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Accessible Library and Information Science with Rachel Combs

Rachel Combs is a Disabilities Accommodations Consultant and Professor in the School of Information Science at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky. In this conversation, Rachel and I discuss her work with Project ENABLE which stands for Expanding Non-discriminatory Access By Librarians Everywhere and which seeks to raise librarians’ understanding of the library and information needs of disabled students and develop programs, services, resources, and technologies to meet those needs. We also discuss what she is doing at the University of Kentucky to reach all students and patrons and decrease barriers to access for all. You’ll find resources associated with this conversation on the website and thank you for listening to this conversation on the Think UDL podcast.


Reach Rachel Combs via email at or via Rachel Combs LinkedIn profile!

Learn more about Project ENABLE here!


Episode 117 edit 2

Thu, Oct 12, 2023 10:13PM • 41:18


library, learning, students, librarians, utilizing, udl, session, universal design, disabilities, information, inclusive, users, providing, work, include, tools, patrons, libguide, offering, podcast


Rachel Combs, Lillian Nave

Lillian Nave  00:02

Welcome to think UDL, the universal design for learning podcast where we hear from the people who are designing and implementing strategies with learner variability in mind. I’m your host, Lillian nave. And I’m interested in not just what you’re teaching, learning, guiding and facilitating, but how you design and implement it and why it even matters. Welcome to Episode 117 of the think UDL podcast, accessible library and information science with Rachel combs. Rachel combs is a disabilities accommodations consultant, and Professor in the School of Information Science at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky. In this conversation, Rachel and I discuss her work with Project ENABLE, which stands for expanding non discriminatory access by librarians everywhere, and which seeks to raise librarians understanding of the library and information needs of disabled students and develop programs, services, resources and technologies to meet those needs. We also discuss what she is doing at the University of Kentucky to reach all students and patrons and decrease barriers to access for all. You’ll find resources associated with this conversation on the think website. And thank you for listening to this conversation on the think UDL podcast. Thank you to our sponsor Texthelp, a global technology company helping people all over the world to understand and to be understood. It has led the way in creating innovative technology for the workplace and education sectors, including K 12. right through to higher education for the last three decades. Discover their impact at text dot help forward slash learn more, that’s learn m o r e. I’d like to welcome Rachel combs from the University of Kentucky to the think UDL podcast. Thank you, Rachel, for spending your time with me.

Rachel Combs  02:32

Thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate this opportunity.

Lillian Nave  02:36

I’m really glad I’ve had specific questions about UDL in in library and information science. And so I’m especially interested in your views also on accessibility especially. But first, let me ask what makes you a different kind of learner.

Rachel Combs  02:54

So I think that I’m like many people in that my learning styles and preferences have changed over the course of my life. When I was in K through 12, I relied heavily on auditory processing and kinesthetic learning. And then in college, I noticed that reading and highlighting and using index cards and lots of repetition was what I felt like I utilized most in my undergrad. But I will say that I think that was problematic because I spent a lot of time memorizing this and then regurgitating it and then immediately forgetting once the exam was over. And so when I was in grad school years later, I was also working full time for the University of Kentucky library system. And I suddenly experienced disability and I had to pivot my modes of learning. So I had a detached retina and I had to have emergency eye surgery, which left me temporarily blind in my right eye for about 12 weeks. And I had to shift from reading all of the online materials to suddenly using text to speech software as often as possible. Since my left I had to work double time, so I was constantly getting migraines, extreme fatigue in the one eye that actually did work. Luckily, many of the journals and required reading materials were available through text to speech. But for many other reasons, I had to suddenly figure out how do I utilize this read aloud function. And I utilize that in Adobe PDF and word you know and beyond. For someone new to a visual impairment, it was overwhelming to have to essentially learn how to learn in different ways. And so the vision loss from actually later on detached the other retina as well. So I overtime had 10 eye surgeries And that really impacted the way I consumed information and it still can, you know, impacts me today. So it’s caused me to shift to other learning strategies, and UDL principles are really supported me personally. So for me, if I’m learning something unfamiliar, I typically need to listen to it while simultaneously reading along or engaging with some type of visual. Having an outline or an agenda so that I can stay focused is incredibly help for me helpful for me as well. Nothing’s more frustrating to me, than to furiously take notes during the presentation, or to find out at the very end of the session that the slide deck will be provided after the session. Well, I realized that presenters don’t always want to reveal what’s being discussed for a variety of reasons. It can be incredibly helpful for many learners like myself to have that in advance. It also helps if I can move while on learning. So I like to ponder I like to think through challenging topics by walking around standing up at my desk. I am fortunate to have an adjustable desk, which has really helped me because when I’m losing my attention, I can, you know, stand up and do my work. And that helps me stay focused. Also, I’d like to use self stimulatory tools like fidget spinners, puppets, or even just repetitively shaking my leg, I find that seeking some sensory input allows my brain to focus on what I’m trying to learn while my hands or my body is busy.

