Thunder in the Libraries

Written By: Peter Abrahams
Content Copyright © 2011 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

Why would a blind person go into a library? Maybe to borrow a book in Braille, or more likely to borrow a talking book, CD or DVD. In Lambeth the new answer is to learn to use a computer.

Computers have the potential to improve the quality of life and job prospects of anyone who is blind or has a vision impairment (a Vision Impaired Person or VIP for short). A very large percentage of the world’s knowledge has only been available in printed form on paper. This meant that it was inaccessible to anyone with a limited or no vision. Over the years various solutions have been used to close this gap a bit.

Braille was one very clever and successful solution but it is limited by: the cost of setting and printing any document; the size of a Braille document, which is a disadvantage; but probably the biggest issue is that it is difficult to learn, especially for anyone whose lost their vision later in life.

Audio books is a wonderful medium for fiction, where a book is read, and listened to, from the beginning to the end. It is not such a useful solution for reference or text books where navigation becomes a major issue. The cost of production also limits the titles available.

DAISY talking books provide the benefits of audio books and adds navigation capabilities.

All of these solutions have major limitations, as the number of titles is limited and great swathes of printed material – newspapers, magazines, journals – are generally not available and certainly not in a timely fashion.

More recently the rise of the computer, the Internet and various forms of electronic publishing have enabled a whole new set of sources of textual information; emails, blogs, wikis, online news channels etc. All of this is displayed on a screen and is again not accessible.

However, the fact that this information is electronic and therefore can be manipulated means that it is possible to turn the electronic words into spoken words that are accessible to people with vision impairments. All of human knowledge is being rapidly turned into electronic format and thus the knowledge available to a VIP is growing exponentially.

Unfortunately there are two barriers that need to be removed before all this information is available. Firstly the user needs access to suitable hardware and software that will read the information on the screen and enable them to navigate easily. Secondly they need to learn how to use the hardware and software. A VIP who has not learnt to use the system will not be able to assess the benefit to them and therefore will not be able to justify the initial outlay. The cost of a suitably configured machine is a considerable barrier to adoption.

The libraries in Lambeth have recently been the venue for an experiment to fix both these problems. The initiative is being driven forward by a local resident, Christina Burnett of Wide Eye Pictures, who is passionate about the benefits of computing to VIPs.

Like every modern library Lambeth has several computers in each library. The only extra hardware required was headphones; these are obviously essential if there are going to be several screen reader users in the library at one time. It is probable that headphones would have become necessary anyway for the general public as more and more audio information is available on the Internet. The other addition was to install screen reader software on all the library machines; it was decided to install it on all machines so that a VIP could use the system whichever library they wanted to visit. Some screen reader solutions are expensive and it would have been prohibitive to equip all machines; this was resolved by installing a free screen reader called Thunder which is available from So for a minimal expenditure the libraries removed the first of the barriers.

To assist the VIP to learn to use the system a series of seven weekly training sessions was run, called DTvip (Digital Tuesday for Vision Impaired People). The initial set of sessions trained some VIPs and some volunteers so the scheme can be repeated and extended in the future., which developed Thunder, has obtained funding from Awards for All to work with DTVIP on this pilot training scheme at the Tate South Lambeth Library.

The first set of sessions was a great success and proved that the model works. Naturally, lessons have been learnt, in particular to have a structure that can support different users, ranging from a VIP who has never used a keyboard, through to a VIP who is an expert PC user but, through failing sight, needs to learn how to use a screen reader.

The second set of sessions is under way. The question now is how to quickly extend this model throughout Lambeth and the rest of the UK.