Helping Patrons with Visual Disabilties

I’m going to write a bit this week on helping patrons with visual disabilities.  I’ve had both coursework and reference training on this topic and have been on the patron side.

First, it is important to note, you may not be able to easily identify a patron with visual disabilities.  The only guaranteed way is if they are seen with a walking stick, as service dogs are also frequently used for other needs.  Thus, keep in mind service dog does not immediately mean seeing-eye-dog.  Once working with a patron, if you notice them struggling to see what is on the computer screen, go ahead and enlarge the text (instructions below).  Chances are that these patrons who squint at the screen or lean in close to it to see will thank you for making reading/seeing the screen easier.  For this same reason, it’s also a good idea to keep a magnifying glass at the reference desk for print material.  Often though, if patrons are really struggling, they will let you know and you can adapt accordingly.

The main key to helping patrons with visual disabilities is patience.  While I cannot vouch for those who were born with a visual disability or one that began early in life, for those who had the problem occur later in life, going from self-sufficient to needing help is extremely frustrating.  It’s the kind of frustration where one wants to yell, scream, and kick due to their inability.  Been there. Done that.  While there is nothing a patron with a visual disability cannot do in the library, except maybe locating physical books on the shelves, the methods are different.

Using a Magnifying Glass with a Book by Alpha Six from Flickr Creative Commons.

Using a Magnifying Glass with a Book by Alpha Six from Flickr Creative Commons. Yes, I know that text looks like German.

Begin with modifying how you work with patrons with visual disabilities.  First, magnify the screen.  This can be done in browser, usually using a tool in the lower right corner, or by using “Control +” as many times as needed (“Control -” will remove the effect later).  This helps those who still have some visual capability.  Second, don’t just demonstrate a search with the typical explanation.  Explain each step in excruciating detail.  This means don’t just say we are trying to search, for example, “George Washington” AND “Valley Forge.”  Instead, say every word, character, and step because if they use speech-to-text software, that’s how they will have to do it.  This means our search should be said as <quotation mark> George Washington <quotation mark> AND <quotation mark> Valley Forge <quotation mark> (or <phrase> enclosed in quotation marks) then hit enter.  Account for every character and spell out words if the patron needs them.  If working on a computer without adaptive software (more on this later), you may need to also read the results to a patron and save articles to flashdrives or e-mail the patron the website you are looking out so they can be “read” using adaptive software later.

For those where the disability isn’t blindness or they are recovering from corrective surgery, reading text can be a struggle.  It can’t be done fast and, in the latter case, one is relearning how to focus their eyes.  For example, in high school I could read at a rate of about 100 pages of fiction an hour.  Now it’s about 70 pages, but that’s with six years of practice after relearning.  Immediately afterwards I couldn’t focus on more than a word or two at a time, causing it to take about sixty minutes to read a page.  Talk about frustrating!  That’s one of the reasons copyright law allows for alternative presentation methods for those with disabilities.  This means a book could legally be voice recorded or printed in Braille or large-print formats when needed.

Adaptive software is very helpful to students with visual disabilities.  Text-to-speech allows users to have websites or database articles read to them by their computer.  Even when a special software is not installed on a computer, there is still the basic pre-installed versions on Windows systems (located by opening  the start menu, then clicking “All Programs”, then “Accessories”, then “Ease of Access,” then “Narrator”).  Also under “Ease of Access” is an on screen keyboard, magnifier, and speech recognition software.*  Mac computers also offer some of these services and since I don’t have a Mac to use to write steps, here’s some instructional videos: Text-to-speech and Speech-to-text.  For speech recognition, there is also the option to buy and use Dragon Naturally Speaking, which is about the best program on the market for this technology.  For reading on computers, there is JAWS.  This screen reader program enlarges and/or reads text and, if needed, can create a Braille output (via a refreshable Braille Display).  However, JAWS is only available for Windows. At university libraries, I would recommend having a computer with these programs installed set aside for use of students with all disabilities, as visual ones are not the only disabilities to benefit from the technology (these stations may also feature a special keyboard and trackball).  For K-12 students, this technology is usually in the special eduction classroom and not the media center.  For other types of libraries, the adaptive software can be installed as needed by the community should the basic adaptive technology of the operating system not be enough.

Helping patrons with visual disabilities is not just limited to personal interactions.  Websites should be adapted; besides helping those with visual needs, it often makes the sites easier to use by everyone.  As I learned in my website design coursework, high contrast is essential.  Ideally, this is black or navy text on white or vice versa.  Yellow text on a dark blue background is another great alternative.  Also the simpler the webpage is to navigate, the better.  This means clear labeling, especially of links, and/or minimal clicking to find information.  When images are used on a website, don’t forget to add Alt-Tags.  While not seen on-screen, these tags add descriptive information about the image within the metadata that is read by adaptive software, allowing the visually impaired to hear a description of the image they cannot see.  For example, Amy’s Scrap Bag frequently uses photo captions as the Alt-Tag (called Alt-Text by WordPress), sometimes with added information, as they already describe the image.

To try simulating a visual disability to help understand the problem, check out simulations of thirteen impairment types at  For a photo only version, try the Richmond Eye Associate’s “Simulation of Eye Disorders.

Do you find this advice helpful?  Do you have any questions or tips to add?

For more information:

*Personally, I activated these on my computer back when needed, but I have experimented with Dragon before.  These adaptive accessories worked fine for me, but someone else had to do all my spellchecking and correcting for a few months!


7 thoughts on “Helping Patrons with Visual Disabilties

  1. What a helpful, thoughtful article on helping patrons (or whoever we come across) with visual difficulties. It’s all-too-easy to focus on our own frustrations and/or anxieties when working with these patrons, and to forget theirs. You’ve help re-focus some much-needed attention on this issue. KUDOS!

    P.S. If you don’t, at some point I would like to use parts of this blogpost towards one of my own on serving diverse patrons. Please let me know if that will be alright with you. (The blog is, something I just started a few weeks ago. Take care!)

  2. Thank you! I’m glad you found this post to be both thoughtful and helpful.

    Per referencing this post on your blog, I’m fine with that as long as you both cite and link back to the source. Or since you mention on your blog that others can send in content, I could work on a shortened version. Either way is fine.

  3. Hi ya! If you’re up for working up a shortened version, I’d DEFINITELY love to have you share your thoughts on the Library Diversity Info blog! If you’re still willing and able, please let me know, and looking forward to your work!! Gracias, Louis.

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