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Accessibility in Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums: Academic Libraries

Introduction to Accessibility in Academic Libraries

This page includes information and resources for library workers who are interested in increasing the accessibility of library resources for students with disabilities and providing support for library workers with disabilities. Different strategies for making libraries more accessible are detailed below, along with relevant resources relating to those strategies. While each one of these methods can help improve the experience of diversely-abled students in the library, a mix of all these methods and more need to actively practiced by library workers to create a truly accessible environment.

Why Accessibility Matters

According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ 2008 Digest of Education Statistics, table 231, around 11% of undergraduate and 7% of graduate students reported having a disability. Compare this to the National Center for Education Statistics’ 2018 Digest of Education Statistics, around 19% of undergraduate students and 12% of post baccalaureate students reported they have a disability, a consequential increase. This means that around one out of every five students on a college campus is directly affected by the accessibility, or lack thereof, of their university’s library resources. More individuals with diverse abilities are going to college and more college students are being diagnosed with disabilities. Along with this change in student population, a change in library services and specialties must follow. This section of the Accessibility in Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums (GLAM) LibGuide focuses on theories, strategies, and technologies that can make academic libraries more accessible to both students and faculty with disabilities. 

Academic Library Workers with Disabilities

It is established that academic library workers need to make sure that their services are accessible to students and faculty, however, there should also be attention given to making sure that the library working environment is accessible and inclusive as well. In a survey of library workers with disabilities, it was revealed that only half of the participants disclosed their disability to their supervisors, and only 30% had done so to their coworkers. The survey also found that many library workers were hesitant about requesting accommodations because they fear negative consequences. 

This shouldn't be that surprising since disability is left out of professional programs and discussions on diversity, and there are no disability-related interest groups within major American library organizations. While there are some studies available on patrons or students with disabilities, there are only a handful of papers on library workers with disabilities. This is an area that desperately needs to progress, so that library workers with disability workers can have their experiences of inequity and discrimination validated and taken seriously by library administration. 

Below are the only articles I could find on library workers with disabilities. 

Universal Technology

Assistive/Adaptive Technologies (closed captioning, voice recognition software, electronic readers, etc.) are used by many students with disabilities. Kenning Arlitsch, Dean of the Library at Montana State University, in his article, My User is a Machine: Making Information Accessible to Disabled Users by Structuring for Machine Intermediaries, argues that the most effective way to meet the accessibility needs of individuals with disabilities is to think “of machines as our primary audience”. because “assistive technologies work best when they recognize the distinctive parts of a document: title, subtitle, header, section, chapter, etc." HTML tags, for example, organize the different areas of a webpage this way, and different tags, like the “alt” tag, which allows web developers to include a description of an image in their code, can directly help users with disabilities navigate web pages. Arlitsch goes on to explain that word processing and presentation software styles “generate, at the click of a button, machine readable codes… [which] helps render documents that are accessible to machines, and therefore to disabled humans through their assistive technologies." Due to this, the digitization of collections means that the content can be displayed in different forms easily, such as braille, large print, dyslexia-friendly typefaces, and audio, which can help meet the accessibility needs of students with disabilities. Below are some resources that can help with implementing assistive technologies in universities. 

Feedback from Students with Disabilities

There is much to be gained from direct feedback from library users who have disabilities or handicaps.  Recently librarians Amealia Brunskill and JJ Pionke have separately gathered feedback from diversely-abled individuals about library services and programs. Pionke’s interviews uncovered many areas that need to be improved in order to increase the accessibility of libraries, including signage, cleanliness, and privacy. However, she concludes that “incorporating a greater degree of empathy, empowerment, and universal design into how we think about not only patrons, but also services, training, and buildings, will go a long way to making libraries truly accessible for all." Similarly, Brunskill’s interviews about academic library web pages revealed that students with disabilities desire effective and honest communication with librarians, and that a “library’s accessibility webpage has the potential to empower students who have a disability by providing them with clear, easily located answers to their questions and highlighting the resources and services that the library has for them." Both interviews mentioned that their interviewees expressed the need for better training of library employees in the area of communicating and serving students with disabilities. Interviews like these are vital to improving library accessibility because diversely-abled students provide knowledge about the accessibility of library services that neurotypical library workers won't be able to notice. 

