Accessibility Considerations and Library Software

Software designed primarily for use by libraries may or may not be accessible or compatible with assistive technologies. This article covers three types of library software:

  • Information resources that provide information or point to information, such as databases
  • Administrative software that interfaces between users and applications and controls computer usage
  • Security systems that prevent malicious usage of software and reset system/programs to their defaults

Potential Accessibility Issues

Accessibility problems with library software usually occur for one of three reasons:

  • The product, or one or more of its features, is inherently inaccessible. For example, a program may use bitmapped text, or an object programmed using Flash, neither of which can be accessed by screen reader technology used by blind individuals, or speech output programs used by people with learning or cognitive disabilities.
  • The program may have inaccessible design features. For example, it may use small print, or may provide insufficient color contrast between text and background. Both of these would provide major barriers for people with visual or learning disabilities who are not using assistive technology.
  • The program may conflict with assistive technology. For example, by default security systems often disallow access to control panels, which is where most built-in assistive technologies reside within operating systems.

Legal Considerations

When addressing implementation of assistive technology, most libraries only consider the Americans with Disabilities Act, which puts the burden of accommodation on the library: “No individual shall be discriminated against…in the full and equal enjoyment of the…services…of any place of public accommodation." However, when looking at issues of library software accessibility, it may be more useful to consider Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which states that "any technology that is purchased [by government agencies] must be accessible."
The important distinction is that with Section 508 it is the responsibility of the developer, not the library, to ensure product accessibility. To ensure accessibility, libraries need to communicate with product developers that accessibility will be a primary consideration when choosing or continuing to use products, and that lack of accessibility may even be a deal-breaker.

Evaluating Library Software for Accessibility

Working with Your IT Department

The first step in determining whether current programs are accessible is to communicate with your library's Information Technology (IT) staff. If you have not previously talked with them about your assistive technology setup, start by explaining what assistive technology is, as well as legal and other reasons why the library is providing it. Then listen to their input about potential obstacles--e.g., reasons why security software settings cannot be changed--and brainstorm possible solutions. Finally, discuss whether the library would be able to set up a testing station so that patrons with disabilities can evaluate the accessibility of specific library software programs.

Research Known Compatibility Issues

While existing information is limited about the accessibility of library software programs, there are some avenues to explore:

  • Adina Mulliken from Syracuse University and Debra Riley-Huff from the University of Mississippi have a Wiki that tracks accessibility problems (and successes) with specific software; plans are to expand it to cover other types of software.
  • A 2010 article, Overcoming the Information Gap, tested 32 databases using the JAWS screen reader and found that nearly three-fourths of them were fully or partially inaccessible.
  • Software developers are encouraged to fill out a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) that details specific points of compliance with Section 508. Some VPATs are available on the Buy Accessible website; others can be requested directly from the developer.
  • Ask patrons, other librarians, and assistive technology product developers if they have had positive or negative experiences around the accessibility of a particular product.

Test Products

If you cannot find information about accessibility of library software, you will need to test it yourself (and, ideally, pass the results on to the accessibility Wiki mentioned above). Once a testing station has been set up, invite users of specific assistive technologies, along with individuals with disabilities who do not use assistive technology, to try using the programs. Provide them with instructions (in an accessible format) for performing standard tasks such as signing in, accessing applications, changing program options, and signing up for computer time. Also provide an easy way for them to report back about any access problems they found, including whether the problem was encountered when the task was repeated. Testers should be encouraged to bring an assistant to bypass hurdles and help with report generation; if no one is available, a library staff member should offer to help.

Once results are collected, work with IT staff to review them and determine the importance of any problems that were found. Problems that will prevent or inhibit access, and for which there are no work-arounds, should be considered critical.

IT staff and/or the testers may also be able to provide input on whether the problem seems to be caused by the assistive technology or by the library software. If the former, determine whether another product would provide more satisfactory access. If, however, the problem is caused by the library software (the far more likely scenario), contact the developers, explain the situation, and discuss what they have done or could do to address it. Don’t take “you’re the only one to ask…” or “it’ll only affect a few people…” for an answer.


Section 508 is a set of accessibility provisions used by the federal government and others to evaluate and identify accessible technologies. 508ers is a group of AT Coalition staff, American Library Association (ALA) staff, and librarians who are working to bring Section 508 compliance to the attention of library software developers. To join, contact Jane Vincent.

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