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Accessibility Report: Libraries and Disabilities in the Digital Age

Concerned about digital accessibility at your library? Here’s what you need to know about libraries and disabilities today.

April 4, 2023 by Amy Foxwell
Accessibility Report: Libraries and Disabilities in the Digital Age

Technology keeps changing the way we relate to information. Libraries have had to adapt. By now, they’ve gotten pretty good at it.

In 2014, the Pew Research Center announced that public libraries were transforming from “houses of knowledge to houses of access”—specifically meaning access to an expanding range of digital services and collections. In that Pew survey, 95% of respondents said it was “important” for public libraries to offer access to the internet, and 77% said such access was “very important.”

In the decade or so since Pew’s announcement, media have gone even further down the digital path. Between 2011 and 2021, the percentage of U.S. adults who read an e-book nearly

doubled, from 17% to 30%. The share of Americans who listened to audiobooks went from 11% to 23% during the same decade. Meanwhile, print readership declined from 72% to 65%.

Of course, libraries offer much more than books (print or otherwise). They also provide access to periodicals, courses, children’s programs, literacy assistance, community support, and more. All of these offerings are increasingly likely to take place in digital spaces. Libraries have responded, shifting collections and resources to meet the public where they are—which is, of course, online.

Unfortunately, that adaptation creates new accessibility challenges. Digital collections and services must be available for all users, including the 1.3 billion people globally who have disabilities. Accessibility in physical spaces requires curb cuts, high-contrast signage, ramps, elevators, and more. But how are libraries ensuring their digital offerings remain free of discrimination?

Here’s an introduction to libraries and disabilities—and how libraries are meeting the challenge of providing digital accessibility for every user.

ReadSpeaker Text to Speech for Digital Library Services

Text-to-speech (TTS) technology reads written content out loud, removing accessibility barriers for library users with (for example) vision impairments, learning disabilities, or a preference for audio learning. Screen readers handle this task for some users, but not enough. People with learning disabilities or dyslexia rarely have screen readers. And According to the World Health Organization, only 10% of people who need assistive devices have them. Libraries can help fill the gap by integrating TTS tools into their digital systems.

ReadSpeaker works with libraries of all sizes to integrate user-friendly TTS tools into a variety of digital ecosystems, from websites to apps to reference databases. Find ReadSpeaker TTS tools from libraries and library services like:

Ebsco research products libraries and disabilitiesEbsco research products

Gale reference databases libraries and disabilitiesGale reference databases

DC Public Library’s Labs libraries and disabilitiesDC Public Library’s Labs

Library of Congress website Congress.gov and disabilitiesLibrary of Congress website Congress.gov

Taylor & Francis Online libraries and disabilitiesTaylor & Francis Online

Find out how to use ReadSpeaker TTS to listen to journal articles from Taylor & Francis in this quick video.

Looking for lifelike text to speech delivered natively within digital library services? Contact ReadSpeaker to discuss the possibilities.

Libraries, Disabilities, and Digital Accessibility Compliance

Accessibility is an ethical obligation and a civil rights imperative. It’s also a legal requirement. (That said, this article is not intended as legal advice; for that, you need an attorney who specializes in disability rights law.)

Here are a few of the U.S. accessibility laws that apply to many libraries, requiring them to make digital collections available to all.

The Americans with Disabilities Act: Title II

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides comprehensive protection from discrimination for people with disabilities. Each section of the law, or title, covers a different sphere of public life. Title II prohibits disability-based discrimination for state and local governments, including municipalities.

That means state-funded libraries are covered by Title II. So are municipal libraries, like many public library systems. Title II also applies to all publicly funded educational institutions, from public elementary and secondary schools to universities and community colleges.

Since that list covers most types of libraries, odds are you have to comply with Title II. What does that mean for digital collections, online services, and websites? The Department of Justice (DOJ), which enforces the ADA, says that Title II’s “requirements apply to all the services, programs, or activities … including those offered on the web.”

Title II Enforcement for a State University’s Online Video Collections

How might Title II affect digital library collections? For one possibility, consider a 2022 consent decree between the DOJ and the University of California (UC) Berkeley. The school hosted a huge collection of video and audio content online. That content lacked crucial digital accessibility features, like captions, video transcripts, and text descriptions of images. It also wasn’t compatible with screen readers or other types of assisted technology.

According to the DOJ, that lack of accessibility violated Title II. Under the consent decree (basically a promise to make a change without admission of guilt), UC Berkeley agreed to improve accessibility for its online video and audio content, as well as appoint a web accessibility coordinator and conduct accessibility testing.

It’s unclear how much of the noncompliant content was hosted on UC Berkeley library systems. But for university libraries that handle online video and audio content, the case could be a valuable wake-up call.

The Rehabilitation Act: Section 504

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was Congress’ attempt to ban discrimination against people with disabilities within the federal government. But sections of the law also apply to organizations that receive federal funding—which most public libraries and universities do.

Section 504 explicitly covers “any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” To comply with this part of the law, libraries must avoid discriminating against people with disabilities. That generally means all services and materials—including digital ones—must be made accessible.

The Rehabilitation Act: Section 508

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires electronic and information technology (EIT) to be accessible for people with disabilities. That includes digital content, from e-book collections to websites.

While Section 508 originally applied only to federal agencies, later laws like the Assistive Technology Act of 1998 expanded its coverage. Now, the new laws said, recipients of federal grants must comply with the standards set forth in Section 508.

