Accessibility: It’s About Everyone (rev.)

Alternative formats are available upon request to eperlow@hotmail.com.

[Editor’s note:  Ellen’s is the third of a 3-part series featuring members of the American Library Association’s Association for Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies (ASCLA) who are sensitive to the special access needs that can impact work in libraries.  For information about being a member of and/or providing service to populations with special needs, see the ASCLA website and ASCLA Tipsheets on accessibility issues.]

It is the business and raison d’être of library and information science (LIS) professionals to deliver knowledge and information that enable patrons to pursue successful, independent and fulfilling lives (Schmetzke 2007). To effectively deliver knowledge and information to patrons, every LIS professional, regardless of position or type of employer, must be prepared to interact with patrons from diverse backgrounds. Many LIS professionals serve diverse populations each day, throughout the day. For these reasons, the core curricula of LIS programs teach both the principle of equity of access and the skill sets necessary to serve diverse populations (American Library Association, “ALA policy manual”); equity of access, particularly, is considered a pillar of the LIS profession (ALA, “ALA’s core competencies of librarianship: approved by ALA’s Presidential Task Force on Library Education”; Association for Library and Information Science Education).

One population sometimes overlooked by diversity initiatives is people with access needs. Access issues affect people who represent all other categories of diversity and thus have a significant impact on both employees and patrons. The LIS profession has made great strides to include accessibility in diversity initiatives. Among the noteworthy LIS-related recognitions of accessibility issues: the 2001 inclusion of an accessibility policy, 54.3.2, within the policies of the American Library Association; the inclusion of accessibility within ALA diversity conference programming; and the re-emergence of accessibility within the latest version of the ALA’s proposed set of LIS core competencies (ALA, “Core Competencies”). Great progress has been made. More progress is needed (Schmetzke 2008).

Attention to and inclusion of accessibility as a topic in required diversity-related LIS core curricula and in LIS research and practice are particularly essential at this point in history. Nearly 20% of the U.S. population and 10% of the world population – the LIS profession’s own population of patrons – are self-identifying people with access needs (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006; United Nations). Due to global aging (World Health Organization), global climate change and increasingly severe natural disasters (Gore 2006), as well as accidents, illness and war/terrorism, officially-recognized class membership is growing rapidly. In other words, it is only a matter of time before one joins the class.

U.S. pre-K-12 public education data also confirm this rise in class membership (U.S. National Center on Secondary Education and Transition). Inclusion in U.S. pre-K-12 public schools, or through age 21, has been mandated for over thirty years under U.S. federal legislation (IDEA, P.L. 94-142, as amended). Thus school librarians and media specialists – teachers – are increasingly compelled understand accessibility best practices.

Of note for academic library professionals: today, thirty years later, the students who have benefited from the IDEA legislation now are students on the nation’s college campuses. In addition, to stay competitive, institutions of higher education have embraced lifelong learning initiatives, serving students returning to the classroom in their 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and beyond (Kressley and Huebschmann 2002). As a result of ongoing wars, many military veterans have newly acquired lifelong access needs (Tanielan and Jaycox 2008). These veterans are returning home and to college classrooms (Quillin 2008 “Some combat scars are like learning disabilities”; “Combat vets face hurdles as students: colleges learning to deal with PTSD, lost limbs, brain injuries”). In addition, these veterans are returning as patrons of the broad spectrum of libraries and information centers. Accessibility already is current mandated practice for many LIS professionals who work in U.S. federal agencies that are governed by the Section 508 accessibility statute (http://www.section508.gov/; U.S. Access Board 2008). Academic libraries within state universities may be governed by state accessibility statutes that are based upon or similar to Section 508.

Indeed, acquiring access needs is a lifelong event. Children, birth to five years with access needs, are only about 4 percent of this segment of the U.S. population (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Acquiring a “new” access need – whether through accident, illness, lifestyle choice, war/terrorism or aging – is a fact of life itself. And “they” – “those patrons” – eventually, sooner or later, become “us.”

Today, LIS professionals face immediate, critical and seemingly competing access needs: the need to serve ever-increasingly diverse patron communities and, at the same time, the need to adhere to mandates for fiscal accountability and institutional effectiveness (U.S. Department of Education). How may LIS professionals meet these competing demands? Coming to LIS professionals’ rescue are two companion evidence-based strategies that promote universal access, namely Universal Design (UD: North Carolina State University) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL: CAST, 2008). Under IDEA 2004, UD and UDL are mandated by law for U.S. pre-K-12 public education, including school libraries, and they are legislated under the recently reauthorized U.S. Higher Education Opportunity Act, P.L. 110-335 (AUCD 2008). For the LIS profession, ALA’s own Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies Division [ASCLA]: http://www.ala.org/ascla/ is a recommended source of information and resources concerning these topics.

ALA’s ASCLA Division is a leader in accessibility also via its sponsorship of the ASCLA Century Scholarship (http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/ascla/asclaawards/asclacentury .cfm), an independently funded endowed diversity initiative that promotes the entry of people with access needs, including veterans, into the LIS profession. Since 2000, the ASCLA Century Scholarship, part of the ALA Scholarship Program, has been awarded to nine outstanding LIS graduate students. ASCLA Century now is recruiting applicants for its 2009 scholarship. ASCLA Century criteria are acceptance at an ALA-accredited LIS program, U.S. or Canadian citizenship and documentation of access need. There is no credit hour limit. Efforts are in progress to establish a second ASCLA Century Scholarship and to recruit eligible veterans. Also envisioned is establishment of a career placement and leadership training program that showcases the much-in-demand skills, talents and accessibility-related expertise that LIS professionals with access needs offer the [LIS] profession and workplace.

Yes, accessibility is about everyone. Thus, in response to ALA’s next membership survey, when the question is posed whether one has an access need, the answer is “yes.”

Works Cited