Library Services for Those with Disabilities:

Additional Steps Needed to Ease Access to Services and Modernize Technology

GAO-16-355: Published: Apr 4, 2016. Publicly Released: Apr 4, 2016.

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bertonid@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

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.

Why GAO Did This Study

NLS, within the Library of Congress (LOC), provides free audio and braille materials for U.S. citizens and residents who cannot read standard print due to visual and other disabilities. In fiscal year 2016, the NLS program received about $50 million in federal funds to provide these materials through a national network of libraries. The House report accompanying the fiscal year 2016 legislative branch appropriations bill included a provision for GAO to review NLS's users and the technology it employs to meet their needs.

GAO examined (1) the characteristics of NLS users and the steps NLS is taking to ensure eligible individuals' access and awareness, and (2) how NLS provides materials and the extent to which it is considering emerging trends in technology. GAO reviewed relevant federal laws and regulations, NLS documents, and administrative data; interviewed NLS officials, librarians from 8 of the 101 network libraries selected for geographic diversity and a range in the number of users, and officials from research and advocacy groups and assistive technology companies; and reviewed literature on NLS-eligible populations and trends in assistive technologies.

What GAO Recommends

Congress should consider authorizing NLS to provide its users devices for reading electronic braille files. In addition, GAO recommends that NLS re-examine its eligibility certification requirements, evaluate its outreach, and assess alternative approaches to delivering audio content. LOC generally agreed with these recommendations.

For more information, contact Daniel Bertoni at (202) 512-7215 or bertonid@gao.gov.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On July 29, 2016, Public Law 114-219 was enacted, which amends the authorizing statute for the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) to allow the agency to use federal funds for refreshable braille devices. Specifically, Public Law 114-219 strikes language in the authorizing statute that stated NLS may use federal funds only for the purchase, maintenance, and replacement of reproducers of sound recordings. In its place, Public Law 114-219 states that NLS may use federal funds for the purchase, maintenance, and replacement of reproducers for any format in which it provides reading materials. Since NLS provides electronic braille files as one possible format for its users, under the amended authorizing statute NLS may use federal funds for refreshable braille devices that are needed to read electronic braille files.

    Matter: To give NLS the opportunity to provide braille in a modernized format and potentially achieve cost savings, Congress should consider amending the law to allow the agency to use federal funds to provide its users playback equipment for electronic braille files (i.e., refreshable braille devices).

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: The Library of Congress indicated that the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) has contracted for a study of how eligibility based on reading disability should be certified. This study will look at medical advances in the diagnosis of reading disabilities, the NLS authorizing statute, and the potential impact of a regulatory change on the program. The expected completion date is December 2017. To close this recommendation, the Library of Congress must demonstrate that this study has been completed and that NLS has determined whether a change in its requirements is warranted.

    Recommendation: To ensure that it provides all eligible populations access to its services and that its eligibility requirements are consistent with currently accepted practices, the Library of Congress should re-examine and potentially revise its requirement that medical doctors must certify eligibility for the NLS program for those with a reading disability caused by organic dysfunction.

    Agency Affected: Library of Congress

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: The Library of Congress indicated that the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) has begun revising the program application form so that it captures information on how applicants were referred to the program. NLS expects to have all libraries nationwide using this revised application by sometime in 2018. In addition, the Library of Congress indicated that NLS has contracted for a multi-year, multi-media advertising campaign. This effort will assess the effectiveness of different approaches by connecting direct responses to ads with verified program enrollment. The campaign is expected to be fully underway by January 2018. To close this recommendation, the Library of Congress will need to demonstrate that NLS has fully implemented one or more of its planned new approaches for evaluating outreach.

    Recommendation: To ensure funds are directed to the most cost-effective outreach efforts, NLS should evaluate the effectiveness of its outreach efforts, including the extent to which different outreach efforts have resulted in new users.

    Agency Affected: Library of Congress: National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: The Library of Congress indicated that the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) has contracted for a study of the different commercially available audio players for their usability, life-cycle costs, maintenance needs, and durability. The study is expected to be completed by December 2017, and will guide NLS in its decision about how to develop its next generation of audio players. To close this recommendation as implemented, the Library of Congress will have to demonstrate that this study has been conducted and that NLS has considered its findings in making a decision about its next generation audio player.

    Recommendation: To help it determine the most cost-effective approach for its next audio player, NLS should comprehensively assess the alternatives of designing its own specialized audio player versus providing commercially available players to its users.

    Agency Affected: Library of Congress: National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: The Library of Congress indicated that the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) has developed a library of 100 text-to-speech (synthetic speech) talking books. In September 2017, NLS will begin a 3-month pilot in which a group of NLS users try out these talking books and provide input to NLS. Also, NLS will require that its next generation of audio players have the capacity to play synthetic speech talking books, and the study it has contracted of commercially available players will consider this requirement among other factors. To close this recommendation as implemented, NLS needs to demonstrate that it has completed its text-to-speech pilot and has decided on an approach going forward with regards to expanding this program.

    Recommendation: To help it determine whether to supplement its collection of human-narrated audio materials with text-to-speech materials, NLS should thoroughly assess the text-to-speech option versus continuing to provide only human-narrated materials.

    Agency Affected: Library of Congress: National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped

 

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