NAU part of group receiving $1 million grant to improve accessible learning

Jan. 17, 2018

Northern Arizona University and six other universities known as leaders in accessibility received a $1 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to fund Federating Repositories of Accessible Materials for Higher Education, a two-year project that aims to streamline the process of providing resources for students with print disabilities.

The participating universities will work with their libraries, disability services offices and in some cases, presses to share information through digital source files, create new workflows and identify and adapt to potential delays in the publishing process. Other partners providing support include digital repositories HathiTrust, Bookshare and The Internet Archive as well as The Association of Research Libraries.

“This project provides the opportunity to partner with major institutions and libraries across the country to gain access to the accessible versions of materials that we all have,” disability resources director Jamie Axelrod said.

A growing population, students with print disabilities require text that has been reformatted for digital use such as with screen readers, text-to-speech software and other types of audio delivery services, sometimes with the aid of a human assistant.

Axelrod explained how the project will help simplify the process of acquiring this type of text.

“Now, when a student needs an accessible version of their course or research materials, instead of needing to remediate those materials ourselves, we may be able to get those materials for the student quickly, easily and without delay.”

This includes the creation of library infrastructure Educational Materials Made Accessible (EMMA) at the University of Virginia, lead university of the project. EMMA will handle authentication, search, selection and download as well as an upload path for texts produced or remediated at NAU and the other participating universities. Ultimately, university librarians or disability services officers working for students of faculty with disabilities will have ready access to materials produced by any of the other participants, including the three partner repositories, in one place.

NAU has been involved since the project began in 2015 with a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Studies to research ways of improving access to instructional materials. One of the primary authors of that grant had attended a workshop presented by Axelrod and Teresa Haven on The Association of Higher Education and Disability and asked the two for assistance in moving the grant forward. When the initial grant ran out, the group continued their work, applying to the Andrew W. Mellon foundation to fund the next step; Federating Repositories of Accessible Materials for Higher Education. Cline Library Dean Cynthia Childrey and Electronic Reserves Services manager Damon Burke also are part of NAU’s implementation team, along with Axelrod.

Childrey said the collaboration, not only between all the universities but between the library and disability resources office at each university, is critical to the initiative’s success.

“Disability resources offices have taken on the work of making educational materials accessible, often with very few staff,” she said. “Libraries have expertise in managing and providing access to content. We make a natural and powerful team when we not only encourage content providers to make their products accessible but when we can also reuse and share content that has already been remediated at NAU and across the partner universities. The result is less duplication of effort and faster availability of content to students.”

Moving forward, the pilot group hopes their network of universities will expand to share the advantages this project provides.

“This will benefit students with disabilities by ensuring their access to course and research materials when they need them,” Axelrod said. “It will allow NAU to respond to students’ needs for materials even more quickly than we do now. It will also allow us to focus some more of our efforts and energies on other accessibility programs and projects because the time and energy necessary to provide accessible materials will be reduced significantly.”