The new GAO Report: Library Services for Those with Disabilities: Additional Steps Needed to Ease Access to Services and Modernize Technology was made available online today.
From the Findings:
The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) is primarily used by older adults with visual disabilities, and NLS has taken some steps to ensure eligible users’ access to and awareness of available services. In fiscal year 2014, about 70 percent of the program’s 430,000 users were age 60 and older and almost 85 percent had visual disabilities, according to the most recent NLS data available at the time of GAO’s review.
Federal regulations establish eligibility for NLS services for people with a range of disabilities. However, medical doctors must certify eligibility for people with reading disabilities such as dyslexia, which is not required for those with visual or physical disabilities. According to officials from network libraries and other stakeholder groups, the requirement for a doctor’s certification is an obstacle to accessing services because of additional steps and costs to the individual. These officials and stakeholders said other professionals, such as special education teachers, are also positioned to certify eligibility for applicants with reading disabilities.
GAO has previously noted the importance of disability programs keeping pace with scientific and medical advances. However, the certification requirement has remained largely unchanged for more than 40 years. NLS has taken steps to inform eligible groups about its services, such as partnering with other organizations that serve these groups, developing a new website, and distributing an outreach toolkit to network libraries.
However, NLS has no plans to evaluate which outreach efforts have resulted in new users in order to ensure resources are used effectively—a key practice identified previously by GAO.
NLS offers materials to its users in a range of formats, but its efforts to adopt new, potentially cost-saving technologies are hampered by limitations in both its statutory authority and its analyses of alternatives. Users may choose to receive, through the mail, audio materials on digital cartridges or hard copy braille documents. Users may also choose to download audio and braille files from an NLS-supported website. During fiscal year 2014, 86 percent of users chose to receive audio materials on digital cartridges, according to NLS data. NLS officials said they would like to provide users with devices for reading electronic braille files, a faster and less bulky approach than braille documents, and per the agency’s July 2015 analysis, could become more cost effective with technological advances.
However, federal statute does not authorize NLS to use program funds to acquire and provide braille devices as it does for audio devices, which prevents the agency from taking advantage of technology that has the potential to reduce costs. NLS is also examining new technologies for audio materials but has not fully assessed available alternatives. For example, NLS is considering supplementing its collection of human-narrated audio materials with text-to-speech (i.e., synthetic speech) materials, which some evidence suggests could be produced more quickly and at a lower cost. However, NLS has not comprehensively compared the text-to-speech option to its current approach in order to make a decision on whether to move forward, as called for by GAO best practices for alternatives analysis. Without this analysis, NLS may miss an opportunity to meet its users’ needs more efficiently and cost effectively.