Digital resources for libraries, such as digital databases and e-books, have gained significantly in popularity over the past decade. But how can librarians ensure the accessibility of these vital materials?
Digital resources have been well and truly embraced by general readers as well as educators and learners at all levels of education. And they have become further embedded in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis and the rapid shift to remote and distance learning. However, with this growth in popularity, the accessibility of digital resources has become an ever more prominent issue. For users with disabilities, especially blind students who use screen readers, digital resources are a tremendous opportunity, but also a potential barrier where the technology doesn’t support them.
According to EBSCO, 2021 marked a turning point in what is required of universities and colleges across the United States on the matter of accessibility. All institutions of learning that receive federal aid are now legally required to make their digital learning materials accessible to students, including those with disabilities.
In practice, this means all products must be compatible with all screen readers and keyboards and must be designed in ways that enable efficient navigation. If institutions aren’t able to make their resources fully accessible, then they must provide reasonable alternatives.
Any US library that purchases digital materials for its institution will be liable and face penalties if those materials are not ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant. This means that librarians must now have the skills and knowledge to follow the new guidelines and distinguish clearly among the products that are and are not fully ADA compliant. As a result, it also means understanding how to make wise purchasing decisions.
Librarians now need to have a good grasp of how compliance applies to the various layers of the digital content ‘chain’. As content isn’t often purchased directly from publishers but from various content service providers and distributors (vendors), it is often the vendors’ platforms that pose accessibility challenges.
While vendors do not control the content creation, it’s their responsibility to communicate the accessibility information about their products and services to librarians and users. And this should be done with as much transparency as possible. This starts with the provision of a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT).
As well as assessing VPATs carefully, librarians need to be aware of other ways to judge the accessibility of products. This means being willing to go above and beyond the VPAT ‘box-ticking’ to ask questions such as whether or not a vendor has people responsible for accessibility.
Making informed decisions requires some understanding of the language of accessibility from VPATs to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). More than that, the ability to identify a good VPAT from a bad one, or a vendor who’s genuinely dedicated to accessibility from one that’s simply ticking boxes, will be increasingly important.
As well as taking on some responsibility to broaden understanding, today’s librarians will need to forge strong links with legal and IT departments who will be able to help them judge a vendor’s credibility.
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And you’ll also find more support in our new accessibility guide for librarians. As well as explaining the legislation it has detailed information on how to review a VPAT and pick out the bad from the good. Ensuring a vendor can’t sneak anything past you.
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