Outreach Materials

There is still a general lack of awareness about what counts as a disability among the general public. The use of outreach materials by libraries can teach more people about disabilities issues, while also informing students of the services that may be available to them. 

Collaborating with Accessibility Centers

Most college and university campuses have an accessibility center or office that directly communicates and assists individuals with disabilities on a daily basis. These accessibility centers are great places to reach students that may need additional library services due to a disability, and can help preserve financial resources due to the efficiency of departments working together. Many of the advisors at these centers are acquainted with these students and can work with library staff to ensure that the students are receiving the support they need and gain feedback from students on the library’s initiatives and services.

The process of collaborating with accessibility centers will vary from university to university, since each university has its own unique resources in place to support students with disabilities. Below are some articles that discuss the relationship between libraries and on-campus accessibility centers. 

Additional Readings

Bibliography

Arlitsch, K. (2018). My User is a Machine: Making Information Accessible to Disabled Users by Structuring for Machine Intermediaries. Journal of Library Administration58(7), 728–738. https://doi.org/10.1080/01930826.2018.1514834

Arzola, R. (2016). Collaboration between the library and Office of Student Disability Services : Document accessibility in higher education. Digital Library Perspectives32(2), 117–126. https://academicworks.cuny.edu/le_pubs/113/

Ashmore, B., Grogg, J. E., & Rosen, H. (2020). An Accessibility Survey of Libraries: Results, Best Practices, and Next Steps. Serials Librarian78(1–4), 214–218. https://doi.org/10.1080/0361526X.2020.1703496

Bessaha, M., Reed, R., Donlon, A. J., Mathews, W., Bell, A. C., & Merolla, D. (2020). Creating a more inclusive environment for students with disabilities: Findings from participatory action research. Disability Studies Quarterly40(3), N.PAG. https://dsq-sds.org/article/view/7094

Brunskill, A. (2020). “Without that detail, i’m not coming”: The perspectives of students with disabilities on accessibility information provided on academic library websites. College and Research Libraries81(5), 768–788. https://crl.acrl.org/index.php/crl/article/download/24511/32331

Krebs, E. (2019). Baccalaureates or Burdens? Complicating “Reasonable Accommodations” for American College Students with Disabilities. Disability Studies Quarterly39(3). https://dsq-sds.org/article/view/6557/5413

Murphy, S., Amerud, D., & Corcoran, C. (2019). An Exploration of Partnerships Between Disability Services Units and Academic Libraries. Collaborative Librarianship11(2), 118–137. https://digitalcommons.du.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1423&context=collaborativelibrarianship

O’Sullivan, K., & Alexander, G. (2020). Toward Inclusive Outreach: What Special Collections Can Learn from Disability Studies. RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage, 21(1), 11. doi:https://doi.org/10.5860/rbm.21.1.11

Oud, J. (2019). Systemic Workplace Barriers for Academic Librarians with Disabilities. College & Research Libraries80(2), 169–194. https://crl.acrl.org/index.php/crl/article/view/16948/19429

Peacock, R., & Vecchione, A. (2020). Accessibility Best Practices, Procedures, and Policies in Northwest United States Academic Libraries. The Journal of Academic Librarianship46(1). https://scholarworks.boisestate.edu/lib_facpubs/148/

Pionke, J. J. (2020). Library Employee Views of Disability and Accessibility. Journal of Library Administration60(2), 120–145. https://doi.org/10.1080/01930826.2019.1704560

Pionke, J. J. (2017). Toward Holistic Accessibility: Narratives from Functionally Diverse Patrons. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 57(1), 48–56. https://doi.org/10.5860/rusq.57.1.6442

Rathbun-Grubb, S. (2021). Voices of Strength: A Survey of Librarians Working with Chronic Illnesses or Conditions. Journal of Library Administration61(1), 42–57. https://doi.org/10.1080/01930826.2020.1845546