May 22, 2018

Accessibility Awareness | The User Experience

Sheree Fu & Shalini Ramachandran
Photo credit: Joseph Nakhost

May 17 is Global Accessibility Awareness Day. The idea started with a 2011 blog post by web developer Joe Devon, in which he argued that “it’s more important to make a site accessible than pretty.” He also admitted that although he is a programmer, he was still ashamed of how little he knew about accessibility.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, accessible means “capable of being conveniently used or accessed by people with disabilities; of or designating goods, services, or facilities designed to meet the needs of the disabled.”

As librarians at the University of Southern California (USC), we began a case study in December on accessible design for library instruction. We invoke Devon’s humility, as well as his call to action, because it closely follows our own path of going from knowing very little to gaining more knowledge and becoming advocates for accessibility.

Building Partnerships

One of the advantages of being part of a large university is the wealth of knowledge available on campus. We first reached out to Disability Services and Programs (DSP) and learned a lot about current assistive technologies.

We also attended a town hall, facilitated by the DSP supervisor, who opened the meeting with the slogan “Nothing About Us Without Us,” which underscores that people with disabilities must have a voice on issues that affect them. At the meeting, students spoke about being subjected to slurs. Staff shared accounts of how university employees refused to accommodate individuals with mobility challenges. We saw how the lack of accessibility causes hardship in the everyday lives of people. We left the meeting feeling that raising consciousness about disability must be a campuswide effort and not just corralled into one department.

In addition to DSP, we met with the USC Center for Excellence in Teaching and learned about training they provide to faculty. Next, we met with the Kortschak Center for Learning and Creativity and discussed how accessibility can be beneficial to students with learning differences. We also spoke to other librarians to see what resources they were using with student interactions.

Our many conversations taught us that building partnerships takes patience and persistence. Disability is still not well understood within academia, but networking with partners can lead to better outcomes for educating the community.

Instruction Materials

Taking what we learned from our partnership meetings as well as incorporating what we found in accessibility literature, we taught a library workshop to a writing class in February. To improve accessibility, we made a few changes to our past practices. To enhance the readability of our PowerPoint slides, we chose high-contrast images from the Noun Project.

On our finished slides, we ran Microsoft Office Accessibility Checker. It recommended adding alt-image tags, which we did. We then converted the already accessible PowerPoint to an accessible PDF via SensusAccess, which converts documents into a range of media including audio files, mp3, ebooks, and digital Braille. Lastly, we tested the PDF with Adobe Acrobat voice reader. Our experimentation provided various formats and methods of representation. We made our lesson PDF available to students. Overall, we found these steps novel but not time-consuming.

Closing Thoughts

During our three-month exploration, we became more mindful of how disability affects student learning. In March, we taught a session on fake news to middle school students. It was apparent that one student wasn’t participating. While the class was engaged in small group work reading an assigned article from a computer screen, we asked the student, individually, about what she thought of the article. The student responded, “I don’t know. I can’t read it.” After a follow-up question, it became clear that the student had vision issues but was not comfortable asking for help. We increased the screen’s font size, and the student’s face lit up. “Now I can read it!” she said. After that, the student participated fully. In this instance, a simple remedy of adjusting font size helped a student feel empowered and included in a class activity.

We warmly invite you to participate in accessibility awareness activities on May 17. You probably know someone affected by a disability. Think about one step you can take to improve accessibility.


Shalini Ramachandran and Sheree Fu are Science & Engineering Librarians at the University of Southern California Libraries, Los Angeles.

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