The population of students with disabilities at institutions of higher education has increased substantially over the past few decades and many of those have print disabilities, including the largest subgroup, those with learning disabilities. Students with print disabilities require text that has been reformatted for screen readers, text-to-speech software, or other forms of audio delivery, often with human intervention. Universities have few staff to do that work. Without collaboration across campuses, wasted effort and delayed service are certain.
“Federating Repositories of Accessible Materials for Higher Education” is a two-year project newly funded by a $1,000,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to the University of Virginia which aims to address this problem. Led by University Librarian John Unsworth, this project will reduce duplication of remediation efforts across participating universities, allow the cumulative improvement of accessible texts, and decrease the turnaround time for delivering those texts to students and faculty. It will also foster new campus collaborations and bring academic libraries squarely into the business of providing support for the learning needs of students with print disabilities. Unsworth believes that this partnership “will one day include many other universities, will improve the delivery of library services and reduce their costs, and will help universities provide all students with a level playing field.”
The pilot group funded by this grant includes six other universities with a history of leadership on accessibility: George Mason University, Texas A&M University, the University of Illinois, Northern Arizona University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Vanderbilt University. At all of the participating universities, the library and the disability services office will be included in the work, and at four of them (GMU, UVA, Wisconsin, and Vanderbilt), university presses will also participate. “By providing digital source files and participating in the creation of new workflows,” said Dennis Lloyd, Director of the University of Wisconsin Press, “we can identify potential implementation challenges from the inside of the publishing process.”
The pilot also depends on HathiTrust, Bookshare, and The Internet Archive—three large digital repositories, each of which already provides service to users with print disabilities—to provide a federated network of storage and delivery and to draw on their individual networks of social commitment and technical expertise. The Association of Research Libraries will also provide support for a meeting of legal experts at the outset of the project.
The grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will fund the creation of library infrastructure at UVA called EMMA (Educational Materials Made Accessible) which will handle authentication, search, selection, and download, while also providing an upload path for texts produced or remediated on the campuses of the seven participating universities. EMMA will connect university librarians or disability service officers operating on behalf of students (or faculty) with disabilities at any of the seven participating universities to materials created on any of their campuses or by any of the three repositories. This project builds on work funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services in a grant co-directed by Laura Wood (then library director at Tufts University) and Mr. Unsworth (then library director at Brandeis University). That team conducted focus groups with disability services staff concerning the nature of their work, the formats involved, and the advice they receive from their university counsels on sharing their work products. Their work resulted in a white paper that documented the need for a scalable, collaborative, and national approach to the growing challenge of accessibility in higher education.