How to Get Statistics about Your Institution’s Accessibility Needs

Building the tools for advocacy

My favorite quote about accessibility is that it’s a process, not a one-time project. Your library should be continually considering the accessibility of its spaces, services, and website. As you do this work, it may be helpful to know some statistics about disability. These can help you make the case for accessibility work to your administration and prioritize what to work on.

Before we dive in, I’ll emphasize that your library should be accessible, full stop. If you’re in the US, you are likely legally required to comply with the ADA. And it’s an ethical obligation to serve all users equitably, including disabled users. Knowing the statistics about this user population can help you serve them better.

General statistics

General public: According to the CDC, 27% of American adults have some type of disability. There are many kinds of disabilities; the most common are mobility disabilities (such as difficulty walking) and cognitive disabilities (such as memory impairment).

College students: In 2015–16, 19% of undergraduate students reported that they had a disability, also according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES, based in the US). I’ll note that these are students who know they have a disability and who identify as having a disability. There are a number of students who make it all the way through college without realizing they have a disability and getting a diagnosis, perhaps because they don’t identify symptoms or don’t have health care resources.

K–12 students: About 15% of public school students have a disability, according to the NCES. The most common kind of disability in this population is a learning disability, such as dyslexia. I’ll note that these statistics reflect students who are receiving special education or related services—in other words, students whose households know they have a disability and have gone through the process of enrolling in these special services. So the actual number of students with a disability is almost certainly higher.

Neurodiversity: It’s difficult to get a general estimate about neurodiversity. Our medical and social understanding of neurodiversity is still growing. One statistic that is quoted with some frequency comes from a 2020 article in the British Medical Bulletin about adults in the workplace: “a reasonable estimate of all neurominorities within the population is around 15–20%, i.e. a significant minority.” Neurominorities in this article include Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, dyslexia, mental ill health, and others.

🌟 Subscribe to the LibTech Insights newsletter for more great posts, including:

Getting statistics at your institution

If you’re in an educational institution, you probably have a disability resources office or a special education coordinator. Contact these staff members to ask if they have numbers or statistics that they can share. For example, at my institution, NC State University, the Disability Resources Office (DRO) publishes demographics information each semester, reflecting students who have registered to receive services from the DRO.

If you are able to get such statistics, I highly recommend asking for context for interpreting them. What do these numbers include and exclude? In a conversation with the DRO’s director, for instance, I learned that while 4­–5% of students on my campus are registered with the office, the actual number of students with disabilities is certainly higher. Not every student knows they have a disability or has undertaken the time-consuming process of registering with the office.

How to use disability statistics

Use statistics to convince people in power.

If you’re having trouble convincing your manager or administration that time and resources need to be spent on it, these numbers can help make a strong case. In my experience, some people are moved by stories, and some are moved by data. For the latter, backing up your proposals with stats can work wonders.

For example, you might say something like, “Over 2,000 students are registered with our disability resources office. That’s double the number of students enrolled in our college’s social sciences department. We have a full-time social sciences librarian. I propose we hire a full-time accessibility librarian.” If you’re lucky enough for that request to be fulfilled, that’s awesome. If not, you could propose convening an accessibility committee with an annual budget for accessibility improvements, dedicating 15% of web developer time to accessibility, or other ways to carve out resources for accessibility work.

If you need more than statistics to convince someone who responds more to stories than numbers, I suggest reaching out to disabled users and respectfully asking them to participate in an informational interview about their experiences with your library. What works for them? What’s difficult or confusing? If they had a magic wand, what would they change? (When arranging this, pay these users for their time. You’re asking them to share their life experiences and expertise.) Highlight these users’ needs and use quotes to help make your case to your administration.

Use statistics to prioritize tasks.

When you have the administrative support and resources to do accessibility work, these statistics can help you prioritize what to work on. For instance, when looking at our campus statistics from our disability resource office, we noticed that the number of neurodiverse students on its list was increasing year after year. (To be clear, the number of neurodiverse students has probably remained mostly the same, but the number of students with diagnoses and who registered for accommodations increased.) So when we were considering what to work on after ensuring that our website passed a basic web accessibility scan, we decided to dedicate time to simplifying our page layouts to make our website less overwhelming for neurodiverse users. We also developed a readability widget in-house to make our website more readable for users with dyslexia and ADHD. And we know there is much more work we should be doing to serve this significant user population.

Here’s what not to do, by the way: “We only have 2 legally blind students on our campus. It’s not worth the time to make our services or website accessible for such a small number of blind people.” If a colleague floats something like this, emphasize that you need to comply with accessibility laws and guidelines regardless of numbers, or you risk a lawsuit. Plus, that number doesn’t include non-affiliated users and visitors. And, of course, that number represents actual people who need to be able to use your library.

Have you used statistics about disability and accessibility at your library in positive ways? Have you run into any problems in trying to find and use these stats? I’d love to hear about your experiences — please email me to share them.

🔥 Sign up for LibTech Insights (LTI) new post notifications and updates.

✍️ Interested in contributing to LTI? Send an email to Deb V. at Choice with your topic idea.