Uncovering Library Challenges Within Accessibility at ALA Midwinter 2019

Library Resources | Emma Waecker| February 19, 2019

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EBSCO Senior Agile Product Manager Emma Waecker recaps the Universal Accessibility Interest Group (UAIG) session at ALA Midwinter, and accessibility challenges librarians face.

In January, the American Library Association (ALA) convened in Seattle for its annual ALA Midwinter Meeting. One of the meetings I attended was the Universal Accessibility Interest Group (UAIG). UAIG is an interest group under the umbrella of the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) and its charter is to connect members from various parts of the library industry to discuss accessibility challenges and collaborate on solutions for accessibility issues that members are experiencing.

At this Midwinter UAIG meeting, attendees raised three primary challenges. The first of these challenges was that many librarians don’t have formal experience using assistive technologies like screen readers, text-to-speech tools, screen magnifiers, and voice recognition software, but they often serve as the front line to support users who rely on these tools to use their library’s resources. As one librarian noted, this isn’t included in many library school curricula, so librarians end up learning about these tools on the job, and often without any kind of structured training. Depending on the institution, there may be other groups familiar with assistive technology who can provide support to the user and library staff, such as the disability services office, IT, or ADA coordinators, but this is unique to each institution. As a result, many librarians develop a skill set with assistive technology on their own, gained while supporting patrons, which puts them in a unique position as the accessibility “expert” or champion on campus.

Librarians in the session shared strategies for expanding the accessibility mindset beyond the experts at the library. Some options included creating training guides for common assistive technologies like JAWS, so additional staff members can become familiar with the tools. Librarians also ran workshops on universal design and accessibility with library staff, so they can incorporate those principles into their library’s websites and library-created materials, others established cross-functional accessibility teams at their institutions with representatives from the library, IT, tutoring, faculty, and disability services, and senior stakeholders to discuss and tackle accessibility issues in a holistic manner.

The first of these challenges was that many librarians don’t have formal experience using assistive technologies like screen readers, text-to-speech tools, screen magnifiers, and voice recognition software, but they often serve as the front line to support users who rely on these tools to use their library’s resources.

The idea of that cross-functional accessibility team touches on the second major challenge raised at the session — there are so many groups at a given institution that play a role in accessibility, it’s hard to know how their various efforts fit together. For example, one attendee mentioned that while the library focuses on supporting their students’ accessibility needs in partnership with their disability services group, the faculty members they work with who have accessibility needs aren’t supported by disability services; that responsibility falls to Human Resources and the level of support differs significantly. Another librarian mentioned that their IT department had almost no experience with assistive technology, so if any student, faculty, or staff member at their college needed help with assistive technology for any reason, the library is tapped to assist. A few librarians mentioned a desire to install certain assistive software on every computer in their library by acquiring “site licenses” rather than acquiring a few licenses which would limit installation to a few computers in specific assistive technology rooms but ran into roadblocks when working with their IT departments and stakeholders for budget approval.  Another librarian raised the different levels of accessibility support available at the library versus the tutoring center, though both can be affiliated with the library and are geared toward ensuring student success.

The final topic that resonated with the group was the creation and maintenance of assistive technology spaces at their institution. Some institutions have an assistive technology room embedded in the library, while others are located elsewhere. Managing what belongs in an assistive technology room is a significant undertaking: many considerations must be made about how accessible the physical space itself is, from acquiring furniture which can be adjusted up and down, to ensuring the technologies can be easily moved for optimal use within the space (for example, installing computer monitors on adjustable arms).

Keeping the technology in the room current also requires a great amount of thought and analysis, and partnership with other groups — what kind of technology should be acquired, what kind of user licensing? Will the assistive technologies in the library support the user experiences for the digital products we have access to? How can software like Dragon Naturally Speaking, which requires personalization, be managed on shared computers so it supports each user as expected but doesn’t expose personal information? Finally, determining who should be able to use the assistive technology space raises its own challenges — should an assistive technology room only be available to users who have self-declared as having a disability, or be open to all? Should the room be open at all hours, or is it necessary to limit access for safety reasons?

The UAIG session drove a thoughtful dialogue around the role of the library in providing accessibility accommodations, and though more questions were raised than answered, open and honest discussion about each library’s experience makes it clear that most issues are universal, and that the industry can learn a great deal from even a single library’s solution to a common problem.

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Emma Waecker
Senior Product Manager, EBSCO eBooks

Emma Waecker has worked at EBSCO Information Services for 10 years, with exclusive focus on the promise and challenges of providing e-books to library patrons for the last seven years. Her most recent focus as Senior Product Manager, EBSCO eBooks, has been the user interface and user experience, with a significant focus on designing for accessibility and improving overall usability.

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