Lillian Nave  06:59

Wow, you’ve had a lot of reflection on how you learn.

Rachel Combs  07:03

Yes. And it I think it it evolves over time. I mean, we might have those predispositions to have a certain learning preference, but then life happens, and we have to pivot. So

Lillian Nave  07:15

yeah, that’s great. You have really just gone down a big list of how UDL has really helped a lot of students, including like the fidget, fidget spinners, fidget things, or being able to move around all of those things that are outside of the traditional, and I’m using air quotes on a podcast that nobody can see. But traditional ways of lecture and like receiving information where you’re supposed to be still, I’m old enough where that was the way it was growing up. So and we realize that every learner is different, and we need to be thinking outside of those traditional ways. So thank you for that. And you have that you’ve been able to apply a lot of these things. So before we get into the UDL, Universal Design for Learning discussion for libraries and a library instruction, can you comment briefly on how libraries have been incorporating universal design because not just a classroom, but you have an actual physical space? So you talk about this, and you’ve been incorporating Universal Design recently?

Rachel Combs  08:31

Sure, yeah. So I think that libraries are at a place where they are really taking the time to think about moving beyond ADA compliance, and how to utilize UD principles to make their environments more inclusive. So they have been working to create flexibility in spaces with movable furniture, adjustable lighting, individuals study spaces, also utilizing zoning. So there may be particular places within the library where it’s a quiet zone, and heavily enforced to ensure that those students who need that absolute silence to be successful, and then having collaborative zones where anything goes, Yeah, so just providing a variety of spaces allows the user to customize their environment. And so I’ve seen a lot of libraries making progress in that area. Also something that libraries have been utilizing for years that they just recently, I think have greatly improved upon our lib guides, and other tools. These tools are used to create Subject Guides, or course guides, specifically for a particular course. These tools have greatly improved over time as companies utilize these universal design for learning ensembles when they redesign it, the LibGuides offers so many benefits. So librarians can customize a guide for a specific course, or even a specific assignment, and then organize all of the informational resources and tools that the user will need to meet that outcome. So just having a very tidy place for students to go to that will be available throughout the semester. So that they can touch base and Oh, I forgot about that. Let me rewatch this video that’s on this LibGuide. So really providing that organization and structure, but also multiple ways to engage with the content that’s on that guide. And then I just think lastly, library management systems have drastically improved. So I think they’re becoming more intuitive. allowing for greater tolerance for error, improving discoverability so many users rely on Google for research. Yes. So I think companies are actually utilizing what they’re learning from Google to improve how intuitive it is to navigate their discovery systems. So I think that there’s yeah, there’s a lot that libraries are currently doing to really incorporate universal design. But this is still a very big area that I have people reach out to me about, like, how can I make my space more inclusive? How can I make my library instruction session more inclusive? What do I need to think about moving forward. And so one resource that I’m really proud to be a part of that I always want to encourage librarians to utilize is the Project ENABLE website. So I previously served on the project advisory committee for Project enables program library services to patrons with disabilities, a problem based learning approach. Project enabled stands for expanding non discriminatory access by librarians everywhere, and it’s funded by grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. It provides free foundational training designed specifically for public academic or school librarians worldwide, to help them gain the knowledge and skills needed to create inclusive and accessible libraries that meet the needs of all students. So I highly recommend that librarians check out the many free resources that are available on the Project ENABLE website, that’s a great starting point.

