“An Ethical Imperative”: Expanding Accessibility in Libraries at NC State

The need for increased accessibility is an ever-growing priority, as is understanding the scope and nuance of the concept. At North Carolina State University (NC State) Libraries, Raleigh, staff from a range of functional areas are working together to address and increase accessibility in their physical spaces, collections, and offerings. In May 2021 they formed an Accessibility Committee to coordinate and implement practices and changes throughout the system.

array of NC State's sensory maps
Sensory maps designed by Chuck Samuels and Beck Buss

The need for increased accessibility is an ever-growing priority, as is understanding the scope and nuance of the concept. Intersecting with class, culture, identity, and the expanding needs of patrons navigating pandemics, climate change, and a scarcity of resources, accessibility is an evolving practice, not a finish line. Standard Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) adaptations are an important foundation, but building upon that requires extensive research, collaboration, and adaptability.

At North Carolina State University (NC State) Libraries, Raleigh, staff from a range of functional areas are working together to address and increase accessibility in their physical spaces, collections, and offerings. In May 2021 they formed an Accessibility Committee to coordinate and implement practices and changes throughout the system.

Rob Rucker, chief strategist for student success, reflected on the process. “The most exciting change has been the growing commitment of library staff members to accessibility in all of its forms as an ethical imperative,” he said. “The tremendous growth in our digital collections over the last decade, paired with the development and integration of accessibility tools into the major computer operating systems, means that our most-used online content is now largely accessible. It is readily available for all of our users without the need for special requests, special software, special facilities, or staff intervention.”

Awareness of access needs in both physical and digital spaces calls for ongoing evaluations and improvements. At NC State Libraries, these improvements have included a recent redesign of staff work areas to include adjustable-height work surfaces and highly adjustable lighting, the inclusion of wheelchairs that are freely available in clear view at all public entrances, and the creation of sensory maps highlighting spaces that are quiet or uncrowded, or have natural or warm lighting.

“Some users may find it difficult or overstimulating to study in noisy areas; some find crowded spaces distracting or distressing; and some may find bright overhead lighting annoying, uncomfortable, or even the cause of migraines,” explained Robin Davis, associate head of user experience.

A former colleague, Katharine Frazier, started the project after she came across similar maps at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Their maps, and ours, are designed to serve autistic users in particular, though all of our patrons may find them useful,” said Davis. “In fact, we have trouble keeping these printed maps in stock in our handout displays. We’ve also incorporated some of these relevant facets into our online space finder, Explore Spaces.”



Patrick Deaton, associate director of learning spaces and capital management, pointed out the need to test potential improvements rather than simply relying on predetermined specifications. “We have found that full-sized mockups can be helpful for testing the configuration of devices such as audiovisual control panels,” he noted. “Although the ADA Code specifies the height above the floor for these, we discovered through full-sized mockups that their accessibility is improved if the control panels are installed at an angle.”

NC State’s Hill and Hunt libraries are currently providing new seating areas in a variety of spaces, addressing issues such as problematic lighting, noise, and high traffic. “We plan to continue to offer a wide variety of seating options, focusing on study seating that will accommodate a range of body types, and to add motorized adjustable-height work surfaces to replace or supplement fixed-height versions in public and staff areas,” said Deaton.

The need for testing extends to digital spaces and collections as well. A combination of automated processes and human scrutiny improves chances of catching accessibility errors, particularly more nuanced details like a lack of plain language and accurate titles. “Increasing digital accessibility is a responsibility that is shared among many developers and content creators at our library,” said Davis. “Recently, the Accessibility Committee has offered training and informal discussion spaces to share guidelines and resources, and we’re currently working on a set of Targeted Accessibility Guides that are written specifically for library staff. The Accessibility Committee and the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Committee in our library have closely aligned objectives, and we’re putting together a cosponsored reading circle open to all library staff for next semester.”

