ASIS&T Speakeasy: Assistive Learning Technologies

By Lindsay Menachemi

Staircase picture

“The world is disabling to people in a wheelchair only if the people building it are filling it with stairs.” – Marc Castellini, Pratt Institute student


The way we design our physical and digital worlds can promote social inclusion if done well, or social exclusion if done poorly. It may not always be a designer’s intent to purposefully exclude certain people, but even ignorance is a choice. If a designer doesn’t consider accessibility or universality to be a part of their approach, more often than not, the resultant products restrict people in unanticipated ways.

On Tuesday, November 7, the ASIS&T student organization at Pratt Institute sponsored a speakeasy on Assistive Learning Technologies. Three students in the Information Technologies core curriculum class –Marc Castellini, Arushi Jaiswal, and Hanyu Zhang— presented a research-based web guide on assistive learning technologies, geared towards universities. I think that much of what they discussed can be applied more broadly to libraries, and to UX design principles for any product.


Why LIS professionals need to care

First, let’s highlight the problem in more detail. As Library and Information Science students, we have a responsibility to promote equity and inclusion. Social exclusion, after all, is just another form of powerlessness. (Gehner 41) Compound this with the ALA’s official position: in December 2006, the ALA implemented the “Library Services for People with Disabilities Policy,” a policy that recognized that “many people with disabilities face economic inequity, illiteracy, cultural isolation, and discrimination in employment and the broad range of societal activities” (ALA 2006). As part of the policy, it recommends proactive integration of assistive technology in libraries. A wonderful sentiment, only, there are two issues afoot here:

  • The policy was approved and published 10 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act. This is not a matter to ignore; it tells us much about the prioritization of assisting those with disabilities.  And of all organizations, why would the ALA, an organization devoted to equal, unfettered access to information, respond in such a latent manner? This surprised me greatly.
  • The policy states that library staff “should be aware of how available technologies address disabilities and know how to assist all users with library technology.” (ALA 2006) “Should” is always hard to implement and track – “must” is usually much more effective, as it implies some sort of consequence. But surely there are guidebooks on the ALA website to assist librarians with their education and integration of assistive technologies? Well, the only tool on the ALA website dedicated to serving adults with disabilities is the “ASCLA Professional Tools – Standards and Guidelines – Resource List” link, and when selected, it returned a ‘404 – Page Cannot Be Found’ error. There are two other resource links, but these serve a very specific audience: children with disabilities that affect their ability to read print materials.
  • This resources page was last updated in 2007. March 29, 2007. I’m sure I don’t need to tell all of you how much technology has changed in 10 years.

It all begs the question: as a profession, how serious are we about providing services to people of all ages with all kinds of disabilities? How serious can we be when our own flagship organization offers this level of service?


How big is this problem, anyway?

I know, I know, in principle, it shouldn’t matter how many people this issue impacts, but it seems to matter nonetheless. ADA-PARC (ADA Participatory Action Research Consortium) made 2014 American Community Survey data available in interactive format.  (ADA-PARC 2014) It shows us that 12.3% of the total U.S. population self-declares as having a disability of some kind. That equates to approximately 43.5 million people. I don’t know about you, but it’s hard for me to conceptualize a picture of how many people that figure truly represents. What if I told you that 43.5 million people is the number of people living in the entire country of Canada…. if it had 10 million more people! The level of social exclusion here is huge by any means – whether you’re measuring by numbers or principle.


Equalizing power through assistive technology tools

Our responsibility as LIS professionals escalates when you consider that, “Social exclusion is not simply a result of ‘bad luck’ or personal inadequacies, but rather a product of flaws in the system that create disadvantages for certain segments of the population.” (Gehner 2010) So what can we do? What Castellini, Jaiswal, and Zhang have created is a great start. The web toolkit provides a wide overview of cognitive and physical impairments and maps them to the specific LT (low-tech) and HT (high-tech) assistive technologies that can help. Low-tech can include things that are low-cost, and low-barrier of entry: highlighters, pencil grips, raised line paper. High-tech is the cool stuff we read about in Wired: speech-to-text programs or voice recognition are good examples, both of which limit the need for a keyboard. For dyslexic students, it’s even possible to use symbol-based learning, such as Widget symbols on SymbolWorld, or Makaton symbols, to improve understanding and absorption. Last but not least, web accessibility is another area that incurs massive reward without incurring massive expense. Simple changes can include: using the W3C’s HTML tag best practices to assist with read-aloud services, avoiding dropdown menus, and eliminating Javascript use. There are many, many ways to get started, and I encourage you to view their site to learn more.


