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

Can We Avoid Biases in Library Classification Systems?

By keneilb

The problem of bias in library classification structures and subject language are, from a queer perspective, problems endemic to the knowledge organization project itself. If social categories and names are understood as embedded in contingencies of space, time, and discourse, then bias is inextricable from the process of classification and cataloging. When an item is placed in a particular category or given a particular name, those decisions always reflect a particular ideology or approach to understanding the material itself. 1

As human beings, we are bound to our subjectivity. The way we shape the world is due to our upbringing, experiences, community, culture, and other social influences. I believe that, because of this, it is near impossible for us to truly see objectively. Every thought and idea we have is influenced by something else. This notion trickles down even to library classification and subject language use. It would be lovely if we could all agree on a universal classification structure that everyone mutually agreed upon, and that did not offend anyone, but how could we achieve such a thing? Language itself is subjective and not only is it difficult to get the exact same meaning between two different languages, but even between two individuals speaking the same language you will find that their experiences and influences has shaped how they interpret their language and it doesn’t always have the same implications between the two. In Drabinksi’s article, “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction” she points out these important statements, pointing out the subjective nature of classification and subject language.

Why does any of this matter? Something Drabinksi says in her article stood out to me, as it was the first time I’ve ever thought of it that way. “As users interact with these structures to browse and retrieve materials, they inevitably learn. . .”. 1 Her focus is on the learning of negative stereotypes about race, gender, class and other social identities, however I can see it also being general. As people interact with a library, not only will they learn from the materials they are using, but there can also be the side effect of learning from simply browsing for their material. Some of our major classification systems like Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress were created through the white, Christian male perspective in the past. Because of this, classification systems pay heavy attention to the Christian religion but treats Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism as minor religions. Someone who is browsing will either, knowingly or unknowingly, observe and learn from this. This is the same for the marginalization of gay and lesbian sexuality, while making heterosexuality the normative.


This brought back a memory I had when I was in undergrad, doing research for one of my psychology courses for the first time. This particular library used Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC). I was looking in the 500s because that was the science section. To my surprise, psychology was not located there. So I thought, perhaps it would be under social science, the 300s? No. Instead, I found psychology under the 100s as a subgroup of philosophy. 3 I understood that psychology had ties with philosophy, since it happens to have sprung forth from that field, and it was widely thought of as pseudoscience early on in its beginnings, but I didn’t think to find it still classified this way. It’s also the same in Library of Congress Classification (LCC), where psychology is under B, still a subgroup of philosophy, along with religion. 4 What’s surprising is that although psychology has prospered into its own field of science, its still portrayed in the classifications as less.

Drabinski makes excellent points about the biases contained within the classification and subject heading structures, she believes that the way we should combat this is by “queer theory”, which basically is an approach where instead of directly combatting the structures, we empower the users of libraries by teaching them to think critically and use the system critically. Although, in my experience, users don’t give much thought to the classification structures, this would still be a powerful thing to implement nonetheless, for those who do happen to engage with it and have questions.


Approaching the problem of library classification and cataloging from a queer perspective demands that we leave intact the traces of historicity and ideology that mar the classification and cataloging project. Such traces can reveal the limit of the universal knowledge organization project. . . 1


At first, I thought Drabinski was saying that we should do nothing about making a change to the classifications, but as I took all her words in I believe I see her point. I may be wrong in my interpretation, but I believe she is trying to give a different approach, rather than having the responsibility on just catalogers, it will shift over to the librarians who engage with users and expose them to understanding that will inevitably put an eventual strain on making the change.


As previously mentioned, however, biases will always exist. We cannot come to a complete “finish” with this process. The process will be forever ongoing, and this is due to the subjectivity of human perspective. We can only continue the process and it will continue to reflect the zeitgeist of the time, or perhaps the previous time since every few generations will come up with their own ideas that will challenge the previous’, as we are doing now. It is impossible for us to have full neutrality within the Library. As Jensen implies throughout his article, whatever stance is taken even if its supposedly neutral, it is still a stance and thus making it non-neutral. 6 Applying that to the field of Librarianship or a Cataloger, no matter what direction we take in changing classification and subject heading language, there will always be others who disagree and who will have their toes stepped on by the changes. This doesn’t mean that we should not engage and challenge our current positions, but instead we should attempt to find means of progression where we can continually move forward with the times, and with current understandings. Drabinksi’s method is a great one, and I would even add that we should find ways to actively engage library users with the classification systems, because for the most part they usually come in with an idea of what they want, and quickly get it and then leave. If we found a way to engage them into learning, it will spread understanding and more people will take notice to the system, its flaws and its strengths.

  1. Drabinski, E. (2013). Queering the catalog: Queer theory and the politics of Correction. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 83(2), 94-111.
  2. Drabinski, E. (2013). Queering the catalog: Queer theory and the politics of Correction. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 83(2), 94-111.
  3. OCLC. (n.d.). DDC 23 summaries. Retrieved September 26, 2015, from OCLC website:
  4. Library of Congress. (n.d.). Library of congress classification outline. Retrieved September 26, 2015, from Library of Congress website:
  5. Drabinski, E. (2013). Queering the catalog: Queer theory and the politics of Correction. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 83(2), 94-111.
  6. Jensen, R. (2006). “The myth of the neutral professional” in Questioning Library Neutrality, ed. A. Lewis. Library Juice, 89–96.

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