After 20 years of digitization efforts, hardly a single type of library information resource remains that has not shifted, at least to some extent, to an electronic, Web-based format: information about the library itself, catalogs, indexes, dictionaries and encyclopedias, books and journals, tutorials, reserve materials, and reference services. The online migration of these resources has opened unprecedented opportunities to people with “print disabilities” who cannot independently access printed works because of lack of sight, dyslexia, or insufficient motor control (Coombs, 2000), but who are able to access electronic text with the help of assistive input and output technology such as modified computer keyboards and screen readers with speech or Braille output (Lazzaro, 2001;Mates, 2000). The extent to which these new opportunities become realized depends on the design of the Web environment. From the perspective of accessibility, design in the online world matters as much as it does in the physical world. This article seeks to determine the extent to which the library profession addresses the need of people with disabilities for accessibly designed online resources—by reviewing the professional library literature for coverage of this issue, by summarizing empirical accessibility studies, and by analyzing pertinent policies adapted by libraries and their professional organizations.
Coverage Of Online Accessibility In The Library Literature
In 1996, accessible Web design began to emerge as an issue in the professional library literature. Since 1999, there has been a noticeable increase in library-related journal publications that investigate the accessibility of Web-based library information, seek to raise awareness concerning the need for accessible Web design, and provide practical tips (for a detailed overview, see Schmetzke, 2003, p. 153-156; Stewart, Narendra, and Schmetzke, 2005, p. 267-270). Since 2001, two library journals, Computers in Libraries (2001), and Library Hi Tech (Schmetzke, 2002a, 2002b, 2007a) have devoted special-theme issues to online accessibility; Information Technology and Disability reports regularly on the subject. In 1999, the American Library Association began publishing monographs that addressed accessible Web design (Lazzaro, 2001; Mates, 2000; McNulty, 1999). Gradually, the need to include people with disabilities is also acknowledged in the broader library literature on electronic resources: Whereas some authors—such as Breivik & Gee (Higher Education in the Internet Age, 2006), Gregory (Selecting and Managing Electronic Resources, 2006) and the contributors to Lee (Collection Management and Strategic Access to Digital Resources, 2005)—continue to ignore the issue, others deal with it, at least briefly, in connection with topics such as Web page design (Garlock & Piontek, 1999), Web site usability testing (Norlin & Winter, 2002), digital resources selection and digital video (Curtis, 2005; Hanson & Lubotsky Levin, 2003; Kovacs & Robinson, 2004; Lilly, 2001), Web-based instruction (Sharpless Smith, 2006), and virtual reference service (Coffman, 2003).
Key Terms in this Chapter
Assistive Technology: Specialized software or hardware, such as screen readers, magnification software, and a modified keyboard, used by some people with disabilities to interact with the computer.
Screen Reader: Software that interprets the signals sent to the computer screen and reads aloud the displayed text with the help of a speech synthesizer.
Universal Design: A concept similar to accessible design. Its meaning is broader in that it refers to design that strives to create products that are usable by all people, regardless of age, gender, (dis)ability, handedness, etc. Its meaning is narrower in that it seeks one solution to accommodate the needs of all people.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG): Guidelines for accessible Web design developed by the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative. WCAG 1.0 were passed in 1999. A working draft of a revised set of guidelines, WCAG 2.0, is currently under review.
Section 508: A provision within the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended by Congress in 1998, that mandates that the electronic and information technology developed, maintained, procured or used by the U.S. government must be accessible to people with disabilities.
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): U.S. civil rights legislation passed in 1990 that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in the areas of employment, transportation, telecommunications, and public accommodation.
Print Disabilities: Comprises all those disabilities that make it difficult, or impossible, to read printed text. The term includes visual impairment and blindness; cognitive disabilities, such as dyslexia; and certain motor-control impairments.
Accessibility: As defined within Section 508, accessibility is achieved when individuals with disabilities can access and use information technology in ways comparable to those available to people without disabilities. A narrower, operational definition conceptualizes accessibility in terms of conformance to certain accessibility criteria such as the web content accessibility guidelines or the access board standards .