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65th IFLA Council and General


Bangkok, Thailand, August 20 - August 28, 1999

Support services for students in higher education the Austrian way

Graz / Austria


The author describes an initiative of several Austrian Universities establishing a "Joint Institute for the use of information-technologies to support visually impaired students". The tasks of this institute were developed using experiences made during TESTLAB (Testing Systems using Telematics for Library Access for Blind and visually handicapped readers, 1996-1998) an EC funded telematics project and the initiatives of the department "Computer science for blind students" at the Institute for Applied Computer Science, University of Linz, Austria. The author provides detailed information about the tasks and organisation of this new institution.


Let me first introduce to you Austria:

Austria is a small country in the South of Central Europe, about 84.000 square kilometres (=32.000 square miles) and eight million residents, 98 % German speaking. Austria has borders with Germany, the Czech republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Live expectancy is about 73 years for male and about 80 years for female newborn. Employed persons have - by law - a vacation privilege of 5 weeks, 40 working hours per week are standard. Compulsory education was introduced in 1774. In 1998 more than 210.000 students were registered at 19 Universities.

Special schools for blind children exist since more than hundred years in Graz and Vienna. Systematic and institutional efforts for blind students started at the Johannes Kepler University Linz in 1991. An experimental department "Computer Science for blind students" was created at the institute for Applied Computer Science with the goals: improvement of university access for blind students - research and support. In 1993 the first work station for blind library users was installed at an Austrian Academic library at Karl-Franzens-University Library, Graz, run by a blind librarian. Beginning in 1996, during and because of the impact of the TESTLAB project, additional workstations for blind users were installed at another 6 University Libraries in Austria.

Some remarks about TESTLAB. The project, funded by the European Commission installed and/or improved the quality of adapted workstations or special services in five countries and eighteen libraries by giving access to catalogues, networks, databases and electronic documents. The goal of TESTLAB was to evaluate, install, improve and maintain adapted workstations in libraries for use by visually impaired readers. In Austria one goal was to train librarians and visually impaired users in accessing the catalogue and to get feedback in terms of a detailed evaluation. Visually handicapped users were taught how to access and search the on-line catalogue by means of adapted computer workstations in the university libraries. Another goal was the implementation of the Austrian Union Catalogue for Literature in Alternative Formats.

Have a look at:

Introduction and motivation

Collecting the experiences of TESTLAB in Austria, TESTLAB partners in other European countries and from national initiatives, the Universities Linz and Graz decided to propose the

"Interuniversitaeres Institut fuer Informationssysteme zur Unterstuetzung sehgeschaedigter Studierender" (Joint Institute for the use of information-technologies to support visually impaired students)

This institute will be funded by the Austrian ministery for Science and transport. Eight Austrian universities, already providing special services for visually impaired students (transcription services or at least adapted workstations) will join this institute. Besides offering library and transcription services in a more efficient and flexible way, it will enhance the situation of visually handicapped and blind students at universities (more possibilities to choose what and where to study). Research and development activities will be oriented towards practical problems. The often difficult transcription of graphics, tables, or mathematical formulae needs elaborated methods, trained staff and accompanying research efforts. The progress and the accelerated changes in the style and methods how information is represented indifferent disciplines asks for ongoing accompanying research and development. Contacts to publishers, authors and teachers can be more successful if a good organisational structure and secure document management can be presented. Special courses for visually impaired students (during the terms or during holidays) will be be integrated into the normal courses of studies. Courses highlighting important needs of visually impairted people can be integrated into several disciplines.


Providing equal access to common daily life is written down as task in the Austrian legislation. New information technologies give new chances for the integration of visually impaired students How will this joint institute work ?

Interuniversitary, because

  • of the number of the target group (actually about 150 visually impaired students)
  • existing shared ressources should be co-ordinated
  • contacts to publishers and authors should be co-ordinated
  • an electronic library for visually impaired must be established
  • austrianwide lectures should be given

interdisciplinary, because

  • main task is the adaptation of materials, methodology and didactics to alternative formats accessible for visually impaired students

Provide dual purpose of teaching and research, because

  • research is needed for the development of acessible information systems
  • the aim of integration and IT (information technology) for visually impaired must be transferred to the whole university
  • new methods of training of visually impaired people in the use of IT must be developed
  • a common basis for future co-operation between the faculties must result

"Joint Institute for the use of information-technologies to support visually impaired students".

1. Teaching

Methods of teaching are always closely connected to the specific methods of representation of information in different disciplines. Visual forms of transfer of information are widely used and accepted. To offer the visually impaired students disposing capacity in the chosen discipline non-visual form of representation must be found or developed. This cannot be achieved as marginal service but must be integrated in the methods of the discipline. Only scientific and methodological knowledge and co-operation can come up with existing problems and difficulties.

1.1 Support of integration in the class

Main task supporting visually impaired students is the transcription of study materials. To guarantee efficiency of budget and time, to guarantee high quality and to avoid double work at different universities the forthcoming strategies are chosenl:

1.1.1 Contact to students, survey on:

  • Who will join what lectures
  • Who will be the lecturer
  • What study materials will be used
  • When and how will these materials be available

Experiences show that the procedures connected with transcription should start at least two months in advance. High responsability of students is needed as well as support from the staff of the Joint Institute.

1.1.2 Contact to teachers

  • Discussion of visual and non-visual methods
  • Research and development of alternative methods
  • Discussion about the methods for exams

If the problem of appropiate access to information in special disciplines or lectures cannot be solved, staff members of the Joint Institute must contact the responsible persons to discuss alternatives or even organisational details of the curriculum. If possible generic solutions should be attained.