Looking ahead

So, how can we escalate this issue to more LIS professionals’ attention? Here are a few things I’ve done so far, and a few thoughts of what else we might do:

  • I’ve privately corresponded with the student group that created the Assistive Learning Technologies site, and asked if they would consider submitting their work to the ALA for linking. Considering the paucity of information on the site, I felt that it would be a worthy contribution to the ALA Diversity group’s page. Even if they don’t include the site itself, my hope is that it brings to the ALA’s attention the lack of updated information available on their site.
  • I’ve emailed the Diversity committee at ALA to request that the broken link to their outreach toolkit is addressed, and that they consider updating their page to reflect current resources and technologies.
  • Next time you’re at an industry event or surfing a group’s website, get curious. See what you can find about assistive technology integration, or accessibility issues in general. How is the group addressing these issues? Do you agree with their approach? How can it be improved? If you can’t find anything at all, what a great opportunity to begin the conversation!
  • If you are an information professional currently working in an organization, assess the ways in which your organization (its website, its programs, etc.) are inclusive or exclusive of people with disabilities. If it can do better (and it usually can), can you adopt some of these technologies or re-design the website in a way that facilitates universal use?

Last but not least, look at the world around you with a critical eye. Sometimes all it takes to start moving things in the right direction is the different point of view.



ADA-PARC. (2014). “Percentage of Total Population with Disabilities.” Retrieved from

American Library Association. (2006 December 4). “Library Services for People with Disabilities Policy.” Retrieved on November 8, 2017 from

American Library Association. (2007 March 29). “Outreach Resources for Services to People with Disabilities.” Retrieved from

Castellini, M., Jaiswal, A., Zhang, Hanyu. (2017). “Assistive Learning Technologies.” Retrieved from

Gehner, John. (2010). “Libraries, Low-Income People, and Social Exclusion.” Public Library Quarterly, 29:1, 39-47

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Obscured Heritage: remembering the histories that History forgot

By Lindsay Menachemi

A skeleton in the closet. An elephant in the room. Why do we have so many idioms for hiding the truth?  Sometimes, seeing the truth of things can hurt, or make us feel uncomfortable, and our natural tendency is to shy away from that which reveals some darkness about ourselves. But just because something is unpleasant, doesn’t mean it should remain unexamined. The discipline of Library and Information Science traditionally holds that transparency – representing unfettered history – has inherent value to society. Schwartz and Cook (2002) posited that those who control archives control the historical narrative (p. 17).  Therefore, it’s essential that LIS professionals promote transparency with an eye to the power inherent in their position, and wield it to society’s greater advantage.

As we look at instances where LIS professionals can contribute value, ‘difficult heritage’ is an integral concept. Sharon Macdonald (2016) explains it as “rather than emphasizing times of the nation’s glorious achievement…times of evil wrong-doing that did no evident credit to a positive national identity.” (p. 6) Examples of difficult heritage come painfully but freely — the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, the slave trade in the U.S. But what about obscured heritage – histories that were intentionally created to serve a rosier self-image? Do LIS professionals have a responsibility to put on their detective hats and actively uncover and curate these hidden narratives? Furthermore, if they don’t take an active role, are they not furthering the agenda of those who buried the truth, by becoming unconscious participants in its secrecy?

Certainly, uncovering alternative history is not an easy task. Hidden heritage is by definition difficult to find, and the history of Hawaii is no exception.  In 1898, the U.S. attempted to annex the sovereign nation of Hawai’i through a Joint Resolution of Congress.  It is not only a common belief that the joint resolution successfully achieved this annexation, but is the “official view of the U.S. with respect to the status of Hawaii.” (Chang, 2015, p. 71) However, under domestic U.S. law, it was (and still is) illegal to annex a sovereign nation using a joint resolution: “Only a Treaty could annex Hawaii.  The Treaty of 1897 was never ratified by the United States.  Annexation by resolution was unconstitutional.” (Chang, 2015, p. 74) This massive deception is one that many American citizens and native Hawaiians are still fooled by. In February 2015, Supreme Court Justice Scalia, “implied that Hawaii was just another colony of Spain, taken in the Spanish-American War, like the Philippines and Puerto Rico.” (Chang, 2015, p. 77) It therefore may not surprise the reader that no museum in Hawaii has dedicated an exhibit to this difficult heritage, much of which was fueled by financial gain, and geopolitical and military strategy.  Even today the U.S. government has not apologized or admitted its shameful past to the Native Hawaiian people. Williamson Chang, a Harvard Law professor and native Hawaiian, has done much of the legwork in uncovering this century-old lie. He was armed with an education and a hunger for the truth about his nation’s past. Why can’t museums or archives represent this very legal (albeit contentious) truth? Is fear of controversy worth restricting knowledge of this injustice?

