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Web accessibility: Educating librarians means empowering users

With Ranti Junus and Debra Riley-Huff | Aug 25, 2014

Libraries for Universal Accessibility blog (
Library users with disabilities don’t want to have to ask for help. They want to be empowered and do it themselves, affirm Ranti Junus and Debra Riley-Huff, two librarians who ensure the accessibility of their libraries’ resources.
“The help is there,” says Ranti, the Electronic Resources Librarian at Michigan State University (MSU) Libraries, “but it should also be built into the online tools and services so that it is seamless and imperceptible to the user.”
Ranti is responsible for adding electronic resources to the library collection and establishing easy access to subscription databases and other data sources. To determine whether these resources are accessible to users with disabilities such as sight impairment, she asks questions like: Are items on the page labeled correctly in the HTML? Can users find the search box easily? After the search results come up, how easy is it to get to the first search result when you are listening to a screen reader?
“The organization of the content itself on the page becomes crucial,” Ranti explains. “Do they have to listen to a multitude of extra links before they can hear their search results? If so, that’s a problem.”
Elsevier’s Ted Gies, a UX expert, concurs. “Good design is accessible design,” says Ted, Principal User Experience Specialist and Accessibility Lead for Reed Elsevier. “When you take accessibility into consideration you build a tool with greater usability. And it all starts with having a user-centric point of view.”
“I have always strongly felt that web services are public services,” says Debra Riley-Huff, Head of Web Services in the JD Williams Library and Associate Professor at the University of Mississippi. “A lot of people think because it involves programming, we should be part of IT or technical services. And though we are closely connected to information technology, it’s about who we serve.”
Debra takes a broad view of the library website and everything it encompasses. “I am responsible to the library, of course, but I am also responsible to campus web and integrated applications teams to make sure that everything that we build or interface with is both useable and accessible. These could include third-party applications, custom content, and things we would build off of an API, such as that of our discovery system.”
She also plays a role in educating other librarians on her campus — for example, ensuring they post written transcripts of videos on the library website. As she notes, the university won’t get sued for not having the video up, but it might if the video is there with content that is inaccessible to someone with a hearing impairment.
“There have been a record number of lawsuits against universities around accessibility in the last few years. Unfortunately the library is almost always implicated,” says Debra. Thus, it becomes even more important to consider accessibility in programming and design. “People get discouraged,” Debra continues, “because an accessibility checking tool might tell them their webpage has 50 errors, when in reality fixing three important errors might make all the difference. So becoming involved in a group — on campus or within the greater library community — focused on learning and effecting change can be critical. ”
Debra participates in Libraries for Universal Accessibility (LUA), a voluntary group of librarians, vendors and community members committed to information access. Sponsored by ALA and ACRL, LUA launched a blog in the spring and is growing its content and membership.
At MSU a cross-section of the campus community interested in accessibility issues meets monthly in an informal practice group. 
“We have people from the Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities, the Usability & Accessibility Center, online course management, the IT department, the library, students and others. We use it as a forum for discussion, awareness raising and to make recommendations on related technology, policy, etc.,” says Ranti. “I’m also a member of the web developers group, and accessibility continues to be a key theme for this group.” 
“At the University of Mississippi, the Office of Disability Services is very, very good,” says Debra. “It has arranged a few webinars on accessibility, starting with some very basic knowledge. If it’s too technical, a broader audience can get hung up and they miss the opportunity to make fast improvements.” Debra also wants to encourage librarians to make an ongoing commitment. “Tools, technology and requirements change,” she explains. “It’s important to keep up to date.”
Vendors like Elsevier also offer the opportunity to become involved. Gies leads an Accessibility Collaboration Group (see invitation to join below) with representatives of academic institutions to ensure the usability, accessibility and compatibility with assistive technology of Elsevier products, including ScienceDirect, Scopus and Engineering Village. 
Take a first step in learning more about accessibility and connecting with others who are interested in this issue, encourage Ranti and Debra, because educating yourself will translate into empowering your library users. Recommended resources to get started are provided below.

Resources for librarians interested in accessibility and digital resources

Libraries for Universal Accessibility
ARL Web Accessibility Toolkit
ASCLA Library Accessibility – What You Need to Know Toolkit
Accessibility Checklist – Elsevier's User Centered Design (UCD) group and Accessibility Working Group
Web Accessibility Initiative – World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)
Accessible Web Design – W3C