I haven’t always been an accessibility advocate. Up until a few years ago, I didn’t think about accessibility much at all. It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease that I really understood the challenges faced by people with print disabilities. By facing those challenges myself, albeit with a mild impairment, I have become a staunch advocate for accessible library resources. I’d like to use this space to share what I’ve learned while adapting to my role as Electronic Resources Librarian at The Evergreen State College and to my changing vision.
Disability is a spectrum.
I don’t like calling myself visually impaired or disabled because I feel like I don’t have enough of an impairment to claim those labels. At the same time, I worry that disclosing this impairment will make me seem less capable of my job, which I am not, or an easy excuse for colleagues to discredit my work, which they never have. I learned from the disabled community that this is a common feeling across the spectrum of various disabilities and that, oftentimes, disabilities are seen very narrowly by those who have never experienced one.
In her article “Life’s Too Short for Someone Else’s Shame,” Amanda Leduc describes her hesitancy in claiming the label “disabled writer” as a person with a mild form of cerebral palsy. This is a common form of internal ableism within the disabled community, and one that Leduc courageously unpacks in her article, stating:
But what does this do, this assumption that there is only limited space for disability issues? It assumes that our concern for disability necessarily has limits—that there are some disabilities we’ll consider legitimate and others that we won’t. It also perpetuates the idea that disability is a niche interest—something that only impacts a few people with very specific conditions, when in fact disability is an incredibly wide umbrella. It covers conditions invisible and visible, mild and severe. It is a spectrum that touches almost everyone in some kind of way. Even if you live your life without a disability of some kind and are lucky enough to grow old, chances are you’ll encounter disability in some form as you age.
Leduc goes on to say that we are disabled by our environment and that environment was created with a one-size-fits-all perspective.1
The first and most important thing I have learned when evaluating e-resources for accessibility features is that vendors often take a one-size-fits-all perspective on print disabilities. Oftentimes, e-resources are tested for screen reader functionality. This is wonderful for users of screen readers, but it leaves out those with cognitive and visual impairments that use text-to-speech, high contrast, and adaptive fonts to read materials effectively. Accessibility advocacy in library resources has to come from an understanding that disability is a spectrum and there are many features required to make a truly accessible resource. There must also be an understanding that not all disabilities are visible and not everyone wants to disclose a disability, making it important to adhere to and advocate for universal design.
Accessibility is a professional value and legal requirement.
According to Services to People with Disabilities: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights:
The American Library Association recognizes that people with disabilities are a large and vibrant part of society. Libraries should be fully inclusive of all members of their community and strive to break down barriers to access. The library can play a transformational role in helping facilitate more complete participation in society by providing fully accessible resources and services.2
Accessibility is a professional value we hold as librarians that inform our models of physical and digital access.
It is also important to know the legal requirements associated with accessibility in order to fully advocate for accessible library resources. Legal requirements for accessibility accommodations are outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA). In Europe, where some of our library systems and resources are headquartered, there is the European Accessibility Act and EN 301 549. These documents outline the specific requirements for physical and digital spaces to be accessible and provide grounds for anyone with a disability to take legal action.
Libraries, as well as vendors, are being held liable for inaccessible e-resources. In Payan v. Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD), two students backed by the National Federation for the Blind filed a lawsuit against LACCD due to the inaccessibility of the library’s databases, specifically Gale and JSTOR. The Federal District Court for the Central District of California found that the LACCD violated the students’ rights under Title II of the American with Disabilities Act and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. The court ordered, “Within one year of the date of this Order, LACCD shall evaluate LACC's integrated library system website and all library databases available to students enrolled at LACC to determine whether the library resources are fully accessible to blind students.” LACCD could either discontinue the use of inaccessible databases or provide alternate means of access.3
How do we measure accessibility in e-resources?
Legal frameworks are often difficult to put into practice without a set of guidelines and standards to measure efficacy. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) developed by W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) outlines four guiding principles of an accessible web resource: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust. These concepts are often referred to as the POUR framework. Under each principle is a guideline with more detailed information. WCAG contains levels for establishing how accessible a resource is, and these levels are often cited by websites and e-resource vendors to rate the accessibility of their product. Level A is the minimum level of accessibility compliance and includes guidelines like alt text, captions, use of color (i.e., color is not the only indicator for relaying information), limited allowance of flashing, and basic keyboard navigation. Level AA is the rating most companies strive to meet and includes all guidelines of Level A plus audio description, contrast, resizable text, text spacing, clear headings and labels, and consistent navigation. Level AAA includes all features of Level A and AA as well as additional guidelines like sign language and advanced “no exception” rules in regard to contrast, captioning, navigation, audio, and other elements.4
Of course, it is important to understand what all these different features mean exactly. For example, captions and subtitles are not the same. Subtitles include text transcription of the spoken word and is primarily used to translate foreign language dialogue. Captions, on the other hand, include both spoken and other auditory noise. You may see text like “horse neighing” or “door slams” in captions that you would not see in subtitles. Color contrast is determined by tools, like this one from WebAIM, meant to gauge how two colors contrast with differing color blindness and visual impairments. Just because a sighted individual can distinguish two colors does not mean they are high contrast. Keyboard navigation, audio description, and other elements of an accessible web page have specific criteria, too, which is why we use tools like VPATs to measure accessibility features in a standard way.
A Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) is a worksheet used to measure the accessibility of an Information and Communication Technology (ICT). There are four different versions of the VPAT:
VPAT 2.4 Rev 508 focuses on the requirements of Revised Section 508 standards or the U.S. federal accessibility standard.
VPAT 2.4 Rev EU: EN 301 549 focuses on the European Union’s accessibility standards under EN 301 549.
VPAT 2.4 Rev WCAG focuses on the guidelines in WCAG 2.1.
VPAT 2.4 INT Incorporates all three of the above standards and is the version I would recommend using.
The VPAT worksheet is equipped with definitions and examples that will help you (and vendors you work with) determine if the elements of a web resource are accessible to disabled users. The worksheet includes instructions, a place to describe the product being measured and the tools used to evaluate it, and a notes field for any added commentary.5 You can request a VPAT from any vendor or website, and many have them listed publicly. It is a common practice for state universities like The Evergreen State College to request a VPAT before purchasing any new technology. Is this a practice at your institution?
A quick way to evaluate the accessibility of a website is via WebAIM’s WAVE web accessibility evaluation tool. I suggest starting with the stand-alone API and testing engine, where you can simply enter a URL of a website that you wish to check. Alternatively, there is also a browser extension which offers more detailed guidance on individual web pages.
Navigating accessibility remediation and copyright law.
A patron points out an accessibility issue with one of your e-resources. What can you do? Technical jargon aside, let’s look at some real-life examples of how I have worked to remedy accessibility issues with an e-book, streaming film, and online journal.
If you’ve worked with e-books in your library, you know that many e-book publishers have strict copy/paste, downloading, and use permissions. These restrictions can limit the effectiveness of using screen or text-to-speech readers that need to select text in order to read it aloud. This also locks down the ability to resize or change the font of certain texts in certain platforms. When a faculty member reached out to me at The Evergreen State College to tell me that their student could not read the required course material aloud due to copy-paste restrictions on the e-book, I thought there was nothing I could do. I reached out to the database vendor, EBSCO, to surface this issue and ask about their commitment to accessibility. I was connected to their accessibility team ([email protected]) who informed me that I could request alternate formats of text for a patron with a print disability. This exception to Copyright Law is called the Marrakesh Treaty. The Marrakesh Treaty guarantees the right to alternative formats such as text-based versions of e-books for people with print disabilities.7 All I needed to do was request an alternate format from the Accessibility Team and, within 24 hours, they emailed me the full text of the book in a Microsoft Word document. I was elated, and so was the struggling student. I decided to reach out to other vendors about their remediation process and found that ProQuest, another database with copy/paste restrictions, has a similar process. I updated my process documentation and informed our Access Services staff.
Also at Evergreen, a group of faculty contacted me over the summer to ask if there were any audio-described films in the library’s collection. One of their students is completely blind and will need to access multiple films and videos for the class that don’t seem to include audio description. I shared a link to the collection of audio-described films on Alexander Street and informed the faculty that any film in their collection can be audio-described for free, but it might take a few months. In addition, I offered to buy DVDs with audio description, when available, and ask other vendors to provide this service. They found alternatives to some films and our Access Services department offered to sit with the student to describe another. There was one short video on Films on Demand that was required and no alternatives were found. I looked up the VPAT for this database and noticed that audio description was mentioned as a feature. I reached out to the general support email, stated the issue, and received an offer that their team would upload an audio-described version within three weeks. They have been trying to figure out how to support audio description on the website and have struggled to add it to the video players. Ultimately, we were able to get the audio-described version in time for the assignment. The technical support team at Films on Demand was very receptive to our needs and explained that audio description was on their roadmap of new developments to be added soon. Recently, audio described films have been added to their collections, and users can search for them through Advanced Search.
