From Environmental Scan to Action Plan: A Case Study in Accessibility

How libraries can use internal research to generate accessibility action.

After the University of Minnesota experienced potential accessibility legal action, the Libraries charged a new steering committee to more rapidly and cohesively move forward accessibility efforts. With a dozen members representing a broad range of library services, the Libraries Accessibility Steering Committee (LASC)’s first major project was to perform an environmental scan of the accessibility landscape. The scan would help define how to proceed through recommendations and actions within the Libraries.

Environmental scan for accessibility gaps

The report was delivered a year later in 2019 after research including 18 internal interviews with service owners, a survey of peer institutions, a list of potential university or local partners, and a literature review. It concluded that the Libraries had known and unknown accessibility gaps in its services for students, faculty, and staff, which could and should be addressed with ongoing support through time, personnel, and funding. The following key themes emerged:


Staff expressed a general awareness of accessibility. Many were familiar with accessibility principles and made a concerted effort to include these principles in their work when possible. Staff know that accessibility is an ongoing concern and that work related to accessibility needs to be maintained regularly.

However, accessibility work in the Libraries is often more reactive than proactive, for compliance or to meet accommodations rather than as inclusive thinking in daily work. Staff were aware of “hidden” disabilities such as color blindness, ADHD, and autism, but knew that hidden disabilities are not always given the same diligence as more apparent disabilities.

Staff appreciated the opportunity to discuss accessibility and expressed support of a formal accessibility committee to help structure the Libraries’ direction. They welcomed feedback for improvement.

More on this topic: Digital Accessibility in Libraries: A Primer


People knew what would improve accessibility but several issues hindered them. The top cited barriers were time, money, education about resources, and lack of control and guidance.

Time was a barrier. Attending to accessibility issues takes time. While staff believed this work is important, balancing accessibility issues with the rest of their work was challenging. Having formal responsibilities to address inclusive measures may mitigate time constraints.

Appropriate funding to address accessibility issues would make the Libraries a more welcoming place for everyone. With funding, for example, old tables could be replaced with height adjustable ones, information desks could be reconfigured to more easily consult with a person in a wheelchair, and assistive technology and software with better accessibility features could be purchased to accommodate those who need them.

Staff knew about issues and solutions but were unsure of how to proceed, what was needed, what other library staff were doing, best practices, and what other departments at the University could offer. Addressing these issues were also a concern due to the potentially conflicting needs of diverse users. For example, in common areas, dim lights may be calming for someone with autism, but people with low vision may need brighter lights.

Another barrier was lack of control. Staff lack control over things that the Libraries don’t “own.” For example, vendor databases or videos might not meet accessibility standards. Libraries did not take advantage of its purchasing power to address the issues or stipulate that a company must remediate found accessibility issues.

Finally, staff lacked guidance on how much time, money, and effort to spend on accessibility issues.

Educational and training needs

Staff desired accessibility training, especially general training for all staff as well as specialized content for those who directly serve patrons and those who supervise student workers and staff. Service points strove to be more accessible, but they were uncertain about how to market a particular service that met accessibility needs of a specific group without requiring someone to self-identify. Libraries staff reactively provided accommodation to those who needed it. Staff desired to be more proactive, given adequate training, guidelines, and education.

Taking action: journey toward an inclusive culture

LASC outlined a four-step journey for the institution based on these results:

Step 1: Awareness

Shift from a reactive to a proactive approach. Move toward inclusive thinking in daily work, beyond compliance or only meeting accommodations.

Part of the technical component for this step was to (1) go back to service owners to document service, software, hardware, and space accessibility, and (2) gather more library space details, including expected noise levels, door widths, natural lighting, and the proximity of an accessible bathroom.

With this information, the website is being updated to include filtering options on spaces and far more accessibility transparency for each service. The information will be distributed to each service webpage as well as centralized under a “disability access” banner, since people may not identify as disabled. The website itself meets WCAG 2.1 AA requirements with an awareness of cognitive disabilities.

Step 2: Training

Staff identified a need for accessibility training, from general to role-specific.

The Libraries developed a Canvas course with fundamental information that all staff who work in Libraries should know. It has three main categories:

  • Introduction to concepts (disability, accessibility, and accommodation)
  • Social skills (implicit biases and practical strategies for effective communication and interaction)
  • Digital skills (core skills in digital accessibility and document accessibility)

In addition to the Canvas course that is available in the institution’s training system, at least 10 additional role-based accessibility pathways were identified to develop specialized accessibility training. The roles include publishing, web development, web content authors, teaching and instruction, communications, managers and supervisors, hiring, purchasing and licensing, and space and event coordination.

Step 3: Barriers

Staff cited time, money, education of resources, and lack of control and guidance as the top barriers to accessibility.

To start addressing barriers, the committee developed a supervisor action checklist that provides a section for the supervisory role in supporting staff and another section for the supervisor’s personal actions. Items include encouraging staff to do the work, build accessibility work into annual review goals, and reserve funds to support accessibility costs.

Step 4: Advocacy

Accessibility practices were embedded into work with direct partners to minimize retroactive accessibility work.

Advocacy work is recommended through the development of toolkits in partnership with units that work directly with authors, researchers, and instructors. The toolkits would include specific micro and macro actions that staff could take while working with partners, such as providing an accessible syllabus format and making the instructor aware of it.

Going forward on the accessibility journey

At the University of Minnesota Libraries, having conversations with service owners and performing the environmental scan set a positive path that laid out what needed to be addressed on multiple levels. The individual conversations and understanding the nuances of how services and policies are set up are critical to honing practical actionable steps at other libraries.

Accessibility work is collaborative but also a shared responsibility for everyone. As many other libraries experienced, throughout the pandemic many people retired or left the industry. The University of Minnesota Libraries also went through a reorganization. With a lot of change, the committee is rebuilding the relationships necessary to uplift accessibility priorities. 

Find allies, and take one step at a time. Accessibility burnout is real, so be in community with others around the work. Whether your library has the capacity to take a formal approach or it can only manage grassroots effort, the work can only happen if we each take a step at a time toward action.

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