Adaptive Technologies for the Visually Impaired in the Law Library

This submission is part of a column swap with the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) bimonthly member magazine, AALL Spectrum. Published six times a year, AALL Spectrum is designed to further professional development and education within the legal information industry. Slaw and the AALL Spectrum board have agreed to hand-select several columns each year as part of this exchange. 

When I was first asked to write an article on technology for the visually impaired and its role in legal research, I confess that a small part of me flinched inside. I wondered what I could say that would not be flavored with cynicism. As a law librarian and professor who has dedicated hundreds of hours over the past several years working directly with the visually impaired and floundered with clunky legal research tools and technology, I have gotten used to more pain than gain, to more struggle than support, and perhaps that has jaded me. However, the reality is that without adaptive screen reader technology, this conversation would be moot. The undeniable truth is that technology has empowered visually impaired legal researchers to conduct legal research competitively, competently, and just as reliably as their sighted counterparts, without needing to rely on outside human assistance.

Haben Girma, the acclaimed Harvard Law graduate who was born both deaf and blind, described the law school environment in her memoir as, “[…] a sighted, hearing classroom, in a sighted, hearing school, in a sighted, hearing society.” Her description aptly (and inadvertently) includes the classic law library and its contents. Traveling back to the time before the internet, before hard drives, floppy discs, computers, typewriters, and so on, legal research grew both conceptually and practically more challenging at a staggering rate. Trying to conceive of waiting weeks or months for news of court rulings and statutory changes is mind-boggling in a day and age when such information is available at a researcher’s fingertips, often within moments of its inception. Trying to conceptualize the additional challenge of muddling through such research with a visual impairment is simply incomprehensible.

I belabor this point just one week after having had the honor to act as a character reference on a bar application for a former student who is fully blind. Without adaptive technology, I would never have had the privilege of teaching him because he would not have considered law school. Like so many things noted by Ms. Girma, legal research was never intended for a blind or visually impaired audience. Today, as law librarians, it is imperative to remember that while law and legal research technologies must be our primary focus, we also have a duty to keep abreast of evolving and emerging technologies that provide access to legal information and legal research assistance for those with disabilities such as visual impairments.

The Freedom of Screen Reading

Today, the average holder of a preschool diploma recognizes the robotic voices of Siri, Alexa, and a multitude of other virtual assistants as just that—talking technology. However, within the confines of the virtual law library, a technology known as a screen reader has radically changed the very concept of how visually impaired individuals can competitively attend law school and become practicing attorneys. Visually impaired and blind attorneys are still rare, which naturally means many law librarians may not have heard of, much less used, adaptive “talking” technology such as professional screen readers. As this technology continues to grow and improve, law librarians need to adapt as well.

For matters of simplicity, this article focuses on Job Access With Speech, a Freedom Scientific professional screen reader affectionately known as JAWS. Understanding the fundamentals and recognizing the mere existence of the complexities of a screen reader like JAWS is essential for law librarians, because for some patrons, screen reader technology is necessary for accessing the information

for which law librarians have so long been gatekeepers. For my student, JAWS meant being able to quickly and easily access a case and immediately focus on the law, instead of having to leaf through hundreds of pages of Braille or find a sighted reader as a means of bringing the law to life. But what is a screen reader, really?

Unsurprisingly, a screen reader is a technology that reads the screen of the computer monitor in several different ways. Think of JAWS as outward-facing technology, working from within the computer to communicate with the people outside. A sighted researcher may rely on arrow keys, a mouse, or a touch screen to scroll through any given web page; essentially, a sighted reader works outside the computer to access the information on the screen. Contrastingly, JAWS reads the entire webpage, including words above or below those visually displayed on the computer monitor, which is an important distinction that can be challenging for those unfamiliar with screen readers. JAWS mentions URLs in passing, may read lists without any acknowledgment that the words visually appear as lists, occasionally reads every punctuation mark (a real treat when looking at case citations), and can in most ways be both breathtakingly and maddeningly detailed, often dependent on the skills of the programmer who coded and tagged the material being read.

As databases such as Lexis+ and Westlaw Edge continually change their visual organization of information and adopt new research options, JAWS continues to work first and foremost on connecting its users with the most important information on the web page. The sighted researcher has the natural advantage of flitting their eyes across a web page, perhaps being drawn to certain areas by bright or bolded words and phrases or familiar formatting, like that used in citing to a case. While JAWS may not have that capability, it can, and generally does, focus on reading larger areas of text before the minutiae. A JAWS user is not subjected to a recounting of the complete list of filters on West or Lexis before listening to the list of cases, despite the filters appearing visually to the left of the case list. This can be extremely beneficial in finding the content on a busy web page.

Screen Reader Limitations

However, even the best screen readers have limitations. Absorbing the most important content on a web page first is always ideal, but JAWS has no way of knowing what the most important content truly is. For example, a successful search may return five cases, and by beginning to read the screen with that list of cases, JAWS has done what most benefits its user. Contrastingly, a less successful search may return 500 cases, and the user certainly would not want to start with listening to that list. In that instance, filters would be a more beneficial place to begin. The more complicated the research tool, the greater the likelihood of encountering limitations, and being cognizant of the likelihood of pitfalls is imperative for law librarians relying on screen reader technology in assisting patrons.

Regardless of their limitations, there is absolutely no question that screen readers have brought legal research to the visually impaired. JAWS and its brethren have fast become essential technology for these legal researchers. At a minimum,

law librarians owe their patrons the most basic understanding of what a screen reader is, and even better, some training to learn what it can do.


Rena Seidler

Research and Instructional Services Librarian &
Adjunct Lecturer in Law

Indiana University McKinney School of Law
Ruth Lilly Law Library
Indianapolis, IN

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