Accessibility Considerations for Library Software

What Are the Problems?

Using a library now means using software: online resources, Internet workstations, and the library's own website and catalogue create a software-based experience for patrons and staff. Users may have trouble:

  • Seeing content on the monitor
  • Using the keyboard or mouse
  • Understanding complicated directions
  • Any of the other typical computer software barriers

These barriers may appear anywhere in your software environment:

  • Information resources, which provide information or point to information--e.g., journal articles or bibliographic databases.
  • Administrative software, which provides an interface between users and applications, and control computer usage from signin through providing alerts when a user's time is up.
  • Security systems, which are intended to prevent malicious use of software and reset the system and programs to their defaults between users. These may also be used by other types of public computer labs.

There are easy, inexpensive solutions for almost all of these problems.

Legal Obligations

The Americans with Disabilities Act, which covers public and private libraries and many other institutions, states that “No individual shall be discriminated against…in the full and equal enjoyment of …services…." Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which covers some libraries, also requires accessible information technology.

Getting Started

The software used in your library should be as accessible as possible, and you can help move it in that direction without becoming an accessibility guru.  This article will go over some steps you can take:

  • Getting Close to Your Users
  • Your IT Staff
  • When You're in the Market
  • If You've Got Technical Resources

Getting Close to Your Users

You may want to begin by collecting all the input you can about accessibility, such as complaints or requests made by patrons, recommendations made by your advisory body, and information you collected at a meeting or conference.  Local disability groups may offer planning assistance. Getting a handle on specific issues is better than trying to learn everything and do everything all at once. If a disabled patron has experienced a specific problem, try to document it thoroughly so that it can be replicated.

Your IT Staff

Whether the library has its own technical staff or relies on a branch of government or administrative authority, information technology (IT) personnel are a critical part of successful assistive technology implementation. You can get them involved in the following ways:

  • Educate them about what accessibility and assistive technology are, and the legal obligations. One strategy might be to include them in trainings that you are conducting for front-line staff.
  • If the IT staff is responsible for the library's website, they should add accessibility to their list of design requirements.  Most accessibility features are straightforward, and accessibility is an accepted part of professional web development.  Training and guidance are easy to find.
  • Discuss potential conflicts with your network, security software, etc. For example, users may not be able to adjust the display settings in the operating system or browser, and you may not be able to install assistive technology software such as screen readers.  There are good reasons for these restrictions, and there are usually sound compromises that meet accessibility and security needs.
  • If you have any assistive technologies installed on your computers, your IT staff should stay current on updates and known compatibility problems with the applications you use. Assistive technology companies are generally very good about supporting institutional users this way.

When You're in the Market

You probably buy or subscribe to most of your software and online content, either directly or through a consortium.  That gives you lots of leverage as a customer to insist on accessibility.  The software or content company is ultimately responsible, and usually only they can make the necessary changes. They need to hear this from you. The way to get started down this road is to ask the company for their Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT), part of the Section 508 process for communicating about product accessibility.

A group working on using Section 508 and VPATs in library procurement currently consists of librarians, accessibility professionals, and American Library Association staff. To be included, email Jane Vincent at jbvincent {at} cforat {dot} org.

If You've Got Technical Resources

Here are some steps you can take to address accessibility issues with any technical resources you may have:

  • The first step is training and networking.  Make sure that your technical experts get what they need to succeed.  Online training and accessibility networking opportunities are out there in many forms.  Use the "Ask an Expert" link below if you need help getting started.
  • Set up a testing station to troubleshoot potential conflicts (see below for more detail). If this cannot be entirely done in the library, involve IT staff in conversations with local resources, such as an agency that serves people with disabilities, to see where this could be done; these external sites should ideally use the same operating system as the library.
  • Look for information about known problems. Some VPATs indicate problems and workarounds. Even if there is no VPAT, mainstream vendors may still have information on bugs and AT compatibility problems. At vendors are often aware of the same problems.

Testing Assistive Technology with Mainstream Products

It is a good idea to test assistive technology with the mainstream products you use, particularly before making purchase decisions. This can best be done in the following way:

  • Recruit people with different types of disabilities. Include individuals who do and do not use assistive technology.
  • Have them go through standard activities, e.g.: signing in, accessing applications, changing program options, signing up for computer time.
  • Have users fill out a simple report about the problems they encounter. The report should include the names of the assistive and mainstream technologies, the specific tasks they tried to complete, and as much specific information as possible about why any tasks could not be completed independently.

You and your IT staff can then analyze the results to try determining the following:

  • How important is the problem? Will it prohibit access? Will it make access more difficult? Are there alternative strategies, such as accessing a database through the Internet?
  • Is the problem caused by the mainstream technology? Could it be fixed?
  • Is the problem caused by the assistive technology? Would an alternative product work better?

If you then need to talk to vendors, describe the problems as fully as possible. Ask what they've already done or could do to address it. If mainstream vendors respond that “you’re the only one to ask…” or “it’ll only affect a few people…” for an answer, be prepared to discuss their legal obligations.


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