Libraries lead the way providing tools for visually impaired students

16 Nov 2011
EIFL-sponsored project nominated for prestigious UN award

According to the World Health Organization, across the world, there are 285 million visually impaired persons (VIP); 90% of them are living in developing countries. 

The librarians at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) wanted to better serve the students with visual impairments at their university. In collaboration with the EIFL-FOSS programme, they formed a partnership with UZ’s Disability Resource Centre (DRC) to implement real solutions resulting in increased access to online resources for the UZ’s students with disabilities. Their success was recognized by the Zimbabwe Ministry of Public Affairs, and the project has been nominated for a UN award. 

Students learn about access tools during new student orientation week (30 August 2011)

The University of Zimbabwe, located in the country’s capital city of Harare, is the oldest and largest university in Zimbabwe, with ten faculties offering a wide range of degrees. 

As a key contributor to the university’s success, the University of Zimbabwe Library has fully embraced information communication technologies (ICT) to maximize access to information resources in support of teaching, learning and research. The UZ library provides an online catalogue, electronic theses and dissertations, and a wealth of other e-resources including e-journals and e-books. 

When it came to providing online resources to the 23 visually impaired students currently at the university, however, access remained a challenge that the UZ librarians wanted to address more fully.

They had been using a limited number of commercial tools for the visually impaired at the University. Since these software tools were proprietary, they could not be shared widely due to the prohibitive costs.  

When the UZ librarians learned about the EIFL call for proposals in November 2010 to implement FOSS solutions in their libraries, they submitted a proposal which focused on the implementation of two tools, the Virtual Magnifying Glass, and a text-to-speech tool called Balabolka, to aid students with visual impairments. 

Virtual Magnifying Glass. A screen magnification tool that allows users to simply place a virtual magnifier over any item on the screen to enlarge it. The user can determine the shape and size of the magnified area and the strength of the magnification, using either the mouse or the keyboard. 

Balabolka. A text-to-speech tool that reads text aloud from the screen to aid people who have difficulties in reading, whether due to vision impairments or other reading difficulties (including dyslexia). 

Early on in the project the core UZ Library team attended free, online training offered by EIFL on how to implement and use the visual disability tools. Then, those who attended, in turn conducted training for the rest of their library staff. 

In addition, EIFL-FOSS programme manager, Simon Ball, with support from JISC TechDis (a UK advisory service providing advice and guidance on accessibility and technology), supplied USB sticks with AccessApps, a suite of over 60 free and open source software, to support writing and reading as well as specific visual and reading disabilities. These tools have also been loaded onto computers in the library thereby giving the visually impaired students another place to study and feel welcome. They were also uploaded onto students’ laptops. 

The project at the UZ Library was led by Agnes Chikonzo, Librarian, along with Yeukai Chimuka, Head of Reader Services. When asked what was the most rewarding aspect about this project, Ms. Chimuka said, “it is extremely gratifying to be able to help the visually impaired students who before did not even come into the library and now they are in the library and are able to use the online resources.” 

When asked about their experience with the tools the students were quick to point out the benefits. For example one student pursuing a Bachelor of Administration expressed his appreciation of the library staff’s efforts, "I am now able to read for myself because of the virtual magnifying glass, thanks to you." 

Another was grateful to have these tools, "I now enjoy my studies just like any other student. I no longer feel segregated."

Also a lecturer in the department of Adult Education, who is visually impaired due to complications with diabetes, was introduced to the tools; after using the virtual magnifying glass he said "Ah!! Now I can read my document without problems."

Spreading the word

In order to let people know these tools were available for visually impaired students, the UZ librarians needed to get the word out about these new tools. Starting with their own campus, they contacted UZ’s Disability Resource Centre (DRC) where the staff was immediately impressed with the wide variety of tools; they installed them on computers in their computer lab. 

The project was also presented to key stakeholders already working with the visually impaired, including Dean of Students at the University of Zimbabwe, the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Dorothy Duncan Library for the Blind in Harare, Zimbabwe Rural Libraries Development Programme, and the Albino Association of Zimbabwe.

In addition, the project was fully embraced by the university administration, which shared information about the project at the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair (ZITF) in May 2011. 

From there, the program gained the attention of the Zimbabwe Ministry of Public Affairs who selected this project out of 32 to present in Tanzania at the United Nations & Africa Public Service Day in June 2011. 

This event, designed to celebrate the ‘value and virtue of service to the community,’ also recognizes excellence in public service through its United Nations public service award for which the UZ library project has been nominated. 

In addition, the event proved to be another key stepping stone, as numerous organizations showed interest in the innovative project, including the Kenya Global Development Learning Center, Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology and Tanzania’s Ministry of Information and Culture.

Future growth of the initiative

Moving forward, the UZ librarians want to ensure that these tools become even more widely available. With the assistance of the DRC, the UZ team has been able to identify other organisations that may need access to these tools. Now, The UZ team, in partnership with EIFL, plans to offer training to these identified organisations within Zimbabwe and, resources permitting, to other countries as well. 

Indeed, at least one key element of the program is already having an impact across a wider range of African libraries. At a recent EIFL-FOSS regional seminar in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which was attended by library directors and technical staff from across Africa, Ms. Chimuka presented the UZ project. There was a great deal of interest, and EIFL provided each participant with a USB drive containing the full suite of access tools to take back to their countries. This sharing of information and technology clearly demonstrated one of the main benefits of FOSS, which is that you can reap significant benefits because you can share the software amongst libraries.


The EIFL-FOSS programme advocates for the use of free and open source software (FOSS) in libraries in developing and transition countries. Learn more 

PDF version

November 2011