Lillian Nave  12:53

Great, and you know, we’ll have a link then also with the resources for this podcast episode, so that folks can find that Project ENABLE, and I’ve seen a couple of them embedded in some of the things that you’ve done. And it’s really, very thoughtful. And I have seen how libraries have changed from very quiet and very static places into now being really the center’s have campuses and and they’re called the Information Commons, you know, rather than just libraries, right, that has a very different feel. And one more plug to for lib guides, or library guides. I have loved anytime I’ve been able to work with a librarian, which is every class because it makes it makes the instructors life so much easier when we’ve got a librarian paired with us to help my students find the information or the databases that they might need for my research project, and having that LibGuide is in a valuable, and as you said a great resource to have asynchronously for students. And I do keep sending them back and saying, Hey, have you looked at this, Hey, remember, there’s a how to video of how to search, right? And the key words and all those things that depending on each student, some students come in with that knowledge. And some students just do not they have not done college level research, or they are pretty much Google searchers. And haven’t done actual college research. So having all of those kind of meet the students where they are where, you know, yeah, and it’s a whole bunch of stairsteps as to where they might be in that area has been so helpful. I must say to me, so I love our librarians they are they make my life easier as a instructor. So thank you so much for that.

Rachel Combs  14:45

That’s great. That’s great. And one thing I didn’t mention is that oftentimes universities have embedded librarians who work throughout the semester with an instructor in a particular class and so If they’re using, you know, Canvas, for example, they will have access to that Canvas course show and support the instructor in different ways. And there’s even ways to build in the LibGuide into Canvas so that students aren’t having to go somewhere else for that information. But it’s all in that core shell. So yeah, there’s a lot of great things that libraries are doing.

Lillian Nave  15:24

Yeah. And we have that as well. We have the embedded LibGuides, we use Moodle. But so any, you know, Course Management System learning management system, I think we can have that integration for our students. And, you know, another, this is a little aside here, but my daughter went to a small liberal arts college, and she was assigned a librarian in her freshman year. So you would, you know, can have assigned librarians to different courses. But this meant she had somebody who she could go to for her four years. And I thought, I want that. I want my own personal library. That is pretty amazing. So

Rachel Combs  16:04

yeah, that really is great. That continuity, that comfort level that that student would have. Yeah, that’s great.

Lillian Nave  16:13

Yeah. So well, Universal Design for Learning or UDL has its foundations in universal design and accessibility. But as you know, it extends far beyond physical accessibility. So wanted to ask about how you’ve applied one of those aspects, multiple means of engagement in Library and Information Sciences. And if you have some examples of what it looks like to engage patrons of, of the library.

Rachel Combs  16:41

Sure, yeah. So as we know, multiple means of engagement is the why of learning. And so think offering patrons different ways to interact with the content that interests them. So this could include roleplay. This could include activities, group discussions, utilizing Google Docs, or other tools that allow participants in a group to share their ideas in real time, while ensuring anonymity as well. So having that flexibility to be able to respond and not necessarily be linked to that particular person’s name, I think that can be really helpful for a lot of students. And then offering multiple ways to interact with the library. So for years, you know, there have been different options in person reference desks. Now, a lot of times, we’re seeing library users utilize anonymous chat. To ask a quick question. They’re also just scheduling, you know, time to meet one on one with librarians to do research. But a lot of our correspondence is via emails, well, I’ve seen some libraries place a large white board near the entrance that encourages patrons to leave a comment. So those who might not feel comfortable speaking directly to an employee, maybe they’re more likely to jot down their responses. So this can be such a low effort as well, for the student. It doesn’t require technology, it doesn’t require really time or effort. It’s conveniently and prominently located. So that’s just one way that libraries can offer that avenue for users to ask their question, share their comments. And then offering a variety of formats. So we know you know, recruiting their interest is oftentimes one of the biggest challenges. So providing physical handouts or sharing those electronically before the session, like I talked about earlier. Utilizing visuals, so photos, graphs, slide decks, auditory descriptions for those with visual impairments, and then utilizing tactile objects for key visuals that represent concepts like maps or graphs for those who are visually impaired, and then offering various programming. So messaging can be really challenging because we want it to be inclusive, and we don’t want to be promoting segregation at all. And so you have to be careful to not say this is a sensory storytime for autistic children. It should, you know, be just a storytime that neurotypical and neurodivergent individuals should be encouraged to engage with one another and not separately. So really being careful about the messaging is important. And then another example is library instruction, also referred to as information literacy sessions. In those situations, you can utilize tools like Padlet, or Mentimeter, which allows for real time engagement, while also allowing for anonymity. So, I mean, in public libraries, I think that we continue to see more and more inclusive programming opportunities that expand beyond storytime or book clubs. I’ve seen libraries that have Lego building classes, arts and crafts, sewing groups, yoga in the library, manga, clubs, books, and breasts, best friends, where people can read to therapy dogs, and then makerspaces for those kinesthetic learners. So the library has become, it’s no longer a place to just consume information, but to create it as well. And so library users really become producers, which I think really deepens their connection to libraries.