Tarida Anantachai, director of inclusion and talent management, elaborated on this cooperative work. “As Robin [Davis] mentions, both the EDI Committee and the Accessibility Committee hold similar values and objectives, so there are certainly intersections between the work of both,” she said—connections that extend beyond those committees. “As one example, in an effort to infuse EDI and transparency into our hiring processes, we’ve incorporated captioning and other practices to make our interview processes more accessible, and we are now looking at incorporating a list of accessibility accommodations for libraries employees [developed by the Accessibility Committee] with the other information we already provide to candidates during the interview process.”



“Assessing digital accessibility always involves a two-pronged approach of looking at locally created collections and tools along with acquired or licensed third-party collections and materials,” said Beth Ashmore, associate head of acquisitions and discovery (serials). “Thankfully, we have a great team of developers, archivists, and user-experience experts to work on continuously improving the accessibility of our locally created content, but acquired and licensed collections and materials can be more difficult to assess and, ultimately, to make accessible.” Their approach includes resources like the Library Accessibility Alliance (LAA), the University of Washington (UW) Libraries e-resource testing, and the WAVE Evaluation Tool.

“We are also mindful that tools like WAVE and other automated checkers cannot tell the whole story of accessibility for our unique user community,” Ashmore continued. “In partnership with public services staff and the university Disability Resource Office, we hope to collect more data on the kinds of remediation requests that users make, and for which platforms. This gives us not only firsthand accounts of accessibility fails, but real-world feedback to take to vendors to drive development.” The rubric also includes an evaluation of e-resource licenses to ensure that the libraries have the necessary rights to make those e-resources accessible to users.

In 2020, the university licensed a tool, Pope Tech, that scans sites for common accessibility errors such as missing alt text for images, poor color contrast, inadequate use of heading tags, and HTML markup that is not compatible with screen readers. The initial scan came up with 327,000 errors across 14,000 pages.

Over the following two years, said Erik Olson, a developer in the User Experience department, “the vast majority of the errors were fixed through the diligent work of two students who scoured through a complicated framework of applications that was unfamiliar to them. In 2020–21, Lauren Murillo brought our errors from 327,000 down to 12,000—she was recognized for this with an Accessibility Champion award. This past year, our student Molly Sun was able to track down the remaining errors all the way to zero. The final error was in a database no one had access to anymore that was built when she was a child!”

The phrase “Nothing about us without us,” which originated in disability activism, illustrates the need to go beyond in-house testing and is the foundational belief that has catalyzed discussions among library users with disabilities, including a student researcher and member of the Disability, Autistic, Mad, & Neuroqueer Solidarity Project, who wrote about her research and experiences as an autistic library user.

That discussion led to the development of the Readability Widget, which was created in-house by NC State University Libraries staff members Erik Olson and Meredith Wynn, and allows users to customize their use of the website by hiding images, turning on a dyslexia-friendly font, using a warm background color, or highlighting links. It also led to a new compensation model for students who helped with the research. “When we [spoke] with disabled students about their experiences, we previously compensated them as though they were user-research participants, typically a $20 meal delivery,” Davis explained. “We now compensate them as experts—$75 per hour—since, after all, we are benefiting from their specialized knowledge. One of our goals is to seek out more conversations with users who are disabled and/or use assistive technologies.”

Navigating the world during the COVID pandemic provided an overlapping experience of accessibility and disability knowledge. “Since early in the pandemic, we’ve been aware of how COVID impacted the accessibility landscape in academic libraries and the workforce,” noted Troy Hurteau, business and technology applications analyst in digital library initiatives at NC State. “Accessibility advocates had been calling for more support of remote work for years before the pandemic. Like many libraries, we already had substantial investment in electronic resources, but had to pivot hard transitioning to remote work, and ramp up our efforts in remote instruction support. Since then, we’ve been listening to the conversation about how investment in these areas is leveling the field for people with disabilities. We’re also heeding accessibility advocates’ warnings about how a shift back to the way things were will impact our patrons with disabilities. Creating an inclusive environment is a commitment we take seriously. As we return to doing things in-person more, we’re making equitable support for hybrid access and asynchronous participation part of the conversation.”



masked people sitting around a table crafting toys with workshop leader on wall-mounted screen behind them
Toy adaptation workshop in progress at the Hill Library makerspace
Photo by Tim Mensa

Modeling practices, resources, and policies that center accessibility is another important piece of the work. At NC State Libraries, this is evident in public programming, curriculum, and events. “We have organized several public programs that highlight accessibility,” said Director of Community Engagement Marian Fragola. “One of my recent favorites was a talk and workshop given by Thomas DiAgostino of TechOWL as part of our Making Space series. Tom’s talk was fun, easy to understand, and full of examples of low-tech tools that make tasks more accessible.”

