Accessibility: Interview with Michelle Biwer & Sharon Irish

Interview by Anna Shustitzky, CCB Outreach Coordinator

“I wanted to learn more about what I could do to make sure that when I’m running the children’s department in a library that I understand the best way to get out information that’s accessible to everyone.”

Last semester, students from myriad institutions and disciplines collaborated in a distributed open collaborative course (DOCC) created by FemTechNet, a network of scholars, students, and artists interested in feminist science-technology studies. At the University of Illinois, the DOCC entitled “Collaborations in Feminism and Technology” included students from Art and Design, LIS, and more, led by instructor Sharon Irish. In conjunction with this class, CCB GA Michelle Biwer explored the issue of accessibility for teen library patrons, ultimately compiling a LibGuide designed for teen librarians or library students interested in learning more about accessibility. We were happy to sit down with her and Irish to learn more about this informative collection.

Below you will find the transcript from our conversation as well as a list of related resources recommended by Biwer and Irish.


Skip to a Question: 

Michelle, what made you decide to research accessibility and YA lit?
Would you summarize the findings of your research?
Who was the target audience for your LibGuide?
What are some of the best platforms out there for people creating accessible materials for teens?
Sharon, I understand that this was part of a DOCC you led last semester, Collaborations in Feminism and Technology. How did this project resonate with what you discussed during the course?
This also seems quite relevant to your work with the Center for Digital Inclusion at GSLIS. For those unfamiliar with the CDI, would you briefly share what it’s all about and what your role is with the program?
How might this teen accessibility project fit in with the things the CDI is doing?
Finally, do either of you have any recommendations for current GSLIS students, preparing to enter the workforce, who would like to become more educated on this issue? 
Any last comments?
Resources from this Interview


Michelle, what made you decide to research accessibility and YA lit?

MB: Well, diversity in YA lit is a thing that’s been on my radar for a while, and is important to me. Accessibility is a big topic right now, but I wasn’t sure what that meant with regards to creating something online because I’ve never really done that before, so I wanted to learn more about what I could do to make sure that when I’m running the children’s department in a library that I understand the best way to get out information that’s accessible to everyone. I think I did a good job of creating very basic things that a) help me understand, but b) also help other people without a huge background on the tech side of things understand why it’s important. There are things that I wouldn’t have even guessed before, like that you need to make sure your links are underlined or the screen readers won’t grab it. Once I started researching it got even more interesting.

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Would you summarize the findings of your research?

“There’s really almost nothing about accessibility and teens.”

MB: There’s really almost nothing about accessibility and teens, which isn’t really surprising because there’s not really anything about teens in terms of library information—there’s health stuff, but not a lot of mental health stuff, not a lot of research done on teen populations. But there are some limited resources for children and adults with accessibility issues in libraries, but also Internet accessibility in general. What I did was create booklists featuring characters with disabilities, some more fun tips for increasing accessibility in programming, and also just tips for making your website more accessible. I got those things from FemTechNet and various organizations that specialize in accessibility, things that don’t necessarily relate to libraries at all, but that can help with the tech side of things.

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Who was the target audience for your LibGuide?

MB: The target audience is youth librarians, but it could be useful for children’s and adult librarians, and some of the sections could be useful for people in general who are trying to make an accessible website.

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What are some of the best platforms out there for people creating accessible materials for teens?

“For probably the most progressive social media platform, [Tumblr is] also the least accessible.”

MB: WordPress and Twitter. WordPress on its own can be ready to go, there are some modifications that you’d need to make, but in general it’s one of the better blogging platforms for accessibility. Twitter needs modification but there’s an app you can run [EasyChirp–ed.] that will help with jumping to things on a screen reader. Neither of those are perfect solutions, it could be a lot better in having available things to modify it to make it work better for a variety of disabilities. Of course, those aren’t really the most happening teen places, particularly WordPress, and the most popular places are really just terrible for accessibility. Hopefully that’ll be changed by someone with lots of coding experience one day—it’ll be great!

SI: So Tumblr for example is terrible?

MB: Yes—it’s actually the worst one. It’s mostly pictures, but people never put captions, people don’t source things, and pictures are useless without captions, things are useless without links. There’s also something about the metadata that a screen reader would try to find that doesn’t work on Tumblr. So for probably the most progressive social media platform, it’s also the least accessible, which makes me sad, because it’s also my favorite social media platform, and it’s the easiest to get teens to get to. The demographics are very young. There are a few small things you can do, but nothing that makes a huge difference to people using that kind of technology.

SI: FemTechNet has a Tumblr site, so if FemTechNet decided to use captions and create links, would that somehow solve the problem, or is there something hard-coded in there?

MB: It definitely wouldn’t solve the problem, but it would be more helpful. But no, there’s something in the coding that makes it really hard for screen readers to jump around. It is a good way to reach people, so I wouldn’t say “don’t use Tumblr,” but if you’re using Tumblr and trying to reach a certain demographic, do it in tandem with something else.

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Sharon, I understand that this was part of a DOCC you led last semester, Collaborations in Feminism and Technology. How did this project resonate with what you discussed during the course?

“One of the core values of FemTechNet is accessibility, and accessibility is a feminist practice and value.”

SI: Very well! One of the core values of FemTechNet is accessibility, and accessibility is a feminist practice and value. One of the links I’ll share is an accessibility report that we, the accessibility committee of FemTechNet, produced, working with this amazing person on the East Coast named Stephanie Rosen, who has done a lot of self-education around accessibility issues. When Michelle was interested in doing a LibGuide for teen librarians, I think it certainly amplified what we were already doing, and also deepened it, because she found stuff that I didn’t know about and I was really happy to know about it. The fact that we can add this to our available documents is great. She was also able to point to ALA work that’s already happening.

