Making Technology Accessible to Everybody

How the Skokie Public Library formed community partnerships to ensure all patrons' technology needs were met.
Skokie, IL
Holly Jin and Gary Gustin

Known as "The World's Largest Village," Skokie is located near Chicago and has a population of 62,000. The Skokie Public Library serves a large number of older people, as many Holocaust survivors settled in the area. To meet the needs of these aging patrons, the Skokie Public Library has expanded its accessible technology, programs, and services. They are the perfect library to highlight Edge Benchmark 11: Libraries ensure participation in digital technology for people with disabilities.

On the front lines of the Skokie Public Library's accessible technology initiatives are librarians Holly Jin and Gary Gustin. Jin is the preschool services coordinator as well as the coordinator of services for children with special needs (watch a replay of the webinar TechSoup for Libraries did with Jin). Gustin is a reference librarian, but is also in charge of services for the disabled.

The Skokie Public Library has a computer lab with screen readers, zoom text, and large, high definition monitors. They also have special accessibility software, including OpenBook, which allows you to scan printed texts and play the text aloud as audio. The library uses the PEARL portable reading camera with OpenBook. They also have another program called Duxbury, a translator that can convert documents into braille. In addition to technology, the library also has a large children's braille collection, a talking books program, and its own braille embosser (for creating braille documents). Seems like a lot? This is just a sampling of what the Skokie Public Library offers its patrons with impairments.

What was the process was like for your library to embrace and adopt accessibility technology? 

"Our library is very committed to serving the whole community, so we really just look at people with disabilities as a piece of the diversity puzzle," Jin said.

The Skokie Public Library's board and director put a high priority on community accessibility. When the passion for valuing diversity is built into the culture of the library, it makes it easier to get everybody up-to-speed in training. 

Gustin said he provided the staff with binders containing simple instruction on using the hardware and software in the computer lab. He admits, however, that the instructions aren't enough. "If you are not using that [technology] on a regular basis, it is very hard to keep it in your head."

The library also holds trainings for the whole staff annually. Though it can be hard getting all 150 employees at the Skokie Public Library to training, the library has tried to work around people's schedules. They've had a social worker come in and do general sessions as well as smaller group trainings.

Does your library have specific accessibility goals included in its strategic plan?

The Skokie Public Library is currently revising its strategic plan, but both Jin and Gustin have a large hand in its objectives. "That can be anything from having a training session to working with Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind to increase our braille circulation," Jin remarked. 

What do you think the key to your success has been around providing these services to your community?

Jin and Gustin both agree: guidance and partnerships are the keys to the Skokie Public Library's success. For the Skokie Public Library, guidance came from professionals in the field such as a speech therapist, a special education teacher, and the local school district superintendent. The librarians formed an advisory group with these three professionals and later added parents of children with special needs.

Gustin said that the sales rep for adaptive technology for the visually impaired has been an excellent informant for up-and-coming software and tools. The library has also formed partnerships with community nonprofits, such as Guild for the Blind and Chicago Lighthouse. Gustin adds that they've also learned a great deal from the patrons themselves.

What would you have done differently?

Jin wishes she had gotten more parent input in addition to what she got from the schools. "The schools were definitely thinking from a curriculum standpoint when they recommended the books and technology." She also would have kept the advisory group going after the grant period ended. Gustin was pleased with how everything went, but he said that they should have formed community partnerships earlier in the process.

What advice would you give to a colleague?

Both librarians recommend starting with needs assessment: Learn what the community's technology needs are and plan around that. And again, Gustin and Jin emphasize the importance of community partnerships. Partnerships can help inform what some of the needs might be. They also recommend building an advisory committee of consultants from the community: special education professionals, tech experts, and special needs patrons and families.

What are three actions someone could take right now?

"Make your general computers more accessible," said Jin. There are a number of free accessibility tools available for Windows PCs. She recommends the Zac Browser, which is designed specifically for children with autism or special needs.

For print disabilities (meaning somebody who has a hard time reading print materials or a physical disability where they can't hold a book), Gustin and Jin recommend Bookshare. This is a federal government-assisted website that makes popular materials, textbooks, and new releases available in full text to users who apply for an account. The text can also be converted into an audio file and then downloaded onto an audio device. Bookshare is an easy way to provide the latest and greatest books to patrons with print disabilities.

Finally, the Skokie librarians recommend seeking out free training. Edge, the Association of Specialized & Cooperative Library Agencies (ASCLA), and, of course, TechSoup for Libraries all offer free webinars.

When a library is ready to get more involved in providing assistive technology and services, Jin and Gustin encourage librarians to reach beyond their walls and make community connections. Doing so can both help you gain valuable knowledge and also advertise your services to people who might not be aware of them.

"Libraries are about leveling the playing field. Technology is rapidly changing, so it is extremely important that we take the wheel," Jin said. "We want these people to have lifelong learning and access to technology."