Lillian Nave  21:23

Wow, that’s fantastic. The the ideas now that libraries can become such a real community space is really changing. And definitely I see it on college campuses where it’s a place to meet up and to, to learn together in those specific zones, right, that that are allowed for that. And so I appreciate all of these various ways in which you’re adding multiple means of engagement. And could you talk a little bit more to about multiple means of representation as well?

Rachel Combs  22:04

Sure, yeah. And so just being able to present information in different ways throughout the library program, and not just choosing one method. So we know that variety as to interests and engagement, particularly the use of interactive methods of presenting information. And so some of those ways that information can be presented during a library workshop, or during a class or programs can include multiple formats, like lectures, discussions, videos, and I will say, with closed captioning and written transcripts, and other visual representations like graphs, charts, and photos, also utilizing debates or computer based presentations, using different media to explain a concept, including videos and infographics, and then even going as far as to download apps designed for students with disabilities, to understand what supports exists for them, and to understand how to navigate those because there may be questions that come up at the reference desk, where a librarian needs to support a student and having that baseline knowledge of some of the resources that are out there and that are available to support them can be really helpful.

Lillian Nave  23:30

Yeah, fantastic. One of those things that I have learned is that I may not have to be able to use all the technology, but being able to offer to my students that hey, there is this technology of voice to text or something like that, is going to be really helpful. So at least having those tools available, we don’t all have to use them. But having a knowledge of them and saying hey, this might be helpful is, is really a great. A great thing. And also something I do consider part of my role is knowing that this is out there for our students. So finally, multiple means of action and expression. How does that work in library and information science.

Rachel Combs  24:14

So providing different ways to allow the patrons or library users to demonstrate what they’ve learned? So when we think of this as the assessments and practice piece, I think that some ways that students can demonstrate their learning could be written evidence of learning, media based or technology based evidence of learning, including videos interactive learning games like Kahoot. Questioning where we encourage patrons to ask questions. Consider and I mentioned this earlier, but utilizing a shared Google Doc or some other tool so that students can compile out all of their ideas, and then make it available to those students beyond that session. So providing them the link to reflect later on to even provide additional ideas as they digest that information that continues to maximize their learning and making that available for the other students to really think on that and digested as well.

Lillian Nave  25:28

Great ideas here. And things I’ve definitely seen work very well, like you said earlier about, hey, it would be great to know I’m getting the slides at the end of the session, instead of furiously writing them down. Having that access to information and know ahead of time, oh, we’re gonna have this Google Doc to take home with us, or that we can work on asynchronously, is really important information for, for our students to know. And so that the, the pressure in the synchronous time is alleviated, and know that they can work on it, you know, pass the time or something like that, or can share those ideas. So, so you also do a lot of library sessions and introducing people to library and information science. And so I wanted to ask, what sort of questions if we want to if you’re setting up a library session? What sort of questions do you ask yourself? Or what should we be asking ourselves before starting a library session, whether it’s in person or online to get to know about library and information science?

