Presentation: Working with Users of Perceptual Disabilities At a Distance

I actually recently presented this as part of an interview, and thought it had enough new material (and not just repeating my web accessibility posts/presentations) to warrant posting it.

To give you a bit of context, the goal of the presentation was to train staff, who have no prior experience working with persons with disabilities, to provide assistance to users with “perceptual disabilities at a distance”, that is virtually or remotely. Much like the users they would serve, I also made the assumption that staff technical expertise may vary as well.



In 10 minutes, there is no way for me to cover everything, but this will hopefully give you an introduction to working with users with disabilities at a distance.

A Definition & Types of Disabilities

First, what are perceptual disabilities? In Canada, the definition we use typically comes from the Copyright Act of Canada since it has such a direct effect on what accommodations we can provide to our users. The Act provides this definition:

perceptual disability means a disability that prevents or inhibits a person from reading or hearing a […] work in its original format, and includes such a disability resulting from
(a) severe or total impairment of sight or hearing or the inability to focus or move one’s eyes,
(b) the inability to hold or manipulate a book, or
(c) an impairment relating to comprehension;

But what does that really mean? Basically, the definition covers many different types of disabilities.

  • visual: other than blindness, this might also refer to people who have difficulty with judging distances and hand-eye coordination
  • auditory: other than deafness, this might also refer to people who have difficulty focusing on a single voice – for example if there is a lot of background noise, it makes it difficult for me to hear what a person is saying
  • physical/motor: while paralysis is commonly thought of, the Copyright Act refers to the problem of holding or using a book, so not being able to grip something or problems with precise movements are included here
  • touch: namely this refers to a lack of sensation with touch, so you can imagine something like braille would not work
  • learning: is a rather large umbrella term, but include dyslexia and other reading disabilities; when interacting with users, you may also encounter dysphasia, that is writing disabilities

Keep in Mind

The most important thing is that you keep in mind that the person you’re interacting with might be pretty typical,  but might be using one of many different types of devices,  in possibly an atypical setup,  might not be using a mouse,  or anything like a mouse,  maybe only a keyboard, because without the ability to see the person,  you might never know how that user is interacting with you. As an aside, I have actually had the experience where a cat sent an email to someone.

Let’s take a more specific example. Assuming that a person can see, there are numerous ways someone might view the same thing.  Take the Langara Library website for example. They might be looking at the same thing as you,  or magnified at 200% zoom,  or with partial colourblindness,  or text only,  or nothing at all. Instead, they might hear the website.

Assistive Technologies

This leads us to technologies that are typically used:

  • a magnifier allows someone to zoom into a specific area of a screen, rather than having to change the zoom for the whole screen or program
  • text to speech software is normally used to read books and other textual documents out loud, frequently used by those with learning disabilities, just one example is TextAloud.
  • screen readers are a little different as they try to interpret what’s on that screen, which includes images and links, similar to what I showed you in the previous slide, so they are usually used by those with low vision. Possibly the most common one is JAWS.
  • While not specifically for those with disabilities, media players are also frequently used mostly for audio files, such as your standard iTunes.
  • DAISY actually refers to a specific type of audio file, which is essentially a fully featured audiobook so that users can search, bookmark, jump from line to line, just like you would expect with an ebook.
  • While most of the technologies I’ve mentioned are for visual impairment, TTY or TDD is used when a deaf person calls in on the phone. As you talk, a facilitator is typing your words for your user to read.

While I’m giving you examples, don’t worry that you don’t know how to use them. JAWS for example requires special training. The idea here is to make you aware that these exist so if you hear mention of them, you have a general idea of what they’re for. The point is that the technologies that users might use are even more varied than the types of disabilities.

When Doing Research Help

Now, let’s talk about how this might apply to you when you’re helping with users at a distance.

Say that you’re helping a user with a little bit of research. I’ve touched on this already, but the main thing is to keep in mind is that…

  • you’re not always looking at the same thing your user is looking at.
  • Try to use the exact words you see on the screen when referring to something.
  • Avoid using any library type jargon. People outside of the library don’t even necessarily know what the catalogue refers to, and using simple language benefits those with learning disabilities as well as the flow of readers when reading text, since abbreviations for example would be read one letter at a time.
  • Be clear and concise – this is particularly important when talking to someone over the phone that is using a teletype service where someone is typing your words out to your user, or even through email where a text or screen reader has to read every word out loud to your user.

When asking a user to search for something, whether on the catalogue, a database, or any other website (particularly if you think they’re struggling), ask them if they think they’d prefer the mobile version. The mobile version of any site is usually simpler and can help the user focus on what they really need


Now, say you’ve found some material a user is interested in. There are a number of formats that may be available:

  • Text, typically in txt or doc
  • PDF: the difficulty with PDF is that, it’s an image. Most PDFs now are made with text overlay, easily allowing a machine to read it. However, some PDFs, especially older ones, may not have text associated with it, in which case, the PDF would need to be put through a text recognition software, usually referred to as OCR
  • eBook: there are a lot of different ebook formats. The most common of which are epub and mobi.
  • Audio: mp3, DAISY as mentioned earlier

Your user will be able to tell you which format they prefer, just be aware that even with the advent of technology, users don’t always want an electronic version or the material delivered to them electronically.

So they might want:

  • large print
  • tactile graphics
  • braille

In some cases, you may never know you are interacting with someone with a disability, but if you do know ahead of time, you can simply ask what kind of accommodations they need.

The Most Important Thing

Honestly, the most important thing to do is to listen and be open-minded, patient, and friendly much like when you provide help to any other user.

Ask for Help

If you need help, you might talk to or refer students to the student disability services or CILS, depending on what is needed.

Author: Cynthia

Technologist, Librarian, Metadata and Technical Services expert, Educator, Mentor, Web Developer, UXer, Accessibility Advocate, Documentarian

Leave a Comment

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: