Social Media, the ‘Net’ and Disability

During summer 2011, I participated in an online continuing education program called “23 Things for Professional Development.” The program leaders described “23 Things” as “a self-directed course aimed at introducing you to a range of tools that could help your personal and professional development as a librarian, information professional or something else. Each week, we’ll write about one or more tool from our list of 23 things and invite you to try it out and/or reflect on how it could help your professional development. Some of the tasks will be practical “Things” for you to try out straight away, and some of them will be less immediate: ideas to try in the future, or things you can start working towards now and realize in due course or when opportunity arises!”

To take part, participants needed to set up a blog if they didn’t have one, register it with “23 Things” and use it to reflect on each of the 23 “Things.” I used my existing library-related blog, Susie Learns 2.0 to participate. Although the target audience was librarians, the program was “for anyone who thinks they might benefit from it….”

Benefits of Participation

Did I benefit from participation? Yes, I did. I learned about a variety of social media and online tools that I wouldn’t have experimented with otherwise. Some of the “Things” I was already using, others were new to me. Some of the “Things” that were unfamiliar, I realized I would have a use for, others left me unimpressed or knowing I would not find them useful.

Reading posts from other participants and writing my own showed me there are numerous creative and innovative librarians and librarians-in-training who are taking on the challenge of learning to use technology and social media. We are acknowledging the profound change wrought by the Internet and social media. We are also thinking about how it affects and is changing not only libraries, but the profession as a whole. Some of the changes and technology we accept and embrace enthusiastically, some we struggle with or reject and still other changes we fret about wondering about the true impact in the long term.

Disabilities and New Technology

How does “23 Things” relate to the themes of WinAhead’s World? Higher education is also wrestling with the changes wrought by technology and social media. Partly because I participated in “23 Things,” I’ve been thinking about social media, technology and disabilities, in the context of online learning. I have a nagging feeling that many of the “Things” we experimented with would not be all that “user friendly” for individuals with disabilities, particularly visual, motor or learning disabilities. That isn’t to say that Google products like Gmail, Calendar, Blogger and Docs or Twitter, Evernote, Pushnote, Cite-u-like, Slideshare, Flicker and other media are not being used by individuals with disabilities for they are. But, depending on the disability, these media are probably not as “out-of-the-box” usable as they are for individuals without disabilities.

Technological Innovation only Part of the Problem

It’s not just emerging technology and social media that are problematic. Disability Service providers often struggle to get accessible textbooks from publishers and still find themselves caught in a conflict that should have been worked through long ago the conflict between the rights of publishers to make money and the civil rights of people with disabilities. There are also ongoing challenges inherent in making the campus LMS and/or new technologies deployed in the classroom accessible and user-friendly. With individuals with disabilities such a large untapped consumer market and higher education also a lucrative market, designing with disability in mind should be a strong incentive for publishers and software and technology designers.

Designing with Disability in Mind

When this blog was created, WordPress was chosen over Google Blogger because was identified as the better choice if one was thinking about accessibility issues. WordPress still has some progress to make to really support accessibility, particularly in terms of the choice of themes that genuinely support accessible page creation. That said, accessibility is addressed and helpful tips are provided at the Accessibility Support page and at the Codex. Google has similar information at Making Google Accessible. However, WordPress and other blogging tools still require authors to have some awareness of accessible publishing. The key to improving this lack of awareness is education. Education, not tools, is the key to better accessibility.

The basic tools exist for making books, websites and other media accessible. If education is the key, this leads me to wonder, “What needs to happen for developers, designers and creators of new technology and social media to understand the economic and social value of designing and creating ‘with disability in mind?'”

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About WINAHEAD

WINAHEAD is made up of representatives from twenty-nine institutions. Our members are professionals employed by two- and four-year colleges and universities who work directly with students with disabilities to ensure equal access to higher education. WIN indicates the geographic area we represent: Western Iowa and Nebraska. AHEAD is our national parent organization, the Association on Higher Education and Disability.
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