Rachel Combs  26:39

Sure. So I think that a lot of those questions can be similar for the online and the in person session. But going ahead and thinking through all of the tools, all of the information, how is it provided? Is it going to be accessible for students with limited mobility, for example, is this an active learning situation where they have to get up and move around? Are there obstacles that are going to make it very challenging for them to navigate. And as we all know, there are a lot of invisible disabilities that impact mobility. And so we have to, really, as educators, we have to think beforehand and assume that we are going to have students with disabilities in our class, because we will, I mean, the chance of not having a student with a disability or who’s neurodivergent is slim to none. And so just going ahead and trying to think through the content and the delivery through those lenses, and see what kind of identify any potential access issues. And so you know, if we’re talking about the online library session, trying to make it more UDL friendly, providing spoken descriptions for all visual information, like images or graphics, having an anonymous survey before the session that specifically asks if the library user will need any accommodations, and they don’t have to out themselves. But I think having this anonymous survey allows the presenter to be better prepared, and to really think intentionally about the audience they’re going to be serving. And then ensuring the quality of the sound. So trying to minimize any loud or offensive sudden sounds like a phone going off. This can really derail a session, being able to utilize zoom or teams or other platforms to connect your video with your students online. So some students need to see us they need to see the person and make that connection to stay engaged in my disability and access and libraries graduate course. Each week, I provide the transcript, the slide deck, an audio only file and a video so that each student can customize their experience. So they get to choose one of the four and it’s all the same information. So there’s not going to be any missed opportunity if they access the transcript, for example. And you know, this is helpful for not only students with disabilities, but many of our graduate students work full time and they serve as caregivers. And so all of these different hats that they wear, so being able to listen to it on the commute home from work, things like that can be incredibly helpful. And then, you know, if you’re utilizing video I’ve seen this, this mistake happen a lot. The lighting can obviously fluctuate throughout the day. And so if the lighting is poor, and you have a user who’s trying to read lips, that’s going to be really problematic. So if you are using realizing a video really trying to plan in advance, actually go through that process, maybe you know, a couple days before at the same time that you’re planning to teach it, so that you kind of know how the sun is going to be reflecting. That way, you’re just going ahead and try to resolve any variables ahead of time. The other really important piece that I have found is that when you’re in a virtual environment, and it’s a synchronous class or a synchronous session, it’s really important to establish the ground rules. So the students know what to expect. And when I say ground rules, I’m thinking like, if you’re having a group meeting with multiple participants, you need to make sure that if you want people to participate using the chat box, that you’re monitoring the chat box.

Lillian Nave  31:20

Yeah, good idea. You’re actually looking for that?

Rachel Combs  31:24

No, because when we are in those zoom meetings, I know there are some sessions where if you don’t speak up verbally, then you don’t get your point across. And so I think honoring that is really important, because not everyone feels comfortable to unmute, and to share verbally. You know, and if someone’s trying to be respectful and not interrupt the speaker, we should not punish them by ignoring them, we should actually reward that behavior by acknowledging their question or their comment in the chat. Another thing is, do you need them to have their video constantly on during those sessions? Is that even necessary? Or can it be just for part of the session, like during the discussion piece, when you break out into smaller groups, many students can become consumed with how they’re being viewed. And they can become so hyper focused on how others might perceive them, that they may miss the content of the message. And so if there will be portions that require them to turn on their video or to unmute, letting them know that in advance so that they can mentally prepare. For many neurodivergent, individuals being abruptly put on the spot, can create a lot of unnecessary anxiety. And we know that not everyone’s quick on their feet, and they may need that extra time to process. And then the last thing, I will just say, you know, if you require participation, then you should allow a variety of ways to participate. So yeah, give them the option to type in the chat or even give them the option to private chat you if they don’t want everyone to see their response. Allow them to unmute if they prefer. If you really want to be inclusive, you can, you know, allow for those anonymous responses, like we talked about earlier through Padlet. Because this still allows for that immediate, immediate response, while maintaining anonymity. And, you know, if we don’t establish these expectations initially, it really can just lead to unpredictability, and chaos. And for some, just the inability to fully participate and learn.

