Accessibility on Campus

Legal requirements, the growth of dedicated positions, and enhanced technology are helping academic libraries make content accessible for all.

People with disabilities need to be able to access the same library content and spaces as their peers. Ensuring accessibility continues to be a major issue for academic libraries, but thanks to improvements in technology, awareness, and staffing, academic libraries have made major strides, considering accessibility a core part of their mandate.

The need to provide accessible resources stems from both the ethical obligation of libraries and librarians to serve all constituents and the legal obligations stemming from a number of acts—primarily Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 508 (which was adopted in 1998) and its updates require federal agencies to make all information and communication technology accessible to people with disabilities. Most universities are affected by Section 508 owing to research grants, student loans, and other programs that receive government funds.

While the legal requirements have certainly galvanized university administrations in recent years, librarians have long found accessibility to be a part of their mission. “Libraries have always cared deeply about access and social justice—for all of our patrons, regardless of ability. Making sure our libraries, our services, and our resources are accessible to everyone is one of the core values of our profession,” notes Heidi Schroeder, accessibility coordinator at the Michigan State University (MSU) Libraries, East Lansing.

Indeed, the American Library Association’s (ALA) Core Values of Librarianship document states, “All information resources that are provided directly or indirectly by the library, regardless of technology, format, or methods of delivery, should be readily, equally, and equitably accessible to all library users.”

While these values have always led libraries to make an effort to provide accessible materials whenever possible, a sustained legal push by advocacy groups in recent years has opened the eyes of administrators. In one of the more high-profile cases, in 2015, the National Association of the Deaf sued Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for failing to ensure that all online lectures and course materials were closed- captioned, implicating the growing edX massive open online course (MOOC) platform. Ultimately, edX agreed to make all content on the platform compliant with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 and provide tools to help contributors to the platform ensure that content is accessible.

Similarly, in 2010, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and the American Council of the Blind settled a lawsuit with Arizona State University (ASU), successfully obligating ASU to deploy to students accessible ereaders, rather than Kindle DX devices, which included text-to-speech features but inaccessible menus, making it impossible for blind users to complete basic functions such as selecting books to read or even activating text-to-speech. A few months later, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights sent a joint letter to college and university presidents throughout the United States, emphasizing that requiring the use of ereaders in a classroom environment without ensuring that the devices have adequate text-to-speech functionality “is discrimination prohibited by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) unless those individuals are provided accommodations or modifications that permit them to receive all the educational benefits provided by the technology in an equally effective and equally integrated manner.”

CLEAR CAPTIONING In response to a lawsuit filed by the National Association of the Deaf in 2015, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) enhanced the closed-captioning system on the edX MOOC platform


Accessibility librarians work both within their campus libraries on accessibility issues and partner with their campus disability services groups, IT accessibility specialists, and others to ensure that an institution is meeting students’ accessibility needs. Given the wide variety of resources that academic libraries work with, these librarians wear a lot of hats.

“I talk about accessibility as it applies to our collections, the digital resources we’ve developed in the library, the resources we provide access to, for teaching, events, spaces, our human resource practices—really for everything,” says Stephanie Rosen, associate librarian and accessibility specialist for the University of Michigan (UM) Library, Ann Arbor. She and many of her peers focus on four major areas: education and training, strategy and leadership, research, and advocacy.

Education and training is central to what most accessibility librarians do. For Rosen, this includes “building up resources that my colleagues here can use to better understand disability and think critically about how disability and accessibility relate to library work.”

At Colgate University, Hamilton, NY, Debbie Krahmer, associate professor and accessible technology and government documents librarian, notes that while students are well supported, “if you’re a faculty or staff member with a disability, it’s a little harder. So we’re trying to work through that so we can support everybody who works and learns and teaches at ­Colgate.”


Strategy and leadership includes the focus on changing organizational processes and priorities as well as ensuring that the library is “building accessibility into core processes like development and archives,” says Rosen. This also includes recognizing and advocating for the value of accessibility beyond its traditionally pigeonholed uses.

“If ‘accessibility’ was ever in a vacuum tied solely to whether someone had a disability, by 2018 that concept has been blown away,” says Jane Vincent, assistive tech manager at UM, who runs an accessible computer lab at the undergraduate library. “People use captions not only because they are deaf [or] hard of hearing, but also because they may be learning English as an additional language, may be in a noisy environment, or may enjoy British import shows on PBS but can’t understand the accent. Speech recognition was stuck for many years as a tool for people with dexterity disabilities; now it’s available broadly—although still not very friendly to 13-year-olds with changing voices or people with heavy…accents, among others. The reality is that where there’s an appreciation for accessibility as good usability, there’s good progress, and where it’s isolated to a perception of only being useful to a limited group, there’s not.”

Similarly, at Colgate, Krahmer reports that accessibility issues come into play when dealing with student athletes recovering from concussions. “I sat down with some of our student athletes, basically serving as a kind of personal screen reader, because they weren’t able to get used to using the screen reading software, but having a person next to them talking out the text helped.”

Research includes both following and participating in the conversation around accessibility beyond the campus. This can include developments in accessibility technology and law, in addition to conversations on Listservs and websites provided by organizations such as EDUCAUSE and ATHEN (Access Technology Higher Education Network). There are nationwide conferences focusing on higher education accessibility, like Accessing Higher Ground and the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference, and traditional library gatherings such as the annual ALA conference also offer programming focusing on accessibility.