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This also seems quite relevant to your work with the Center for Digital Inclusion at GSLIS. For those unfamiliar with the CDI, would you briefly share what it’s all about and what your role is with the program?

SI: The CDI is one of three research centers at the library school, one of them being the CCB and the other being CIRSS, which is the Center for Informatics Research in Science and Scholarship. The CDI is a research hub that works on ways in which people either don’t have access to information technologies, or who don’t use it effectively, or who want to use it more effectively. Usually the community is the unit of analysis instead of the individual, so we’re looking at communities of color or communities of elderly or communities underserved in cities that don’t have good Internet penetration. While we certainly aren’t uninterested in individuals who don’t have access, we’ve shifted away from teaching Internet skills to a more meta-level. Jon Gant, who’s the director, does research on broadband adoption: how do libraries in particular use high speed Internet to serve their patrons, and what are the potentials in the future? CDI continues the legacy from Prairienet and other iterations of looking at ways communities use information technologies. My role is Project Coordinator. Most of our funding comes from grants, so I’m either writing a grant, or running a grant, or trying to find a grant.

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How might this teen accessibility project fit in with the things the CDI is doing?

SI: The most immediate way is through community engagement projects. A lot of it is course-based, so Martin Wolske would involve groups in his class. For example there was a group working in a nursing home and they installed the Dragon voice recognition software that translates voice into text, but then they had to train people to use it. There are adaptations for elderly, there are adaptations for hearing and sight-impaired people. There has been some design work by Deana McDonagh, who teaches industrial design. When Martin was redesigning the computer lab with the Urbana Free Library folks, they had to think about the height of tables that would accommodate wheelchairs or any kinds of body differences. It’s more in practice, in the field. We did publish a couple of pieces on cyberlounges, where the informal exchanges of information happen around computers, how do you design furniture or a room space so people can collaborate better? Of course that would have to include people who might not be able to stand. Accessibility does come into the mix, but we haven’t gotten a grant for it….

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Finally, do either of you have any recommendations for current GSLIS students, preparing to enter the workforce, who would like to become more educated on this issue? 

“The accessibility committee for FemTechNet argues against having a separate class; the idea is to have it integrated into everything.”

SI: I don’t know how something like your LibGuide gets disseminated, but Lily Sacharow at the Undergraduate Library gave a lightning talk a couple years ago… if we could have a lightning talk by somebody like Michelle, pointing to things like Wave, the program you put your website through to see if it passes accessibility muster. There are so many things to think about, tweaks that aren’t that big, if you could just add them to your repertoire, it would be super good. I also think we should talk about all of us being “temporarily able-bodied,” because I think we all are—it only takes a broken leg or an accident to make us disabled.

MB: Are there any classes that the university offers that you know of that deal with making things more accessible?

SI: Deana McDonagh taught a class in industrial design where she partnered able-bodied students with students living with disabilities and they worked together to redesign all kinds of different objects. CII (Community Informatics Initiative), the previous incarnation of the CDI, gave Deana a grant, so she presented at GSLIS about her work. I would say looking in design fields—I know there’s a professor in architecture, Carl Lewis, who had polio when he was a kid, and he is in a wheelchair, always pointing at these issues. They built a brand new building for the School of Architecture and the drinking fountains were initially at the wrong level. The accessibility committee for FemTechNet argues against having a separate class; the idea is to have it integrated into everything—easier said than done, of course.

MB: I would say, there was one thing on my LibGuide that was the most comprehensive for programming. IFLA/ASCLA both have long pdfs, for adults and children with disabilities, probably over 50 pages each. It’s a good place to start—it’s hard to see all the different things, just two PDFs opened my eyes to a lot of things that I hadn’t really thought of, and they also have a lot of cool programming ideas. But also Wave, which you can plug your website into, which not only tells you that something’s wrong, but why it’s wrong.

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Any last comments?

SI: I thought it was a great project, and I’m happy to have it spread far and wide.
MB: I’m planning on maintaining it so it doesn’t get obsolete!

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Resources from this Interview

Michelle Biwer’s LibGuide
This LibGuide, the project behind this interview, includes booklists, best practices, and information about library website accessibility.

Sharon Irish’s Fall 2014 DOCC Report
Here on her blog, Irish reflects on her experiences from the fall 2014 FemTechNet distributed open collaborative course. An extensive list highlights the myriad projects and collaborations that course participants pursued throughout the semester.

FemTechNet Accessibility Report
As a whole, Biwer describes FemTechNet as “an excellent compilation of resources on how to create accessible websites and includes ways to adjust WordPress to increase accessibility.” This particular resource is a report for FemTechNet members who are creating websites, courses, and other materials with accessibility in mind.

Report: “Disability and Relevant Design”
This report provides a brief overview of a project conducted by Dr. Deana McDonagh from the School of Industrial Design with Lydia Khuri of University Housing and Susann Heft Sears of Disability Resources and Educational Services. Mentioned above by Sharon Irish, this project paired students of industrial design with volunteer participants living with a variety of disabilities to rethink the way that ordinary objects are designed for whole populations.

Report: “New teaching tools aid visually impaired students in learning math”
This article describes another collaborative project regarding accessibility, in which a legally blind student in the School of Art and Design, led by Dr. McDonagh, developed a series of sculptures with Braille designed to help blind students learn math.

IFLA: Access to libraries for persons with disabilities: CHECKLIST (PDF)
The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions compiled a comprehensive list of things to consider when designing and running a library, with many different aspects of the library system (getting to the library, media accessibility, etc.) and different kinds of disabilities in mind.

Wave
From Biwer’s LibGuide: “Just copy and paste the url of your website, and this tool will tell you what needs to be improved to make it more accessible for people using screenreaders and other assistive technologies.”

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