Library 2.0: Why Everyone’s Talking About Digital Accessibility

Times are changing, exponentially faster than we may want to admit. We’re soaking in water floatation tanks to calm our nerves and planning subdivisions on Mars as one way to deal with climate change.

Libraries, too, are in the midst of change. Nowadays, they are much more than neighborhood meeting places to read a magazine, check out books, or send the kids for Saturday story-time.

They’re connectivity hubs providing all kinds of community services through tools for digital collaboration and experiences. As masking and social distancing push people apart for health concerns, online services and events can bring people together. That’s a good thing—and something we’ve come to rely on as more science emerges on staying connected to stay healthy.


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Making New Connections with Online Services

Do your patrons need some help with basic word processing on a computer or searching local job boards? How about a book club or conversational English class? Maybe they’re planning to try a cool science experiment with their kids to make spectacular milk planets that look like the ones that populate the Milky Way galaxy?

These types of programs are increasingly available online, free of charge, through your library. And virtual services are giving even more people the opportunity to connect online and benefit from the extended outreach of digital platforms.

But what about people who have a visual impairment?

Maybe they have tunnel vision, able to only see a portion of what’s on the screen. Or perhaps they can’t see colors, and need high contrast to be able to identify text and images. Or they’re part of the aging demographic, facing the realities of diminishing eyesight.

The World Health Organization says 2.2 billion people have a vision impairment (attributed in part to the prevalence of chronic health conditions), and 15% of the global population lives with some form of disability. The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one in every four adults in the country has some type of disability (check out the infographic to see the big picture). No small numbers here!

Which begs the question: How can people with mental or physical challenges access your digital library?


Blog_A11y-1_Braille-Screen-ReaderBlind man using a braille screen reader. Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash.


The Basics: What is Digital Accessibility?

Inclusivity is important. Libraries are recognized for being accessible to everyone. The shift to digital makes digital accessibility a top priority for libraries to open their virtual doors and experiences to anyone and everyone.

That means digital tools, like a library’s online catalog, mobile app, and website should be designed to be barrier-free and user-centered for all patrons and visitors. When you’re ready to stream movies or music, that should be barrier-free as well.

Digital accessibility is all about straightforward navigation, ease of use, and text clarity.

Whether a visitor has a cognitive disability requiring simple content and navigation, or a blind person using a screen reader to read a web page, there are many reasons to make your digital presence accessible.

In fact, there’s a clear business case to be made for easy-to-navigate and equitable access. That access starts with great design and simple functionality.


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Inclusive Design Goes Hand-in-Hand with Business Growth

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella recently said that 10% of the world's GDP will be spent on tech, and companies who don’t make their products accessible to all users will be excluded from the market and miss out on that financial windfall.

So, if your organization is not doing the right thing—and the smart thing—by being as inclusive as possible with accessible digital platforms, you stand to lose out on revenue and customer loyalty.

In the library sphere, that means fewer patrons and less impressive metrics to influence stakeholders like community partners and donors.


Equal Access is a Right, Not Just a Strategy

There’s also a legal risk if you don’t show you’re working toward digital accessibility. The U.S. Department of Justice released the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Standards for Accessible Design in 2010 which requires companies to offer and maintain sites that people with disabilities can fully use and access.

These days, courts are ruling in favor of plaintiffs. The first web accessibility ADA lawsuit went to a full federal trial in 2017 and now there are a number of ADA cases in front of the courts. For example, a woman who is blind sued the Whisper Restaurant and Lounge in Los Angeles in 2018 because she couldn’t read the online menu or make a reservation online.

The problem is that the majority of online content is inaccessible. A United Nations global audit of web accessibility found that 97 out of 100 websites had issues. But the needle is moving. Digital accessibility advocates and consultants Level Access issued a report on the state of digital accessibility data that the authors found encouraging:

“The survey asked why organizations were addressing accessibility and 78% said ‘we felt compelled to implement inclusion to be truly inclusive of people with disabilities.’ (This is up from 68% in 2020.)

“What’s more interesting is that this year, the survey asked about personal drivers – why do you care about digital accessibility? Nine out of ten people selected inclusion as a driver and four out of five valued providing the best UX [user experience] for all users. While the law does move organizations toward making the necessary changes to create accessible technology, what motivates individuals is making a positive impact on other people.”

And when you think about it, good usability improves the online experience for all users, whether they have an impairment or not.


Want to Know More?

We’ll share more blogs about accessibility and compliance in the next few months. In the blog series, we’ll dive deep into a number of topics as well as the basics of how to embed accessible functions into your library website and other online experiences.

We want public libraries to be community leaders for digital services, making them fully accessible and inviting to an increasingly diverse audience.

As Level Access sees it, technology at its best is, “an empowering source of earning, learning and belonging for all.”



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