Lillian Nave  33:58

Yeah, you know, one of the things that was a more recent addition to one of the platforms, I’ve used zoom in teaching that really changed for the better and my students loved was something called Focus Mode. And I’m not sure if it’s on multiple platforms, but what that allowed was that I could see the students but they didn’t see each other. So as you mentioned, there are some students who are who don’t want to look at themselves or or just seeing them selves reflected in the screen is distracting. And so, or they’re wondering, is everybody else are the other 20 students looking at me and my room or whatever, you know, the particular thought is, if you’re on focus mode, I said, Look, I can see you nodding your head I can see you following along, you know, with my statements, but you aren’t worried about everybody else looking at you because thinking of even in a tradition or even a non traditional classroom. Everybody’s not looking everybody’s face, you’re you’re seated around a circle or you’re in rows or something like that. And that’s not actually realistic to be looking at everybody’s face at the same time, except for perhaps the professor, the teacher is able to look at everyone’s face. So I found that as a little bit closer to what the classroom might be like, where folks are a little bit more anonymous, they’re, they’re not the focus of the attention that other people aren’t able to look at them all the time. Because, you know, you’d be looking at the back of somebody’s head, probably something like that. But it really made, I must say, student feedback was really positive, they really appreciated focus mode, of course, we could go off of that if we needed small groups, or if we needed to kind of have everybody participating and talking to each other. But even thinking about ways to do that, and allow for the variety of the students in your class, is brings down the anxiety level, and I think more closely approximates, yeah, that real teaching environment. So I really appreciated that you brought that part up that there there will be students who that’s uncomfortable for them and to be thinking about that.

Rachel Combs  36:16

Yes, exactly. And just a few other thoughts about that is that I know a lot of information literacy sessions, the librarians are really intentional about communicating the learning objectives at the very, very beginning of the session. So that, you know, students know what we’re going to be covering why it matters, what we want them to take away from that. And then trying to keep that short or brief and not attempting to address 10 different learning outcomes in one session. But just picking one or two learning outcomes, and really focus on those. And then if it’s part of an ongoing class, making those sessions scaffolded. And so building on each week, and recapping briefly what was reviewed last time, and then explain how that information will be built upon in the current session. And then reinforcing what already was learned while introducing those new concepts. And so I think that those can be really helpful as well.

Lillian Nave  37:26

So do you have any advice for you might give to other librarians who want to integrate universal design for learning into their programs and offerings? Let’s say they’re starting on this journey.

Rachel Combs  37:42

So I know I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of resources out there that are available. And I think that utilizing Project ENABLE can be really a great starting point. But if you’re working at a university, in particular, I think it’s going to be important that you collaborate with the Disability Resource Center, or whoever is over like instructional design for the college, and really get to know what they do and how they can support you. Because I think sometimes we make this mistake of thinking we have to do all the things and know all the things when really we just need to know who to reach out to and ask for help. And so rather than trying to recreate the wheel, I think reaching out to colleagues who have experience in this and utilizing Udo can just be really invaluable. And then when you have that back and forth, and you’re sharing what you’ve done and what hasn’t worked, and they share, you know what’s worked for them, that can just be even more fruitful to have those conversations.

Lillian Nave  38:58

Fantastic advice, I must say, and I appreciate your your role, too. As the disabilities accommodations consultant there, you’ve really shone a light on how to be accessible, and include that in your UDL trainings and so I really appreciate it. Thank you so much, Rachel, for being on the think UDL podcast.

Rachel Combs  39:21

Thank you so much for having me. This was great.

Lillian Nave  39:28

You can follow the think UDL podcast on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to find out when new episodes will be released. And also see transcripts and additional materials at the think website. Thank you again to our sponsor, textile Texthelp is focused on helping all people learn, understand and communicate through the use of digital education and accessibility tools. Texthelp and its people are working towards a world where difference disability and language are no longer barriers to learning and succeeding, with over 50 million users worldwide. The Texthelp suite of products includes Read and Write equates to an orbit note. They work alongside existing platforms such as Microsoft Office and G Suite and enable them to be integrated quickly into any classroom or workspace with ease. Texthelp has changed the lives of millions worldwide, and strives to impact the literacy and understanding of 1 billion people by 2030. Visit tech start help forward slash learn more, that’s l earn m o r e to unlock unlimited learner potential. The music on the podcast was performed by the Odyssey quartet comprised of Rex Shepherd, David Pate, Bill Folwell and Jose Coachez and I am your host, Lillian Nave. Thank you for joining us on The Think UDL podcast

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