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.

 

Sources

ADA-PARC. (2014). “Percentage of Total Population with Disabilities.” Retrieved from http://centerondisability.org/ada_parc/utils/indicators.php?id=43&palette=3

American Library Association. (2006 December 4). “Library Services for People with Disabilities Policy.” Retrieved on November 8, 2017 from http://www.ala.org/ascla/resources/libraryservices

American Library Association. (2007 March 29). “Outreach Resources for Services to People with Disabilities.” Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/diversity/outreachtounderservedpopulations/servicespeopledisabilities

Castellini, M., Jaiswal, A., Zhang, Hanyu. (2017). “Assistive Learning Technologies.” Retrieved from http://mysite.pratt.edu/~ajaiswal/homepage.html

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

SLA New York Conference and Expo 2017

By asrp

On Friday October 20th I attended the 2017 SLA NY chapter’s conference and expo at Baruch College in New York City. This year’s theme was Resilience: Navigating the Information Landscape. They had a lineup of fantastic speakers from all areas of information professions, all of whom have been resilient and successful in their careers in the ever-changing information world. The conference hosted two keynote speakers, and eight panels throughout the day. Although each panel held noteworthy speakers with much insight on career paths and the growth of information professionals, this article will focus on the two keynote speakers and a panel on fake news and how to combat misinformation.

The conference kicked off with our morning keynote speaker, CEO of Sterling Talent Solutions, Clare Hart, talking about opportunity, resilience, and success. Hart started by congratulating the audience, most of which have obtained or are in the process of obtaining a master’s degree, a degree held by less than ten percent of adults over the age of 25 in the United States. A Master’s of Library and Information Science can open up many opportunities to individuals seeking professions in libraries, information, data, and increasingly in the technology fields. There is an opinion by some that there will be less of a need for information professionals in the future, as more information is accessible to the public. Hart retaliates by discussing just a few information/data jobs that will be seeing a growth in the near future, such as: Market Research Analyst, Data Scientist, Operations Research Analysis, and Data Governance/Data Domain Curator. At a time of societal change, where some doors close others will open, and there will always be a need for information professionals in the digital shift. We are in an age of acceleration, and “we can’t escape these accelerations. We have to dive into them, take advantage of their energy and flows where possible, move with them, use them to learn faster, design smarter, and collaborate deeper.” Hart addresses the need to retool our educational systems to maximize skills and attributes that will prepare people with top employability skills, placing an emphasis on the communication and planning skillsets. Referencing her own transitional stages between jobs, Hart gives us a list of things to write down during times of transition: write down what you did well, what you could’ve done better or differently, where you want to go/what kind of company or organization you want to work for, research that job and write down the top choices while weighing the pros and cons. These lists will serve as lessons in self-awareness, one of the major components of being a successful and resilient information professional. It’s important to remember that we are all unique, and with a master’s in LIS we already have or are working towards “fabulous credentials,” that will help us take advantage of the many opportunities that are being created in the market today. We must remember that it’s our attitude that will help us get the most out of lifelong learning, and that being self-aware will lead to positive transitions. Hart concluded her presentation with those key takeaways to carry with us into our future professions.

With the rise of social media and the growing access of information and opinions to the public, fake news has become a buzzword. One of the morning panels, In-Credible Sources: Fake News in the Info Age, addresses the fake news of today and how journalists and researchers can combat it.  The panel was hosted by Brandy Zadrozny and Kathy Deveny. Zadrozny is a researcher and reporter for the Daily Beast, and previously worked as a news librarian at ABC News and Fox News. Deveny is a managing director at Kekst, a leading strategic, corporate, and financial communications firm, and previously worked as an editor and writer, including deputy editor of Newsweek. Both speakers focused on the topic of misinformation in an overly-saturated information society. News outlets like Fox employed news librarians to help with research and fact-checking, but now with the cutting of many news librarian jobs, the reporters are in charge of doing their own research and fact-checking. Zadrozny points out that many people are just simply over fact-checks and will continue to read what they want to read. A popular culprit of misinformation is what is known as the “sexy press releases.” In science and health research, scientists need funding, and they get funding by writing articles. The articles are boosted by press releases that feed the public snippets of facts that are easily misconstrued into untruths. Deveny talks about fake news in the corporate realm. A lot of fake news on corporations comes from competitors causing chaos. A company’s reputation is more in danger now than ever as people take to social media and the emergence of online boycotts. How do we combat fake news in the media when people just aren’t skeptical enough? This is the challenge for information professionals like Zadrozny and Deveny, how do we teach people to be more skeptical? A short answer lies somewhere in feeding the public what they want, turning fact-checks into something easily digestible by telling a story in a fun and entertaining way. To combat fake news and get beneath the lies and untruths of misinformation, we need to follow through on skepticism, going with our gut feelings. If a story doesn’t sound right, we need to get interested in checking things out, we need to start poking holes. By contradicting things and being more skeptical, we create controversy and garner more attention. Journalists and reporters can also start by putting out factual videos to combat fake news. But as people are flooded with an abundance of information through Twitter, Facebook, and dark areas of the internet, the challenge on how to get people to this level of skepticism still remains.

The challenges that information professionals are facing, how to bridge the gap between information producers and information consumers, how to teach people to be more skeptical, or how to make our transitions into the growing technological society positive ones, are hard issues. Our afternoon keynote speaker Cynthia Cheng Correia, author, adjunct professor at Simmons College, and member of the Council of Competitive Intelligence Fellows, gave us some thoughts on how to address these challenges in her presentation, How Strong is your Professional Resilience? Correia teaches her students about competitive intelligence and how to prepare for the newer information landscape with tools to look at indicators in foresight. The questions she aims to tackle revolve around building a collective resilience. By combining professional preparation and personal resilience, we can create professional resilience in mindset and perspective. Resilience means being able to persist and adapt in the face of changes. It’s not just about fixing problems, but learning from them. In regard to the changes in information tools, Correia states that we need to keep up, that we need to think about how to respond, and that we need to anticipate. So how do we do this? We start with ourselves, our own independent resilience. It’s important to foster healthy relationships, through friends, family, colleagues, mentorships, and professional networks. These will give us a foundation of support, validation, empathy, and perspective. We also must be able to make a plan, this will aid in focus, problem-solving, foresight, and compartmentalizing. While making plans we must also remember to be positive in outlook (adjusting our approach to the problem at hand), realism (looking at the situation as it is), and a constant forward-looking attitude. Correia further goes into the importance of fostering our passions and growing with them, stating that the growth process isn’t about overcoming, it’s about enjoying the process and learning from it. She addresses the barriers to resilience: denial, habits, biases, silos (walls that we put up as “safe spaces”), behaviors, fear of failure, lack of self-awareness, and life’s challenges. These barriers aren’t just in individuals but in whole professions as well. In order to keep up with the changing information landscape, we must move past these barriers, strengthening our resilience, and re-evaluating our educational system to provide the proper tools for successfully navigation an information-heavy society.

The world of information is constantly changing and technologies are providing new ways of accessing and analyzing data and information. The information professions must keep up with these changes, following the latest news and trends in technology and building resilience in the workplace. This year’s SLA conference addressed some of these issues we are facing in current shifts, and provided stepping stones as to how to navigate them.

 

http://newyork.sla.org/events-2/slany-expo-2017/

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