New Roles for Association Pros
Equity and Accessibility

Working for Everybody

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As leader on accessibility at the American Library Association, Hillary Pearson encourages staff and members to improve their workplaces. Step one: Look around you.

When Hillary Pearson joined the American Library Association in late 2022 as its program manager, accessibility services, her mandate was straightforward: Support ALA’s mission of making sure everyone has access to information.

 Of course, that can be easier said than done. Part of Pearson’s job is to help support and develop accessibility initiatives at the libraries where ALA members work. But she’s also working on how ALA operates internally. In either case, part of the job means encouraging people to look at their environments in ways they’re not accustomed to. Don’t just look for who’s participating. Look for who’s not—and why that might be.

“Attitudinal barriers very much exist,” she says. “If folks don’t see who’s coming into your space, or don’t see a group or community in the space, there’s an assumption that those people don’t need your service.”

Leading on accessibility involves more than just promoting tools and supporting ADA regulations, she says. It’s an ongoing process of teaching people how to look at the world differently.

Don’t just look for who’s participating. Look for who’s not—and why that might be.
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Setting the Stage

Pearson developed a passion for accessibility practices while working at a nonprofit theater company in downtown Chicago. A trip to the theater, she found, presents a host of potential roadblocks for people. Website access. ASL interpretation for the hearing-impaired. Audio descriptions for those who are blind or low vision. Straightforward ways for people to communicate their access concerns.

“It’s thinking about being able to offer a slate of options,” she said. “Because you don’t know what the experiences are of people coming through the doors—what they navigated through and what barriers they encountered.”

In her first six months at ALA, much of her work has involved listening to the association’s different departments and their work processes. Regardless of the department, she prompts them with the same question.

“In every organization, you want to ask: How does accessibility play a role in my job?” she said. “If it’s content, it’s making sure that content is accessible, whether that’s in print, or email, or for folks who are using screen readers.”

Because the impact of accessibility is so wide-ranging, Pearson dedicates much of her attention to staff training and onboarding, so employees are educated on relevant trends and concerns.

“You want to look at what everybody’s onboarding experience is,” she said. “What are the required trainings that introduce your culture to new staff members? Does it include disability etiquette and an introduction to disability culture? One in four people in the United States have a disability. Look around your space: Whether your team is virtual and you’re looking at Zoom squares or you’re looking at cubicles, it’s one in four. So, creating a foundation of disability training is really important.”

First Steps

Pearson recommends that any association looking to address accessibility first get past any feelings of intimidation. “I think a lot of times, fear is still a huge barrier—not knowing where to start or thinking that if you don’t get it 100 percent right the first time, it’s a failure,” she said. “You’re making incremental change. What can you do now? What can you do in five years?”

To help with that, associations can partner with groups that are focused on particular disabilities. Don’t guess about what people need, she cautions—reach out to them to learn what barriers they may face in your workplace. ALA, for instance, invites a Chicago disability advocacy group to deliver trainings.

Beyond that, she says, be ambitious and as open as possible. “Accessibility is about going past compliance and thinking about services beyond just what has been baked into civil rights laws and standards,” she said. “Look at where the opportunities are to build beyond and above compliance. The ADA is the floor, not the ceiling.”

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel.

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