color monitor and a track ball. Ideally Windows will be available, which allows the user to take advantage of the resident accessibility features including font enlargement, color adjustment, "sticky keys," and "mousekeys" as needed. Familiarization with these relatively simple adjustment options ahead of time is necessary, but invaluable.

Watch the overuse of library jargon. This is not bad advice generally, but for individuals in your audience who are lip-reading or who employ sign language assistants the use of unfamiliar, unexplained terminology can produce gaps in understanding.

Get into the habit of speaking aloud whatever you put on the board or project on the screen. Try taping yourself to see if you actually do this, and check to see that you do not verbally skip vital pieces of information. Does this mean that you can never again break the ice in a class by projecting a Gary Larson cartoon? No, only that you have to practice gracefully verbalizing what most of the audience can otherwise see and read for themselves. It's not an ice-breaker unless everyone is "in" on the joke.

Put your instructional materials, handouts, and exercises on the web for referral outside of the class setting, for students who could not hear everything that was said, for those who may require additional time to accomplish keyboarding, and for those who rely on assistive technologies not available in the instructional room. Make sure the documents themselves are accessible according to WAI guidelines.

Create Awareness

A number of scientific organizations have developed programs aimed at increasing participation in science, mathematics, and engineering by people with disabilities. Many sci-tech librarians have established contacts throughout their institution and are in a position to create greater awareness of the resources available for individuals with disabilities who would study and work in the sciences.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has created a program called ENTRY POINT! 2000 to offer paid internship opportunities for students with disabilities in science, engineering, mathematics, and computer science in government and private industry. In 1995, the AAAS, with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), published the third edition of the AAAS Resource Directory of Scientists and Engineers With Disabilities, edited by Virginia Stern and Laureen Summers. This listing provides contact information for more than 600 scientists, mathematicians, and engineers with a wide spectrum of disabilities who are willing to serve as role models, symposium speakers, and/or consultants on assistive technologies (Stern 1995). Regrettably, no updates to this volume are planned.

The National Science Foundation's {Program for Persons with Disabilities} (PPD) has as its fundamental mission to address the factors that have stifled interest, or otherwise impeded progress, in the sciences and mathematics among people with disabilities. Under the direction of Lawrence Scadden, who has himself been totally blind since a childhood, NSF's PPD works to mitigate barriers encountered due to ignorance about how to accommodate science students and practicing scientists with disabilities.

William Skawinski of the New Jersey Institute of Technology devised a technique using stereolithography for building three-dimensional replicas of molecules from computer graphics (Holden 1998). Skawinski is just one of a number of scientists profiled in the American Chemical Society's "Working Chemists With Disabilities" page. The American Chemical Society (ACS) maintains a section of their organization devoted to Chemists With Disabilities, and to the teaching of chemistry to students with disabilities.

Since 1992, dozens of high school students around the country have participated in the Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, & Technology (DO-IT) project, funded by the NSF's PPD. The DO-IT project sponsors a wide range of activities including summer camps, workshops, and rigorous lab classes offered at the University of Washington's Seattle campus. DO-IT maintains a web site rich in resources for science teachers and students alike.

Lab classes traditionally rely heavily on sight for instruction. At Purdue's VISIONS Lab (for Visually Impaired Students Initiative on Science) David Schleppenbach, a doctoral student at Purdue, and Purdue chemistry professor Fred Lytle developed a software program capable of translating chemical equations and symbols into a standard six-dot Braille code (Page 1998). The VISIONS Lab did groundbreaking work in developing assistive technologies and software for visually impaired students, initially in chemistry, and later encompassing physics, engineering, computer science, biology, and agronomy. Schleppenbach recently formed a private company called "gh, llc." to further develop software created in the VISIONS Lab. [See his company web page at] Purdue's Tactile Access to Education for Visually Impaired Students (TAEVIS) primarily provides access to course materials to Purdue students who are Braille readers, but TAEVIS also extends the benefits of its innovations to other schools as well, in an effort to benefit Braille readers generally. One of the specific services of TAEVIS is to assist with transcription of materials containing mathematical and scientific notation. For more information about TAEVIS, see {}.

A project at the University of Delaware allows students with disabilities to conduct lab work using lab-simulation software and powerful workstations [{}]. At Oregon State University, the Department of Physics is the home of the Science Access Project group, which seeks to develop methods for making science, math, and engineering information accessible to people with print disabilities [{}].

