College & Research Libraries News

A low-tech approach: Working with persons with mobility and speech disabilities in an academic library

by Denise A. Forro

Today, we rely more heavily than ever be- fore on technology to handle various library challenges, and rightly so. Technology has allowed us to process materials and serve our patrons with a series of keystrokes. However, there are some situations that can be readily handled by non-tech or low-tech solutions.

Several years ago, the information desk staff at Michigan State University Libraries expressed concern about answering the questions of a person with mobility and speech impairments. The patron was unable to articulate his questions and was unable to write his questions due to the limited use of his hands. Desk staff were concerned that the interactions were frustrating, time-consuming, and ultimately ineffective in serving the needs of the patron. Clearly, something needed to be done to improve this situation. While it was agreed that technology might offer some sort of resolution, a non-tech approach was sought.

To investigate alternative solutions, we turned to a university staff member who exhibited the same physical attributes as the library patron. This person was a member of a special committee on campus, the Accommodating Technology Committee. Although he used a computer in his office with voice output, he did not have access to that computer when traveling to various units across campus.

A low-tech solution

In the meetings, the staff member would interact quite effectively with the other members of the committee through the use of a word board, also known as a communication board. After studying the use of this device, it became apparent that this tool might be useful in the interactions with our various patrons who had similar physical and verbal impairments.

Literature searches and a search of Internet resources were performed to discover if other libraries were using this type of low-tech device. While the searches did not produce useful results, it was discovered through our library catalog that we owned a source that could be used to develop a word board.1 This title outlined the methods for determining the use of the board and what words should be represented. It also gave many excellent examples of word boards that had been developed.

Word processing software was used in our initial efforts to develop a word board, but we quickly discovered that such software was not designed for creating the kind of layout needed for the board. The original text of the word board was forwarded to the library’s graphics person. An outline of the purpose of the board and a list of words, phrases, and numbers were given to our graphics designer and, after much discussion, a board was developed using PageMaker software. PageMaker made it easy to manipulate the information and place it in the appropriate areas.

About the author

Denise A. Form is coordinator of assistive technology services at Michigan State University Libraries, e-mail:

Getting approval

When the mock-up copy of the word board was completed, the information desk staff re- viewed it and made comments and suggestions. Following this process, the word board mock- up was taken to other units to be presented at meetings and reactions were solicited. Finally, appropriate changes were made and additions were added to the original product.

As a final step in the solicitation of re- sponses, the staff person from the Accommo- dating Technology Committee reviewed the board. He carefully scrutinized the product and tested it thoroughly. After a very intense conversation using the library word board, he enthusiastically approved the board and ap- plauded the efforts of the library.

In developing the board, many things were taken into consideration. In order to make the word board use- ful to someone lacking manual dexterity, the size of the words needed to be large and the white space sufficient for accurate use.

Therefore the size of the board itself was an impor- tant consideration. It was determined that a ledger- sized tri-fold would be easy to reproduce in-house. The size was also considered to be manageable for both staff and patrons.

Figure 4.

The words used on the word board were selected because of their relevance to the li- brary and the needs of patrons in the library j (Figure 1). In addition, the most common Main Library locations were also represented as a list (Figure 2). As with most communication boards, an alphabet and numbers were also in- cluded in the final product (Figure 3).

With the assistance of the libraries’ pres- ervation staff, the pages were placed on a heavy card stock and laminated; hinges were made to join the three leaves together. A map of the campus was attached to one out- side leaf, while a mock white board for writ- ing messages was affixed to the other blank surface (Figure 4).

To communicate with pa- trons who exhibit mobility and speech disabilities, the staff person lays the board out on a surface and invites the patron to signal by hand mo- tions the words or letters that depict what he or she wants to communicate. If the patron is unable to gesture to the ap- propriate words or letters, the staff person points to the vari- ous symbols until the patron indicates that the selection is appropriate. Staff are then able to respond and direct the patron as necessary. This proves to be an effective com- munication tool and resource for staff.

Multiple copies of the word board have been created and distributed. Although not heavily used, when the board is employed both the patron and the staff involved agree that it facilitates communication efforts and contributes to successful interactions.

While technology has been a boon to persons with disabilities, after working with this project and determining its effectiveness in serving patrons with mobility and speech impairments, it is apparent that a low-tech approach has definite benefits.


  1. United Cerebral Palsy Associations of New York State. Rochester-LeRoy Area Study Group. Aphonic Communication For Those With Cerebral Palsy. New York: United Cerebral Palsy Associations of New York State, 1967. ■
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