Web accessibility issues in academic libraries

Today I discovered the website of ATHEN, the Access Technology Higher Education Network. There are some great articles about web accessibility on their site, and reading them got me all worked up about library resources and how difficult it is to ensure that databases – and probably also fancy “next gen” OPACs – are accessible. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and coincidentally last week I helped a patron with a vision impairment. She was using a database and had used the “Zoom In” (ctrl ++) feature in IE to make the text larger. Unfortunately the screen display (frames? ugh) in the database couldn’t handle this and most of the relevant links just disappeared. Everything looked normal when we reduced the text size/zoomed out, but then she couldn’t really read it. I started wondering how many library databases are easily navigable via screen readers, if they can be interpreted by them at all.

So I did a basic web search and voila: Accessibility to Library Databases and Other Online Library Resources for People with Disabilities, from ASCLA, provides an overview of the accessibility features of some of the major vendors’ products, and/or links to their statements on accessibility. The wiki also provides links to advice for librarians when making purchasing decisions.  This page on database accessibility issues provides instructions and tips for using screen readers to access many of the major databases (a longer list than the ASCLA site provides).

Here are some excerpts from one of the articles on the ATHEN website. I think it’s good food for thought.

What constitutes web content? There are a few obvious answers to this question. The university’s main web site is a good starting point. A click or two of the mouse (or keyboard) can take users to the web sites of different departments, colleges, offices, projects, institutes, organizations, or other academic entities within the institution. Already, this constitutes thousands, or possibly millions, of pages of content. Adding to this list are things like online courses, supplemental online materials for classroom-based courses, library databases, library subscription services, campus intranet services, employee and student records, bookstore purchasing services, and the personal web sites of students and faculty. Some of these web-based resources are simple HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language) files created by staff. Others are complex software products licensed from commercial vendors. In between these two extremes is an array of miscellaneous resources, such as word processor documents, slide shows, spreadsheets, videos, Java applets, etc. All of this is web content, and a holistic approach would seek to take it all into account.

With so much information and interactivity available now in a digital format, the sheer volume of resources that must be accessible is daunting, especially when including “legacy” (old) resources (Richards & Hanson, 2004). To make matters more difficult, higher education institutions do not have direct control over some of these resources. Institutions usually license proprietary learning management software, employee databases, bookstore “shopping cart” systems, library subscription services, web-based email services, online applications for grants and loans, and other products from third-party vendors. If these products have accessibility flaws, the institution can only hope that the vendor will eventually fix them, yet the institution is still required to ensure that it does not discriminate against people with disabilities. This type of dilemma is all too common.

Many libraries also play a direct role in ensuring the accessibility of course content. Some instructors select journal articles or other library materials as a part of the required reading, and may ask the library to make these available online through an online library reserve system. All too often, libraries simply scan in the file as a graphic and post it in Adobe Acrobat PDF format. The problem with this method is not the Acrobat file format, which can produce accessible files. The main problem is that no technology can directly translate a graphic into synthesized speech, as required by users with blindness. Someone must first process the page with optical character recognition (OCR) software, proofread it, and correct any errors before the content is ready for screen reader users. The relative success of OCR software conversion is dependent upon factors like the visual clarity of the original document (contrast, sharpness), the font type (fancy font faces are problematic), the orientation of the text (diagonal or sideways text is difficult or impossible), and so on. A different kind of problem arises when the document is nothing more than a copy of a copy of a copy, as is sometimes the case. The indistinct text can make reading difficult or impossible for users with low vision, and can reduce readability for all users, whether they have disabilities or not. Again, the long-term solution is for publishers to make their content available in accessible electronic formats, but when electronic versions are not available, libraries must anticipate that some students will need scanned copies of materials converted into text. The library may decide to perform this conversion in-house, or work with student disability services and/or outside contractors to accomplish this goal.

Bohman, Paul. “Cultivating and Maintaining Web Accessibility Expertise and Institutional Support in Higher Education,” ATHEN E-Journal Issue #2 (2007).

Further reading:
Web Accessibility Survey homepage, created by Axel Schmetzke at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Lots of citations, but last updated in 2008.

Learn about assistive technology – from the US Government

the National Center on Disability and Access to Education – best practices, articles, factsheets…and lots of good relating to accessibility and distance/online education.


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