“Therefore,” reports Library Hi Tech News, “all public libraries will need to comply with Section 508’s requirements for accessibility of information technologies both for their patrons and their employees.”

One way to establish this accessibility is to present digital materials in multiple formats at once. For example, text alone isn’t enough, because it’s a barrier to users with blindness, visual impairments, or learning disabilities. You must also provide audio versions of those texts—or, at the very least, ensure that all content is optimized for assistive technology like screen readers.

But that’s just one example of removing barriers for people with disabilities. Here are some of the other ways libraries are meeting the challenge of digital accessibility.

How to Improve Digital Accessibility at Your Library

As technology advances, so do the ways libraries store and grant access to digital collections. That can make accessibility a moving target, and the laws listed above don’t give clear-cut instructions for achieving compliance.

That said, there are two things you can do to improve digital accessibility—and compliance—at your library:

  1. Make sure all online content conforms to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
  2. More fundamentally, follow the principles of Universal Design when creating new digital systems and collections.

Let’s look a little closer at each of these subjects.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines for Library Digital Collections

Websites, digital content, mobile apps: They must all be accessible for every library patron.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) provide clear criteria for meeting that goal. These standards are maintained and occasionally updated by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which creates global standards for internet technology.

But WCAG isn’t just a bunch of technical tips. It approaches accessibility as a set of criteria, then provides guidance for success with each criterion. The specific guidance in WCAG gets very detailed indeed, with nearly 80 discrete success criteria listed in WCAG version 2.1 (the current edition as we publish).

All of those success criteria pursue the same four principles of web accessibility, however. As listed in WCAG 2.1, these accessibility principles state that all online content must be:

  1. Perceivable. Two library users may consume content using different senses. A user with vision impairments may listen rather than read, for instance. Content must be presented in multiple formats that make it perceivable to all users, says WCAG.
  2. Web Content Accessibility Guidelines for Library Digital Collections - The Four Principles of AccessibilityOperable. People don’t just consume content differently. They also use devices differently. User interfaces must support multiple means of operation. For example, websites should be navigable using keyboard commands. If you require a mouse to access your content, the website is not operable for people who don’t use mouses—a group that includes many individuals with physical disabilities.
  3. Understandable. Keep content and user interfaces easy to understand for all users, says WCAG. At the very least, a website’s human language must be made explicit to assistive devices, like screen readers. That requires a bit of back-end coding (e.g., setting a “lang attribute” in HTML).
  4. Robust. Content is “robust” when it works well with a wide variety of assistive technologies. That’s generally a technical question of correct code—but the principle is that people with disabilities use tools, both hardware and software, to access web content. Digital library materials must work with those tools.

From these four guiding principles, WCAG derives its 78 success criteria, which help developers maintain digital library resources online without creating barriers for people with disabilities. Adherence to WCAG can also help with regulatory compliance. Section 508 technology standards refer to WCAG. Meanwhile, in 2022, the DOJ announced forthcoming rules on web accessibility standards under Title II of the ADA. While we won’t know for sure until those rules are published, web accessibility experts predict the DOJ will defer to WCAG 2.1 standards.

Most importantly, compliance with WCAG makes digital library services available to more users. Legal complexities aside, that’s simply the right thing to do.

Looking for a deeper dive into WCAG as a digital accessibility tool? Read our comprehensive introduction to the topic.

Applying Universal Design to Digital Library Services

The American Library Association (ALA) is unequivocal in its commitment to accessibility:

Applying Universal Design to Digital Library Services - American Library Association (ALA)

“Libraries play a catalytic role in the lives of people with disabilities by facilitating their full participation in society,” says official ALA policy. “Libraries should use strategies based upon the principles of universal design to ensure that library policy, resources, and services meet the needs of all people.”

That’s our emphasis on universal design, which describes the process of building systems that work for everyone—people with and without disabilities. Universal design means creating spaces for people with different skill levels, native languages, backgrounds, preferences, and more. Universal design strives for inclusion without limits.

While the concept doesn’t show up in U.S. accessibility law, it’s central to Ireland’s Disability Act of 2005, which describes universal design as “the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood, and used to the greatest extent possible by all people, regardless of their age, size, or disability.”

So how do libraries create digital services and collections that don’t leave anyone out? Provide options. Universal Design for Learning (UDL)—the application of universal design principles in education—shows what that might look like for a library.

Text to Speech Accessibility Tools for Libraries

One of the key techniques in UDL is to present materials in two ways at once, a concept called bimodal learning. In one study of learning preferences, Universal Design for Learning preferred multimodal presentation for information. The good news is that multimodal presentation is a simple tech fix for library systems. You just need the right text-to-speech tool, which instantly reads digital texts out loud.

ReadSpeaker offers online TTS tools for websites and digital documents, complete with accessibility tools like text enlargement, page masks, and plain-text mode. ReadSpeaker’s TTS voices are warm and lifelike, thanks to AI development methods. These TTS plug-ins integrate seamlessly with existing digital systems. Ultimately, they give users the option to listen to written words.

Text to Speech Accessibility Tools for Libraries - ReadSpeaker
ReadSpeaker webReader’s user interface offers instant text to speech, along with a range of other literacy tools.

If you’re concerned about digital accessibility, libraries, and disabilities, TTS tools from ReadSpeaker offer a powerful solution. That’s why the Library of Congress offers a WCAG-compliant ReadSpeaker TTS solution on Congress.gov. You can do the same for your library.

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