Digital Accessibility in Libraries: A Primer

What you need to know to provide accessible online experiences to people with disabilities.

Accessibility is building for people in all the ways they come to libraries. Whether a person identifies as disabled or not, everyone can have a disabling experience. Nuance exists within the spectrum of situational (sun is making the screen harder to view), temporary (a healing broken arm), and permanent (chronic pain from a genetic back disease) disabilities. The intensity with which a person may experience a disability may vary each time and throughout their life. 

In many communities and workplaces, disability is a stigma and people may not disclose their situation for fear of retaliation or social impact. Some people may not identify as disabled, some may identify as disabled but have not sought disability benefits or services, and others may have applied for disability benefits from the federal government. The number of people federally recognized with disabilities is vastly misaligned with the reality of daily life.

Libraries provide services and materials to everyone, regardless of how people come to us. From the American Library Association, the first core value of librarianship is: “All information resources that are provided directly or indirectly by the library, regardless of technology, format, or methods of delivery, should be readily, equally, and equitably accessible to all library users.”

Disability types

Digital accessibility supports a wide range of disabilities. Often, people will experience multiple disabilities simultaneously.

Visible disabilities that impair physical senses or mobility are more commonly recognized. These may include but are not limited to:

  • Visual (low or no vision): some people may rely on glasses, screen reader or voiced technology, or screen magnification;
  • Auditory (deaf or hard of hearing): some people may have ASL as their primary language, use a hearing aid, or require accurate captions;
  • Mobility (use a wheelchair, have tremors, or other mobility reducing effects): people with limited hand dexterity may use voice-activated software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking, hardware called Switches, or eye-tracking software

Cognitive (learning disabilities or neurodivergent) and mental health disabilities are sometimes labeled invisible disabilities. Some examples are:

  • Neurodivergent: differences in thinking, learning, mood, attention, and sociability. Amy Grace Wells defines the neurodivergent spectrum as:
    • ADHD: difficulty regulating attention (not a lack of it)
    • Autism: difficulty processing emotions or social interactions
    • Dyspraxia: difficulty processing motor control order
    • Dyslexia: difficulty processing language
  • Mental health: difficulty with tasks or limited cognitive processing capacity due to emotions, feelings, or memories. People may experience difficulty with fatigue, concentration, remembering, making decisions, feeling out of control, and avoidance of triggering situations. Some diagnoses include but are not limited to:
    • Anxiety disorder
    • Depression
    • Panic attacks
    • Trauma or PTSD

Accessibility journey

Accessibility in technology starts with a mental and cultural shift where the responsibility of inclusion lies with communities that make inaccessible decisions. Learn more about models of disability and other terminology. Everything a person does can affect someone else’s experience. Accessibility is everyone’s work; it manifests in daily decisions, great and small.

Everyone is at different stages of their accessibility journey, and everyone will make mistakes on that journey. Learning from those mistakes and learning how to apologize to people who were impacted by them are critical skills in this work. Be an ally to people with disabilities and to those trying to do the work. To quote Maya Angelou: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Because people are unique and the way they experience disabilities is also unique and changes with each situation, recognize that “100 percent accessible” doesn’t exist. What may make something more usable by one person may conflict with the needs of someone else. For this and many other reasons, disability advocates and accessibility specialists do not recommend using products called accessibility overlays, which make claims that with one line of code, a website will become 100 percent accessible. The accessibility community views these products as “actively harmful, and a step backwards for digital accessibility efforts.”

Where libraries have done everything to make something accessible yet still do not meet the needs of an individual, accommodations are requested. An example would be converting a print-only book into a different format for a blind patron.

Steps to start the journey

Digital formats and services have the potential to be equalizing for people with disabilities, but only when they are built to be accessible.

Note: Frequently, the word “accessibility” is abbreviated to “a11y”, where the 11 represents the number of letters between the “a” and the “y”. “A11y” also visibly resembles the word “ally”, which is what everyone should strive to become.

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