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Libraries upgrading for visually impaired

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE, ET edition of TAMPA & STATE)

With most public libraries already offering computer use to meet the needs of a changing society, the challenge now is to make those services available to the visually impaired.

Some area libraries are meeting the challenge head on.

The Greater Clearwater Public Library Foundation is working to raise money for a work station that accommodates disabled people. It would cost $10,000 for a computer and software and hardware that allows people to type and print copies using Braille. The computer would sit in a wheelchair-accessible corral and show large-print text for people who have trouble seeing.

The foundation hopes to raise the money by the spring through grants and donations. If it succeeds, Clearwater would be one of few libraries to offer such services, said Juliet Lewis, executive director for the foundation.

Largo Library is looking into using a $10,000 donation to buy new software. The software would make it possible for the sight impaired to read e-mail or enlarge words and graphics on computer screens, said executive director Barbara Murphy.

"All of us are trying to make a major effort," said Barbara Murphy, director for Largo Library.

At the Tarpon Springs Public Library, one of 19 computers available for public access is equipped with a larger monitor coupled with large-print text. That makes it possible for the sight impaired to access e-mail and surf the Internet, said library director Elizabeth O'Brien.

O'Brien said that this year the library plans to purchase equipment that would allow people to type and print copies using Braille.

"All of the libraries are always looking for the best way today, which may not be the best way tomorrow, to make sure everyone is served," O'Brien said.

St. Petersburg is also looking at ways to enhance service. Administrators there are working to get a computer work station for the visually impaired.

Peter Reuter, 75, who started experiencing low vision about 12 years ago, would benefit from the services.

He said he wanted to take an Internet class at one area library recently. But when he showed up for the session, he was unable to follow along with the instruction because the computer screen was light and the type was another color. "That's not enough of a contrast," he said.

Reuter said he needs a dark screen with white letters to see clearly.

And he is not alone. "Unfortunately there are a large number of people in this area who are visually impaired," Murphy said.

Most libraries already have books on audio tapes and collections with large print. Some have magnifiers to enlarge lettering, among other forms of equipment.

The Talking Book Library has more advanced equipment.

The Americans with Disabilities Act sets no hard-core checklist of the ways that libraries must cater to the needs of people who have trouble seeing, said Greg Carlson, a librarian at the Talking Book Library.

Libraries nationwide are looking to better themselves for the visually impaired. "It's happening incrementally all around the country," Carlson said.

Local libraries are in step, although the technology that Largo and Clearwater libraries are looking into is not the newest around. Most libraries already provide the basics, such as books with large print and books on audio tapes. Often, librarians refer people to the Talking Book Library or mail books and other materials to the homes of impaired people.

Reuter, who sits on an advisory committee for the Talking Book Library, had some suggestions on ways public libraries could better suit people like him.

Color-coded stripes on the floor could lead patrons to different areas of the library. For instance, people could follow the yellow stripes to get to the history section and red for the fiction.

"That would help low-vision people get to the area of the library where they wanted to go," Reuter said.

Also, libraries could use special florescent lights that help people to see and read more clearly, Reuter said.