Many articles in library database collections have text-based formats available and, when they don’t, I offer to show patrons how to read a PDF aloud in Microsoft Edge or change accessibility preferences in Adobe Acrobat Reader. Print versions of articles can be scanned, OCRed, and checked with ABBYY FineReader, so remediation has been pretty straight-forward with journals. There was one journal I personally wanted to read that wasn’t accessible to me, and that was Alki: The Washington Library Association Journal. When I magnified the small text, I often had to scroll back and forth as it did not adjust to my screen size. Reading articles aloud from the PDF issue was difficult, too, as the order of sections was not labeled correctly and the articles were read out of order by my text-to-speech reader. This is a common issue when PDFs have multiple columns and heavy graphic design. I brought this experience with me when I became the editor-in-chief and pitched the idea of reimagining the format of Alki to the editorial committee. All were in favor, and we started collectively researching different platforms and developing a proposal to the WLA Board. Long story short, we now have a web-based journal compatible with screen readers and text-to-speech. I am able to put my money where my mouth is, so to speak, and create an accessible e-resource as the new web editor.
You are not alone.
If all this sounds overwhelming and impossible, know that you are not alone. The Library Accessibility Alliance (LAA) comprises of multiple library consortiums including Big Ten Academic Alliance (BTAA), Association of Southeastern Research Libraries (ASERL), Greater Western Library Alliance (GWLA), Washington Research Library Consortium (WRLC), and Ivy Plus Libraries Confederation (IPLC). They fund independent accessibility testing of common academic library databases, work with vendors to remedy issues, and post results publicly on their e-resource testing page. LAA develops library accessibility toolkits to help guide librarians through accessibility advocacy and remediation. They also offer standard licensing language to use in contract negotiations with vendors.8
Before you start accessibility testing at your library, know that universities have done a lot of work already. University of Washington has done extensive library e-resource accessibility testing and has posted their findings on their website. In addition, UW’s Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (DO-IT) website provides a wealth of resources for educators and students beyond e-resources. The Open University has provided a detailed list of accessibility tips on their web page outlining databases with accessibility issues. I often look at this list to remind myself of accessibility quirks in each database.
If your library does not have the staffing, space, or funding to offer advanced assistive technology, audiobooks, or other services, you can connect your patrons with resources across the state. The Washington Talking Book and Braille Library (WATBBL) has a wealth of resources serving patrons with print disabilities. Patrons can easily access audiobooks via a mobile app or physical player, visit for programs and training, ask reference questions, and enjoy a collection of locally created audio materials. The Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) can connect your patrons with support services for people with disabilities. The Department of Services for the Blind (DSB) can connect patrons with job and school resources to help them succeed, including technology training and tuition support.
Connecting with your institution’s or city’s Access Services department, ADA accommodation auditor, or Assistive Technology Lab will help inform you of the best resources available to your patrons. Working together, you’ll be able to swap resources and streamline remediation processes.
Tips for becoming an accessibility advocate.
Hopefully by now I’ve convinced you of the importance of becoming an accessibility advocate. Where can you start? My biggest piece of advice for being an accessibility advocate is to be proactive and take it one step at a time. Accessibility is a journey, not a destination. Like all equity work, it is an ongoing process and you will never truly be “done.” If you can, form an accessibility group at your library or introduce this work in an existing equity group. Work together to outline what work has already been done and what could be improved. Set goals for each quarter, semester, or year of what you want to accomplish. Below are a few tips to get you started.
Find your community. Does your library, institution, city, or organization have an Access Services department? Reach out and introduce yourself. Become familiar with their services, how to connect patrons, and what stumbling blocks they’ve seen with library resources. Find out which public libraries in your area have audiobooks. Become familiar with how to apply for WATBBL, DSHS, or DSB services. Share this knowledge with your public services colleagues.
Talk to vendors. Start the conversation and don’t stop talking about it. Many vendors have accessibility experts on staff that can go over any questions you may have. Look up their current VPAT and make sure your license and contract agreements include language about accessibility. Ask your colleagues to report accessibility issues to you (or your electronic resources librarian) and pass that feedback along to your vendor representative for remediation.
Survey your collection. Did you know that Alexander Street has audio-described films or that text in Gale databases can be changed to the Dyslexie font? Familiarize yourself with the accessibility features of your library’s e-resources. Consider walking through a VPAT or accessibility guide provided by vendors or do some of your own accessibility testing. Share what you’ve learned by offering workshops about accessible library resources.
Ask your patrons. Does your library send out surveys, perform usability testing, or organize focus groups? Make sure to include questions about accessibility of e-resources so you can get first-hand accounts of what’s not working.
Establish a process for accessibility remediation. When an accessibility issue is brought to your attention, you should have a plan for how you move forward. Who is contacted at your library and what are the pathways toward remediation? What is required from the patron in order to perform that remediation? Outline these steps in a policy or procedural document so all staff are aware.
Advocating for accessibility, like all equity work, can be both fulfilling and exhausting. I have forged some great connections and relationships while doing this work. I have also butted heads with administrators and vendors. Keeping the conversation going while protecting your own mental health is important but not easy. Reach out for help when you need it. I hope the resources, tips, and case studies outlined in this article will help in your journey toward becoming an accessibility advocate. We need you now more than ever.