June 2012: Accessible Libraries for All

ALFA Fellows learn about digital Braille readers for people with visual disabilities.

University of Alabama

2010 Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian program

An ALFA fellow learns about digital Braille readers for people with visual disabilities.

Laurie J. Bonnici, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor,
University of Alabama
School of Library and Information Studies


Laurie J. Bonnici, Ph.D., is "always trying to find new solutions to old problems" – a motivation, she says, that helped give life to the Accessible Libraries For All (ALFA) program. This IMLS-funded initiative seeks not only to expand the concept of universal accessibility in libraries, but to prepare a new generation of professionals for the task.

Historically, federal law has been the driver of library services for the disabled. "The Americans with Disabilities Act says that anyone with a medically diagnosed severe disability has access to services," says Bonnici, Principal Investigator for ALFA and Assistant Professor at the University of Alabama’s School of Library and Information Studies. As a result, "libraries – as federally funded institutions – have traditionally focused on people with severe disabilities, particularly visual impairments. These people represent about 35 percent of the population.1

"That’s important, of course," she adds. "People with mild to moderate impairment, however, represent approximately 45 percent of the population."2

It’s this large but relatively overlooked group – which Bonnici calls the "Extra-Legally Ability Challenged" or "ELAC" – that she and her colleagues wanted to identify, investigate, and find new ways to serve with the help of an IMLS grant.

The ELAC group is comprised largely of "people in the aging population," says Bonnici. They may have one or more physiological impairments that affect their hearing, vision, and/or mobility – difficulties that may not be obvious to a librarian. For example, "someone with peripheral arterial disease may have a hard time using a touch screen device," explains Bonnici.

Bonnici envisioned a graduate level degree program for aspiring library professionals that would "embrace this philosophy of universal accessibility," she says. Through the program, students would gain the requisite knowledge and training to assist and serve both the ELAC and legally disabled populations for decades to come.

Bonnici and her co-PI Dr. Stephanie Maatta (Wayne State University), recruited a group of students seeking master’s degrees in the field at the University of Alabama and Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. "Our recruiting strategy was to go out to leaders in the field, talk about our project and talk about people who they thought might be right for this program," she says.

Recruitment efforts yielded a diverse group of 30 students, most of whom are enrolled through distance education. "We have students of different races and ethnicities. We have a student who is mobility impaired and one who is hearing impaired," says Bonnici. "We consider ELAC another area of diversity."

The students – known as ALFA scholars – were divided into alpha and beta cohorts for the program. They embarked on a curriculum of study centered on issues of universal access and service to special needs populations.

Four functional components define the program. "First, all students go through an orientation, which creates an element of community," explains Bonnici. Second, students complete two additional required courses, beyond the standard degree requirements, designed to foster greater awareness and understanding of physiological disabilities, aging, and related issues for library and information professionals.

One of the required courses focuses on technologies used to serve the ELAC and legally disabled populations. "Part of the grant funds have been used to purchase Mac computers for the students," adds Bonnici. "The Mac operating system tends to be more user-friendly for people with impairments."

A third element of the program is unique field trips that give students a firsthand look at accessibility issues in practical settings. At the American Library Association annual meeting, a mobile lab allowed students to experience through simulation what it’s like to have a disability. In the spring, students traveled to Daytona Beach, Florida to visit the state’s Division of Blind Services’ Bureau of Braille and Talking Books.

"The students also traveled to Atlanta to visit the Georgia Public Library Service in tandem with the Alabama Public Library Service to find out how they address special needs populations," explains Bonnici. They were also able to tour an installation called Dialogue in the Dark, an experience in total darkness where, led by blind guides and trainers, visitors learn to interact and communicate by relying on other senses. "For a little over an hour, you’re taken through the world as if you were blind," says Bonnici.

"These organizations have been incredibly generous," Bonnici adds. "They received no funding from the grant at all, but were very engaged in our activities. They have hosted our students, offered them internships, and provided refreshments for us – and in this time of budget cuts, that is no small favor. This project would not be possible without them."

The final component of the degree program is a service learning project or experiential project. "It’s similar to an internship," explains Bonnici.

This capstone project allows a student to pursue a particular area of interest in depth. For example, "One University of Alabama fellow left a tech company in Tennessee to be part of the program. She’s interested in how people with disabilities access art collections – how does a blind person experience an art museum?" says Bonnici. "I’m working with her to place her in an internship in a museum. She can learn about the exhibit side of museums, but she also can establish an information side at the institution and bring in the idea of universal accessibility through technology application."

The ALFA scholars have shown superior commitment and dedication so far, according to Bonnici. "The extra effort during the recruiting process, supported through IMLS funding, really panned out," she says. The program will see its first graduates in December 2012.

Acknowledging the difference "between educating students for the profession and actual practice," Bonnici is anxious to find out where students land after graduation. "Are they carrying the universal access philosophy with them in their professions? Did the educating we’re doing have an impact?" she wonders aloud.

Bonnici and her team will track students after graduation. For the first five years they’ll check in yearly, then every five years after that for as long as possible. All of the students have established websites and blogs, and Bonnici has encouraged them to maintain these sites. "We’ll also survey them and hold reunions," she says. "We’re hoping our 30 students are presenting at professional conferences and working at nonprofits and private organizations in addition to public libraries."

Students may leave academia to pursue their careers, but Bonnici expects the degree program to live on. "We don’t see it as dying with the funding," she says. "We are working with heads of the academic departments to get the special courses regularized so that anyone coming into the degree program will have the opportunity to take them."

Bonnici also will continue to do research and look for new ways to apply the ELAC concept. "We have a new colleague here at the University of Alabama in the field of school library media," she explains. "She’s very interested in extending the ELAC concept to school libraries and to children with mild/moderate disabilities. We’re thinking of applying for further funding to branch out into this area."

Bonnici is also sharing what she’s learned with other institutions. "We have a website so that other people and schools can see what we’ve done, learn from it, and replicate it," she says. "Syllabi from our courses will be available there."

She also wants to "go international." Much is going on in Europe and Canada, according to Bonnici, where the definition of disability tends to be more inclusive. "We’re trying to present at international conferences and have open discussions," she says. "I attended the Aging and Society Conference last year and we will be presenting in Helsinki later this year at the International Federation of Library Associations, Technology Section. We’re excited to share what’s going on in this program."

Bonnici also is excited about the future. "We’re preparing professionals who embrace this philosophy of universal accessibility," she says. "They will think about how people with mild, moderate, and severe disabilities interact with the library."

"We are educating them in a philosophy," she says, "which goes way beyond training."

1. National Institutes of Health, National Eye Institute, 2004. Refers to the entire visually impaired population, which includes moderate to severe.
2. Derived from 2009 U.S. Census Bureau data.