Following his talk, DiAgostino led a switch-adapting toys interactive workshop for NC State students in the Hill Library makerspace. The toys were then donated to families with children who can’t use off-the-shelf toys in typical ways. “For the student participants, they not only got to use makerspace tools and technologies, but they also learned about the ‘Disability Tax,’ the financial realities for many families and individuals with disabilities, and why open-source makers are changing the game for people with disabilities,” noted Fragola.

“Because of the lengthy and arduous process of acquiring accommodations as well as many other social and personal factors, we know that fewer than half of students who have qualified for and had accommodations in high school have them in college,” explained Alison Edwards, librarian for digital teaching and learning. “This means that many students in a classroom are probably neurodivergent or have a disability that their professors are unaware of. On top of that, as library instructors we are at a significant disadvantage to be able to know and accommodate a student’s needs, since we are not an instructor of record and we typically only see a student only once or twice ever.”

On the NC State campus, the top five reported disabilities are related to poor mental health, ADD/ADHD, learning disabilities, Autism, or a combination of disabilities. “It is not hard to imagine that this is likely the same on any college campus,” said Edwards. “Regardless of documentation or diagnosis, ALL of us, maybe especially college and graduate students, are dealing with distractions and stresses of school, work, home, finances, health, life, and so many other things, so following guidelines for UDL [Universal Design for Learning] or inclusive teaching will truly benefit everyone.” One of Edwards’s favorite resources for inclusive teaching, she said, has been the work of Viji Sathy and Kathy Hogan in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s advice guide “How to Make your Teaching More Inclusive.” Other useful resources include the UDL Guidelines Checklist PDF from the West Virginia Department of Education and CAST.org’s UDL Guidelines.

“One accessibility practice that is so fundamental, but that so many people still resist, is using a microphone during live events and gatherings,” said Fragola. “The number of times people will say, ‘I don’t need a mic, do I?’ and then proceed to not use one is confounding. If you are the speaker, you have no way of knowing who in your audience may have trouble hearing you, and by asking whether you should use a mic, you force people to self-identify, which puts the onus on them.” Using the microphone every time, and using it correctly, goes a long way to ensure that everyone can hear, she pointed out.

“Real-time captioning is one of the wonderful benefits offered by virtual platforms,” Fragola added. “For in-person event Q&As, we also bring the mic to people so they do not have to negotiate getting to a mic in the aisle, which can be problematic for folks with mobility issues and privileges those who are able to stand for long periods of time waiting for their turn. Another best practice is turning on subtitles for film screenings—it helps those with hearing loss or hearing impairments, but it also helps those for whom English is not a first language. Announcing that subtitles will be displayed for accessibility purposes prior to the start of the film also helps to educate the audience.”

With so much ground to cover, and so many aspects of accessiblity to keep in mind, it can be tricky to know what to address. “It’s important to consider the expertise necessary to make our collections, spaces, and services more accessible to all,” Rucker added. “For this reason, it’s important that we address needs, set priorities, and allocate resources as an entire organization. In addition, we need to be informed by campus actions and decisions, as well as national discussions and research. It’s crucial that library staff know how to move ideas forward, how to ask questions, and who to talk to. This is a key challenge for an organization that wants to excel in accessibility, and it’s especially challenging when the ownership of a given area is complex.”

For those looking to improve accessibility in their library, “find other colleagues in your organization who are enthusiastic about accessibility and inclusion,” said Davis. “None of you may feel like you’re an expert, but you can learn about accessibility together and start making accessibility improvements a regular part of your work. A phrase that helps to frame this work is ‘accessibility is a process, not a project’—it requires consistent effort and dedication.”

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