Alternative Voices: An Interview with Adam Szczepaniak, Chair of ASCLA’s Accessibility Assembly, and Mike Marlin, Director of the California Braille and Talking Book Library
By Thom Shelton
Thom Shelton: When did the Accessibility Assembly start?
Adam Szczepaniak: The Accessibility Assembly started in 1992, so it’s been twenty-three years.
TS: What are the mission and goals of the Accessibility Assembly?
AS: We are concerned with advancing ALA’s continuing commitment to diversity and accessibility of library and information services for all, including people with physical, sensory, and mental disabilities. We work to facilitate and improve access at ALA’s two semiannual conferences for any handicapped conference attendee or member through providing a variety of technology or specialty staff, and liaisoning with ALA staff to try to get access issues resolved at the conferences. A second goal is that we serve as an interchange of ideas to consider and facilitate access for a great variety of disability and special needs which can arise. Accessibility Assembly also addresses the matter of the best access possible to ALA’s web platforms, such as the ALA website and ALA Connect, teleconferencing, web conferencing, [or] chat room software for any ALA member whether handicapped or not handicapped. Although we address these issues, we are limited by our size and number of volunteers in our oversight, and it should be understood that we are not geared for universal accessibility issues for library patrons or even library staff.
TS: What are the goals of the Interest Groups of the Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies(ASCLA)?
AS: The Interest Groups are virtual groups hosted on ALA Connect, the active online member community of ALA. Each community comes together to share knowledge and enthusiasm for a specific subject or population, and make valuable contributions to ASCLA and its core interests of strengthening the usefulness, efficiency, and services of for example, library agencies and individuals which provide materials to populations with special needs(as those with sensory, health, physical, or behavioral conditions or [those who have] been incarcerated or detained), state agencies, and library cooperatives, or independent librarians working in non-traditional settings. Interest Groups can set up discussion forums for members, plan and present programs for the ALA Annual [conference], present and sponsor webinars and online courses, or publish standards, guidelines, [or] books. Of the current Interest Group list, five of the groups deal with either types of disability or underserved populations, and one is for universal access.
TS: What are some of the services which Accessibility Assembly and ALA provide at the ALA Conferences?
AS: We provide scooters and wheelchairs for immobile conferees, and software on some of the computers such as screen reader and optical character recognition software for the blind. Also for those who cannot hear, it is standard to provide professionals who can sign for the audiences as well as make sure text is displayed on a screen. There is also reserved seating in the front row for the hearing impaired.
TS: What are some of the challenges which the Accessibility Assembly is facing, and how do you plan to meet these challenges?
AS: A major challenge is recognizing the accessibility needs of each population and addressing those needs. The marketplace is developing more products to meet these needs. The Assembly can help to educate what products are available.
Thom Shelton: What services and technologies are available from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) to legally blind and print disabled populations?
Mike Marlin: There are many technologies and their marketplace is increasing. One example is the digital talking book machine, which NLS loans to users on a long-term basis. It has digital cartridges, which are inserted, and they can hold up to 10-12 books. One of our services is Braille and Audio Reading Download(BARD), which allows downloading from our large database of books, and also there is a BARD mobile app for smart phones, which allows downloading from our collection. There are a lot of apps that are accessible to smart phones through downloading, and other resources to provide content, including from services like BookShare.org and Audible.com. JAWS (Job Access With Speech) is a screen reader software which is designed for reading almost any material from the Internet. There is also screen magnifier software which regulates the size of text, and ZOOMTEXT is one of the most prominent in this market. Another type of screen reader is Non Visual Desktop Access(NVDA) which is open source. An example of optical character recognition scanning software and machine is SARA(Scanning and Reader Application). It scans a hard copy of a document, converts it to text and then reads it back to the patron. Besides [benefitting] the totally blind, these tools can benefit any visually impaired or learning disabled patron.
TS: What are some of the challenges, which the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped and all of its state organizations including California Braille and Talking Book Library are facing, and how are you meeting them?
MM: To have enough budget and staffing are probably the biggest challenges we face. Since the recession, resources have been more limited for marginalized and underserved populations, and you are always struggling to maintain services. Another important challenge is getting the word out to prospective users about our services. For example, in the USA, there are possibly twenty million people who are legally blind, dyslexic, have low vision, or are otherwise print disabled people who are all eligible for these services. I think that the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped estimates that there are currently 400,000 to 500, 000 who are currently served nationwide by the individually sponsored libraries in each state, but millions more are eligible. It’s a well-kept secret that we are a free taxpayer funded service within the Library of Congress. We do a lot of work in publicity and some of these tasks include my Outreach Librarian and [me] speaking to blindness centers, disability foundations, nursing homes and care facilities, consumer groups, veterans’ centers and many other organizations, plus our quarterly newsletter to all public library systems in California, and to institutions and patrons we serve. Ambassadors including members of our advisory council also spread the word about our service. I am sure that these publicity efforts are similar in other states.
TS: What do you think are some of the challenges new blind or handicapped library professionals and students encounter within ALA? Do you have recommendations for how to deal with them?
MM: ALA is a large, complex organization, and one can be easily overwhelmed or confused after first joining or when first attending a conference. If attending a conference, a handicapped professional should contact conference services in order to have his or her specific accessibility need addressed. The member would also be welcome to attend any programs of special needs interest groups or meetings of the Accessibility Assembly at the conference. When not during a conference, a new member could look up either the Chair and Board members of Accessibility Assembly on the ALA website, and especially the leaders of the Interest Groups within the Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies, also on the ALA website. Each of the Interest Groups has activities, and the member could begin by contacting the leader to join or [by] subscribing to the Interest Group’s discussion list. Another resource is the ASCLA listserv and the various listservs of its Interest Groups where questions and suggestions can be shared.
TS: What are some of the plans of Accessibility Assembly for the next five or more years?
AS: Hopefully, the Assembly will function as a focus point that helps to meet the needs of ALA members while introducing [them] to other products that can meet their accessibility needs in other arenas. We also hope to do more outreach.
TS: What are some of the plans of the NLS, its network of state libraries, and your library for the next five or more years?
MM: We hope to accommodate more demand for our BARD service and to have more Braille and foreign language materials. There are a number of possibilities with advances in technology, including wireless delivery of materials to talking-book machines and mobile devices. We are especially hopeful for the development of a refreshable Braille e-Reader. NLS plans to expand outreach to eligible people with reading disabilities and to form stronger partnerships with organizations such as BookShare and Learning Ally.
TS: Do you have anything else you would like to add?
MM: There is not really one joint Universal Accessibility Group within ALA with the context of disability, but there is a joint meeting of the individual universal accessibility groups of ASCLA, LITA, [and] ACRL at each ALA Annual, and a joint listserv can be found on the page of ACRL’s Universal Accessibility interest group page(see below).
Anyone interested in learning more about the work of Accessibility Assembly and ASCLA Interest Groups can find information at
Besides ASCLA’s Interest Group on universal accessibility, one can learn about the LITA Accessibility Interest Group and the ACRL Universal Accessibility Interest Group at
Thom Shelton is a librarian at Skyland Trail, a psychiatric rehabilitation program for adults in Atlanta, Georgia. He wrote this article when serving on the Diversity Subcommittee of the Membership, Promotion, Diversity, and Recruitment Committee from 2014-2015.