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Accessibility in college libraries…we can do more…it’s easy…I promise

October 26, 2015

By now we’ve all heard some notion of 508 compliance, accessibility in education or universal design as a key focus for growth or strategic planning—as the percentage of students with disabilities matriculating for college/university study is outpacing non-disabled growth since 2012. Add to that the ubiquity of technology-enabled distance education across the non-profit/for-profit spectrum and the wide advertising net cast to attract non-traditional learners, and you are faced with a sizeable and increasing population for whom accessibility will be critical to success. If you are reading this, then your chosen career path brings you to the frontline of this need and casts you in the role of guide and advocate.

To that end, and to add to the solutions spoken to by organizations such as Educause,  U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, Thinkcollege, AHEAD, LearningAlly, or Closing-the-Gap (to highlight a very few), I thought I would share a few helpful resources and best practices from my own experience. While you may not be able to remodel the building to meet universal design tenants or refurbish your entire technology array, there are attainable resources for areas you can affect:

  • MS Office Accessibility Suite – Probably a familiar solution, this collection of basic Assistive Technology tools (screen-to-text narrator, monitor zoom level, speech-to-text recognition agent, and on-screen keyboard) affords you a host of tools which will cover the large portion of what your special needs students will require. The best part…you already have it installed on any non-Mac at your disposal. Check the Accessories>>Accessibility or Ease of Access Center located from any Windows system’s Start menu.
    NOTE: This is a BASIC collection of tools—much better alternatives exist in each category. For those with a budget I would recommend visiting  freedomScientific.com  and www.kurzweiledu.com to explore some of the more polished commercially available options.
  • Assistive Technology Lending Centers – Most states have a centrally located, nationally funded program where Assistive Technologies are able to be loaned for free to non-profit organizations and residents—the way you would check out a book. I know that I have gone to PATL many times in the past for my Pennsylvania area patrons. Find your local and FREE AT lending center by using RESNA’s State Program list.
  • Techmatrix.orgThis site, funded through the National Center for Technology Innovation (NCTI), offers students and educators a chance to research and compare a growing library of available Assistive Technologies. This site allows you to evaluate and spend wisely.
  • Understood.orgA big part of your role in this situation is as an advocate. This site will help you, the student and their parent/caregiver navigate the tricky world of funding, universal design considerations, AT evaluation and more. Few sites do a better job of reducing the noise and helping you get results.

Finally, and this one gets a paragraph instead of a bullet as it is more important than any listed above, Your Institution’s Office of Special Needs. It goes without saying that the best resource you have available to you are the peers and professionals in your own organization whose education and training is centered on best-serving this growing student population. Yet I have found that there is infrequently a dialogue between those who shape these programs and those of us in information services who are readily working to make them work. In addition, half of the battle in properly serving this population stems from creating an atmosphere where special needs students feel understood and supported without being made to feel additionally “special”. This means that care should be taken when deciding where to locate specialized technologies…do we fill a  PC at the edge of the lab with all of the tools—relegating the user to separation—or are we making sure that they are having the same enabled and fulfilling experience as other students? Similarly, how we personally work with these students is critical toward supporting their sense of experimentation with the tools we present. We should be sure our confidence with the resources at hand, physical posture, language choice and overall demeanor is one not influenced by whether a student is in a chair with legs or with wheels. Your institution’s special needs office is full of professionals who can help YOU best support this student population.

The need to serve this population is growing, and with a little bit of exploration and inspiration we can make a significant difference as service providers who shape the conceptualization and delivery of these critical resources.

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