If you are an active member of a professional scientific society, pay close attention to issues of accessibility during meetings and conferences. Are presentations made in a manner that are accessible to scientists with disabilities in the audience? Are the web-based publications of the society accessible according to WAI guidelines? If the scientific society has an educational arm, this may be the best arena to suggest a speaker or program on the issues of science and mathematics instruction to students with disabilities.

Sci-tech librarians are information professionals with contacts throughout the scientific and educational communities in which they serve. Making science students, professors, and practicing scientists aware of the resources and possibilities for individuals with disabilities may be one of the most important services we perform.

Future Developments

For sci-tech librarians serving individuals who are visually impaired or otherwise unable to readily use printed books, one of the most promising developments currently underway is the digital audio book. Digital audio is a recent development that creates "a hybrid format of electronic text and audio recording" (Noble 1999). With digital audio full-text format readers will have the ability to break in and out of their own computer's synthetic speech, and will be able to hear the correct letter-by-letter spelling of any word in the text. Digital audio will have the capacity to provide the same descriptive detail provided by human readers. This will allow high-level math and science texts to be accessible because graphical materials and complex notations can be explained by human readers without being physically present (Noble 1999).

One of the critical issues currently under discussion in digital audio is the development of an international standard for document tag definition. The digital audio-based information system (DAISY) is both the name of a reading system and for the consortium of libraries, non-profit organizations, and for-profit Friends of the Consortium worldwide that is spearheading the development of the standard (Kerscher 2001). Sci-tech librarians with expertise or interest can get involved by following the developments of the Consortium. For those whose libraries wish to participate more actively, several categories of membership are available. See the DAISY web site at


"Students and professionals with disabilities must have the same access to science and math as everyone else" (EASI 2001). The concept is a simple one, but the outworking of it is far from simple. Scientists with disabilities point out that they must cope with challenges, both logistical and social, that go beyond their personal disabilities (Sankaran 1995).

Sci-tech libraries may be just one stop along the path to the development of a scientific career, but sci-tech librarians can play a significant role in the encouragement of scientific talent among library users with disabilities by making the library environment accessible and ensuring as much as possible the independent access to information that is so critical to scientific endeavor.


Applin, M.B. 1999. Instructional services for students with disabilities. The Journal of Academic Librarianship 25(2): 139-141.

Coonin, B. 2001. Establishing accessibility for e-journals: a suggested approach. Library Hi-Tech, in press.

EASI: Equal Access to Software and Information. 2001. Science & Math Resources. [Online]. Available: { [September 1, 2001].

Grose, T. 2000. An untapped talent pool. Prism Online (American Society for Engineering Education) November. [Online]. Available: {}. [October 1, 2001].

Hayes, B. 1996. Speaking of mathematics. American Scientist 84(2): 110(4).

Hoffert, S.P. 1998. Associations' Programs Aid Aspiring Disabled Scientists. The Scientist 12(6):3. [Online]. Available: {} [August 15, 2001].

Holden, C. 1998. Leveling the playing field for scientists with disabilities. Science 282(5386): 36-7.

Knuth, D. 1986. The TEXbook. Reading, MA: American Mathematical Society, Providence, RI and Addison-Wesley Publ. Co.

Kerscher, G. 2001. Daisy Consortium: information technology for the world's blind and print-disabled population - past, present, and into the future. Library Hi-Tech 19(1):11-15.

Mates, B. 2000. The Online Version Adaptive Technology for the Internet: Making Electronic Resources Accessible to All [Online]. Available: {} [August 20, 2001].

National Science Foundation. 2000. Women, Minorities, and Persons With Disabilities in Science and Engineering [Online]. Available: {} [August 5, 2001].

Noble, S. 1999. Accessible text formats. In: Accessible Libraries on Campus: a practical guide for the creation of disability-friendly libraries (edited by T. McNulty), pp.49-62. Chicago, IL: Association of College and Research Libraries.

Paciello, M. 2000. Web Accessibility for People With Disabilities. Lawrence, KS: CMP Publications.

Page, D. 1998. The case of the blind leading the chemist. High Technology Careers Magazine [Online]. Available: {} [August 1, 2001].

Sankaran, N. 1995. Scientists with disabilities must confront societal as well as physical challenges. The Scientist 9(2):1 [Online]. Available {} [August 5, 2001].

Stern, V. & Summers, L. 1995. AAAS Resource Directory of Scientists and Engineers with Disabilities. Washington, D.C.: American Academy for the Advancement of Science.

Weisgerber, R.A. 1991. The Challenged Scientists. New York: Praeger.

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