1.1.3 Analysis of study materials

  • Books
  • Scripts / papers
  • Foils
  • Blackboard concepts
  • Computerprograms
  • Electronic information media
  • Video and other

Size and quality of adapted study material must guarantee that the visually impaired students is enabled to pass examinations successfully. On the long term the quality of materials, provided for visually impaired students, must be improved.

1.1.4 Co-operation with authors and publishers

  • Contact with authors of books and papers
  • Skeleton agreements
  • Copyright agreements with authors and publishers
  • Co-ordinated information system

Co-operation with authors and publishers can give access to a version of papers or books that is the more easy to transcribe than others. Co-ordination and confidence can establish long term agreements.

Diagram of the publishing process is unavailable. Please contact author.

The diagram of the publishing process shows different possibilities to find the best version for transcription.

Burger, F., Miesenberger, K.: Secure Distribution System for Publications in Electronic Form, in: Klaus, J., Auff, E., Kremser,

W., Zagler, W. L. (Eds.): Interdisciplinary Aspects on Computers Helping People with Special Needs


Architecture for electronic document distribution
(Burger, F., Miesenberger, K.: Secure Distribution System for Publications in Electronic Form, in: Klaus, J., Auff, E., Kremser, W., Zagler, W. L. (Eds.): Interdisciplinary Aspects on Computers Helping People with Special Needs)

1.1.5 Transcription of materials

  • Producing materials
  • Typewriting materials
  • Scanning, OCR processing
  • Conversion of digital sources
  • Re-structuring of generic and complex structures
  • Textual description of nonconvertible information
  • Re-coding of nonconvertible methods
  • Results in Braille, large print or digital

The digital version is the favorite, because the others are to heavy and voluminous. The more intellectual work can be done by students, working and beeing payed as tutors. Ideally they themselves have already successfully finished the concrete course and have special knowledge about the content. For problems like mathematics, chemistry, statistics, wiring diagrams, musics, tabular bookkeeping, cost accounting solutions must be looked for worldwide or new codes must be developed.

1.1.6 Library, Mediatheque

  • Organisation of transcription
  • Studymaterials for internal use
  • Studymaterials for external use
  • Control and cataloguing
  • Secure document delivery
  • Overall information system
  • Evaluation of quality and accessibility

Librarianship is needed to catalogue and store the adapted study material for other users. Worldwide interlibrary loan will be the future of digital libraries for the blind.

1.2 Lectures of the Joint Institute

  • Information technologies for visually impaired persons
  • Information and orientation for newcomers
  • Generic information systems "design for all"
  • Social integration using technology
  • Integrated computeraided information transfer
  • Methodology of different disciplines
  • Discussion on visual and alternative teaching methods
  • Accessibility of media
  • Publishing and information transfer
  • Methods of transcription
  • Mediatheque - generic information storage

Target groups for the lectures are visually impaired students and sighted students as well. Interdisciplinary aspects of information science for the blind will be important contents.

2. Research

2.1 Access and representation of methods of different disciplines

Use of computers in almost all scientific disciplines is a new chance for the blind, as a matter of principle. The conversion of different codes is possible and highly developed in mathematics (LaTEX). Similar to mathematics, new methods will be developed for i.e. chemistry, statistics, wiring diagrams, musics, tabular bookkeeping, cost accounting, geography. Practical integration of visually impaired students in different sciences can stimulate co-operation in research and teaching in a new and fascinating way.

2.2 Information technologies for visually impaired people

Braille display, synthetic speech, Braille print, magnifier, etc must always be tested, evaluated and further developed. Basic research on man-machine-communication, the problems of GUI (graphical user interface) etc are important fields of reseach with implications on the computer use for all.

2.3 Generic information systems "design for all"

The ongoing fast development of new tools for electronic communication needs scientific positions to claim "Design for all" and "application for all". New norms and standards must take into consideration the needs of visually impaired people.

2.4 Information technologies for visually impaired people

Visual impairment causes special needs, some of them can be compensated by information technology. Research on i.e. systems for navigation in real environment can be done using systems of traffic control etc.

2.5 Social integration using technology

The need of awareness raising about the risk, creating "High-Tech-Ghettos" shows fields of co-operation with sociological and psychological research.

2.5 integrated computeraided teaching

Own projects are "mathematic for the blind" in co-operation with secondary schools. International computer camps for visually impaired kids are organized since 1993 with more than 100 participants from 16 countries.

3. Services

3.1 Preparatory support

Information days for pupils, study guidance and psychological support for newcomers have proved to be very helpful.

3.2 Opening and accompaying support

Organisation of mobility trainings, support to overcome bureaucracy, search for accomodation, network installation of private electronic equipment, organisation of meetings between teachers and students etc.

3.3 Transitional Support

One of the goals of studying is social integration. Employers very often are not free from bias. The Joint Institute organizes practical work in companies during the last period of college days.

4. Organization and administration

  • Co-ordination of the works done during transcription of study materials
  • Control of study material
  • Co-ordination of time schedules
  • Coordination meetings
  • Technical support of computers
  • Budgeting
  • Initialising, organizing and making partner of projects

Contact Address of the author:

Karl-Franzens-University Graz
Library - Dept for International projects
Universitaetsplatz 3
A-8010 Graz / AUSTRIA
Tel: +43 316 380 1415
Mobile: +43 699 17210747
Fax: +43 316 380 691415
E-mail: bruno.sperl@kfunigraz.ac.at


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