Libraries play a fundamental role in society. The resources and services they offer create opportunities for learning, support literacy and education, and help shape the new ideas and perspectives that are central to a creative and innovative society. Libraries represent different things to different people--from a place where mothers can take toddlers to read their first stories and students can study, to a service allowing anyone to borrow a book, access the Internet or do research. Quite simply, libraries offer a means by which we can gain access to knowledge. (Ben White, 2012). Information is essential to all human beings and every library's aim is to provide the right information at the right time and in the right format to its patrons regardless of race, religion, age, sex, nationality and language. This core function includes the provision of information to people with disabilities. International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in the Public Library Manifesto (1994) emphasize that; every library must provide proper services for those who do not have easy access to them, such as the mentally and physically disabled, the ill and the imprisoned.
"Disability is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations." (World Health Organization). More than 1 billion persons in the world have some form of disability. This corresponds to about 15% of the world's population. 'Visually impaired' is a general term used to describe people who are partially-sighted or completely blind. There are about 314 million visually impaired people globally with 45 million totally blind. India is home of 26,810,557 (26.8 millions) disabled persons which constitutes 2.21% of total population of the country. 5 million persons are visually impaired (disability in seeing) sharing 18.8% of total disabled persons in the country. (Census of India, 2011)
BARRIERS FOR VISUALLY IMPAIRED PERSONS
All over the world people with visual impairments has to face numerous difficulties as they seek to assert their position in a modern, complex and competitive world dominated by able-bodied individuals. People with disabilities are often excluded from social activities and are not treated in the same way as their able-bodied equals. The fact is that, in one way or another, their physical state means that they live a life that is perceived to be different from that of able-bodied people (Ochoggia 2003). Mandesi (2007) adds that people with disabilities face numerous challenges to access opportunities equal to those enjoyed by their peers in day-to-day life. Environmental, physical, legal and institutional barriers are found throughout society, and negative attitudes to persons with disabilities often cause social exclusion and are the hardest to overcome. Mandesi further insists that, for people with disabilities to be treated equally, physical barriers to accessing resources need to be removed and attitudes to be changed.
THE NATIONAL CONCERN
Government of India, Ministry of Human Resource Development, Department of Education (2005) in its 'Action Plan for Inclusive Education of Children and Youth with Disabilities' has mentioned its goal as "Recognizing Education for All children as a fundamental right, to ensure the inclusion of children and youth with disabilities in all available mainstream educational settings, by providing them with learning environment that is available, accessible, affordable and appropriate to help develop their learning and abilities."
Developed countries like USA, Canada, UK and many European nations have started their initiatives to facilitate the persons with disabilities (PWD) much before. Most of the universities and institutes in these countries are providing access to information to the disabled persons by way of enacting the law, by formulating the national policies and funding the libraries and information centres. They have state-of the- art technologies to assist in the information access. All such institutes' have disabled person friendly infrastructure, information communication tools, facilities and services, trained man-power. The government departments, institutes, libraries, corporate houses, foundations and NGOs have disability friendly websites and portals.
India is not left far behind in empowering its disabled citizenry. It has provided all possible support to the persons with disabilities either by enacting a special Act, or by executing a 'National Policy for Persons with Disabilities', or by way of providing reservations in education, employment, government schemes and programmes or establishing institutes and organizations and many more. In addition to the legal framework, extensive infrastructure has been developed including the 'National Institute of Visually Handicapped, Dehradun'. The Government of India has enacted three legislations for persons with disabilities viz.
(i) Persons with Disability (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, which provides for education, employment, creation of barrier free environment, social security, etc.
(ii) National Trust for Welfare of Persons with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Mental Retardation and Multiple Disability Act, 1999 has provisions for legal guardianship of the four categories and creation of enabling environment for as much independent living as possible.
(iii) Rehabilitation Council of India Act, 1992 deals with the development of manpower for providing rehabilitation services (MSJE 2009).
Moreover in the higher education sector, the University Grants Commission (UGC) is supporting universities and colleges in the country to involve in special education activities to empower differently-abled persons. The UGC had started the scheme of assistance to universities/colleges for Higher Education for Persons with Special Needs (Differently-abled Persons) (HEPSN).
INFORMATION NEEDS OF BLIND AND VISUALLY IMPAIRED PEOPLE
Not much is known about the information seeking behavior of blind people; the information needs of blind people have been studied by Williamson, Schauder, and Bow (2000). Most of the needs were similar to other people's needs, with some exceptions. The participants of the study sought information related to their visual disabilities, and how to get around in normal life situations. Other needs were health, income and finance, recreation (including listening to talking books), government, consumer, travel, and employment information. In terms of how the participants got their needs met, much depended on whether the person lived alone or with someone else such as a spouse, family member, and caretaker. Those with the most in- home support did not need as much outside help. Those living alone relied more on friends, relatives, and agencies. Family and friends were the most often used source of information, while radio was also mentioned as important (Williamson et. al., 2000).
The researchers found much excitement about the Internet from the participants. Other studies show that blind people who are able to use the Internet feel a sense of...