April 24, 2018

The Best Kept Secret in U.S. Libraries: Services to Patrons with Vision and Learning Disabilities | PLA 2012

By Michael Rogers

A trio of librarians delivered an eye-opening talk on what Keri Wilkins, administrator, Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped at the Free Library of Philadelphia, dubbed “the best kept secret in the U.S.” Along with moderator Patrice Johnson of the Chicago Public Library and the Library of Congress’s Jill Garcia, Wilkins offered an inspiring talk on the free materials available to the sight-impaired and learning-challenged during the questionably titled session, ”Digital Access, the Future is Now! The Next Dimension of Accessible Audio Media.”

Repeating that these services aren’t just for the blind, the trio provided a laundry list of the government-funded programs open to every public library. Stating that one in five Americans suffer from some vision loss, and one in ten severely so, Garcia said that the materials are customizable for each person’s needs and reading tastes. If you like romance novels but don’t want descriptions of sex, no problem. If you like thrillers without severe violence or harsh language, that’s available, too.

And these aren’t limited to audiobooks, although those are included — musical scores, magazines, and more all can be had in Braille, refreshable Braille (a strip with cells that move along like ticker tape), and more. Materials also are offered in 52 foreign languages. Since 13 percent of military vets returning from Iraq have eye injuries, they are given special priority to receive the digital audio players, with materials that are updated weekly, if not daily.

Levels of need

The free services are divided by levels of need, and separate materials are provided for those born blind, those slowly going blind due to age or illness (newly blind), and people suddenly blinded in accidents, etc. “Forget the white cane and dark glasses,” said Johnson, “these services are for everyone with vision or learning disabilities.”

Johnson also says there is a surplus of materials available (when is the last time you heard that?), so entire communities can easily be accommodated. The National Library Services for the Blind’s website has all the information needed to start.

Michael Rogers (mrogers@mediasourceinc.com) is Media Editor, Library Journal and editor/writer of LJXpress.

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