Thoughtful, considered representation of a difficult and previously obscured past is possible. At Te Papa museum in New Zealand, a permanent exhibit showcases two versions of The Treaty of Waitangi. Written in English and translated into Māori (the language and people of native New Zealand), the treaty was signed in 1840 by a consortium of Māori chieftains and representatives of the British Empire. The treaty is widely considered to be the founding of the country of New Zealand, and essentially gave the Queen of England sovereignty over New Zealand in exchange for the chieftains’ “exclusive and undistributed possession of their Lands, Estates, Forests…and properties.” (Ministry for Culture and Heritage, 2017) However, many believe that the Māori did not fully understand the language of the treaty they were signing, and that the word choices used by the British were not translated accurately. For example, unlike the British, “traditional Māori society did not have a concept of absolute ownership of land.” (McAloon, 2008) There isn’t enough room in this post to discuss the specifics of these troublesome and misleading word choices. However, the Te Papa museum put together a brilliant exhibit to showcase the dichotomy. The main exhibit displays large, dramatic versions of the treaty in both the Māori and English languages for visitors to explore with a critical eye. It also presents both treaties with the concerns that modern Māori people have expressed, and the context of events leading up to the treaty signing. It leaves it to the visitor to analyze both narratives and walk away from Te Papa with their own opinion. By taking a page from Heidi L.M. Jacobs, the museum curators are “teaching the conflicts” (Jacobs, 2010, p. 186), asking themselves, their colleagues and their patrons to examine the exhibits for “evidence of struggle over the right to tell the truth.” (Drabinski, 2013, p. 108)

Treaty of Waitangi


Another great example is from the Idaho Museum of Natural History. Dalbello (2009) shares details about its digital exhibit of Idaho Indians, and explains that through the digitizing (and resulting accessibility) of these records, “families of origin were discovered…individual names were recovered from written records.” (p. 6).  These names and stories would never have come to light without the power of a museum to drive the effort. Through use of crowd-tagging and open access to the public eye, obscured heritage can become visible.

LIS professionals have a responsibility to present the truth of humanity’s collective heritage. History is complex, although very often the groups in power would like to have the public believe that only two sides exist: right and wrong. By curating hidden heritage in a thoughtful and informed way, LIS professionals are uniquely qualified to enlighten the public. Some histories are difficult to stomach but easily seen, as Macdonald explores. Others are still obscured from our view. It is essential that LIS professionals take hold of the proverbial shovel, and unearth the buried shadows that haunt us.


Chang, Williamson. (2015). Darkness over Hawaii: The Annexation Myth is the Greatest Obstacle to Progress. Asian-Pacific Law & Policy Journal, 16.2, 70-115.

Dalbello, Marija. (2009). Digital Cultural Heritage: Concepts, Projects, and EmergingConstructions of Heritage. Proceedings of the Libraries in the Digital Age (LIDA) conference, 25-30 May, 2009.

Drabinski, Emily. (2013, April). Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 83.2, 94-111.

Jacobs, Heidi L.M. (2010). Posing the Wikipedia ‘Problem:’ Information Literacy and the Praxis of Problem-Posing in Library Instruction. Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods, edited by Maria T. Accardi, Emily Drabinski,and Alana Kumbier. Duluth, MN: Library Juice.

Macdonald, Sharon. (2015). Is ‘Difficult Heritage’ Still Difficult? Why Public Acknowledgment of Past Perpetration May No Longer Be So Unsettling to Collective Identities. Museum International, 67, 6-22.

McAloon, Jim. (2008, November 24). ‘Land Ownership – Maori and land ownership.’ Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved from

Ministry for Culture and Heritage. (2017, February 1). ‘Read the Treaty.’ Retrieved from

Schwartz, Joan M., Cook, Terry. (2002). Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory. Archival Science, 2, 1-19.

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