Advocacy focuses not only on campus awareness of accessibility (a task shared with disability services and other groups) but also on library vendors. “Members of the Library E-Resource Accessibility Group within the Big Ten Academic Alliance (BTAA) have ongoing conversations with e-text vendors about access to their products,” says Vincent. Because database and e-text vendors are not legally obligated to make their products Section 508–compliant, negotiating with them in larger groups helps them to understand the need to change to help their customers.

“We’ve done a lot of education when it comes to vendors,” says MSU’s Schroeder, who notes that there’s a wide range of responses from them. “Some vendors are doing really great work, others simply lack the knowledge or the resources to put into accessibility.”

Consortia like the Boston Library Consortium and BTAA have also helped with vendor negotiations. In 2015, the alliance formed the Library E-Resource Accessibility Group. According to Schroeder, who also chairs the group, each Big Ten library has a member in the group, which meets monthly via phone.

The group focuses on two areas: vendor contracts and product testing. For the former, it maintains a database of suggested language, and for the latter, the group hires outside testing firms to test e-resources. The results are shared with the vendors and publicly on the group’s page. According to Schroeder, these pubic results have been “really well-received by not just the Big Ten libraries but by the wider library community as a whole.”

“Accessibility work builds, and there’s always more we can do, but starting
somewhere and celebrating successes ARE KEY.”
—HEIDI Schroeder, Michigan state University


All of these areas of focus have benefited from recent changes in the field. “When my job was created in 2015, there were only a handful of full-time librarians focusing on accessibility in U.S. libraries. Over the last few years, new positions are getting created or rewritten to reflect folks doing accessibility work,” Rosen says. “Making accessibility a priority in a more systemic way allows us to change or process and make sure that accessibility is not just a question of access to collections but a value we bring to activities as diverse as teaching or marketing.”

Changes in technology are also important. “The most critical thing that’s happened in the last seven years since I’ve been in this job is the rising importance of mobile technologies, which have had assistive features built in from the very start,” says Vincent. “In addition, good accessibility practices foster good mobile access—ensuring that interactive web features can be activated by input devices other than the mouse (e.g., touch screens), having pages automatically flow to meet the settings of assistive tech users or people with very small screens, etc.”

That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement. “It still tends to be siloed,” says Colgate’s Krahmer. “So someone might talk to IT, and instead of connecting them with the Disability Services Office or the library, they don’t always think about that, and they focus just on the technology.” Vincent also notes the importance of staff awareness. “If there is universal buy-in among staffers, then it gets much easier to address other issues that may come up.”

Also, vendor products remain a huge hurdle. “We’re almost never in a position of being able to walk away from negotiations. The [vendors] have something we need, and we need it even if the delivery is imperfect,” UM’s Rosen notes. MSU’s Schroeder says that it’s possible to push back on occasion, not purchasing an inaccessible resource if it’s something that’s merely “nice to have” instead of essential, but, again, if “a faculty member needs something for their course, then we’re going to go ahead and go through with that purchase or subscription, just keeping in mind that we may have to do some remediation for students with disabilities who might need something from that database.”

Schroeder notes that the problem may be at times beyond vendor control. “A lot of library vendors are aggregators, so they’re getting content from many publishers. So they can work hard to make their platform accessible, but the content might not be accessible even if the platform itself is.”


Librarians have a number of resources for the remediation of materials. They can contact vendors or publishers directly to ask for accessible versions of documents or captioned videos. If that doesn’t work, they have options. Repositories such as HathiTrust and companies like Bookshare offer accessible copies of some materials. Sometimes they have to do things the hard way, which includes using optical character recognition (OCR) software like ABBYY FineReader or working with third-party vendors to caption or describe video.

It also helps that there are standards to evaluate materials. The WCAG 2.0 standards have been in place for a decade, and they cover the gamut of accessibility needs. The Library E-Resource Accessibility Group within the BTAA uses the WCAG AA standards when evaluating vendors (WCAG offers three tiers—AAA, AA, and A—and the AA includes all of the features considered essential, as well as functionality whose absence would cause a significant inconvenience).

The partners librarians have across the university still provide plenty of assistance. Offices of disability services have generally been on campuses for years, and many have dedicated technology specialists. Even on campuses beset by silos, they’re often the first ones to know about inaccessible content and sometimes convert files to accessible formats before the library is even aware there’s an issue.

Similarly, on many campuses, files and assignments are often accessed through a learning management system (LMS) like Moodle or Canvas. As a result, it’s often the IT group (especially if academic technology on the campus is handled by IT) that has to deal with accessibility concerns, and many forward-thinking IT organizations have added experts to ensure the accessibility of the LMS and other electronic resources.

MSU’s Schroeder offers some final words of hope for anyone worried that their campus library still has a long way to go. “With accessibility work, it’s important to remember that doing something is better than doing nothing. Although it’s easy to quickly feel like there is a lot your library may not be doing quite yet in terms of accessibility, try something. And don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Improvements and efforts, not perfection (especially at first)...matter in accessibility work. Accessibility work builds, and there’s always more we can do, but starting somewhere and celebrating successes are [key].”

Adam Lipkin is a writer and academic technologist based in Watertown, MA.

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