Accessibility Awareness and the Role of LIS Schools

by Joseph Koivisto

Accessibility of web-based materials is an extremely important element of information access for disabled users of all sorts. It is so important, in fact that the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (W3C, 2012), a standard technical approach and assessment criteria, has been adopted by the ISO in order to standardize its application, thereby promoting the highest possible level of accessibility. However, despite the widely available standard and broad adoption via the appropriate organizations, accessibility guideline adoption is not as embraced as it should be. Brophy & Craven (2007) note several cases that evince a general lack of accessibility considerations, such as:

  • a Brophy & Craven study that found only 49 of a sample of 134 UK homepages were deemed “Bobby Approved” via the Bobby accessibility testing software (964)
  • a generally negative review of websites from European Union member nations that concluded public service sites had “a long way to go” in terms of achieving accessibility (965)
  • a 2005 SupportEAM project that found only 35% of respondents actively tested the usability of their websites despite an 80% positive response in terms of accounting for accessibility during design stages (967)

While these numbers are rather lamentable, there is some good news to be gained from the progress made in a specific area: library and information science schools. Comeaux & Schmetzke (2007) completed a follow-up to Schmetzke’s 2003 study on the accessibility of LIS department pages and library pages (461). In their follow-up, they sought to identify any changes over time within the same sampled institutions. Even though they found some troubling trends – the seemingly random distribution of positive and negative change among the surveyed institutions (472) – they found overall that the sampled sites improved in terms of percentage of Bobby-approved pages (i.e. sites that adhere to the WCAG) and average barriers per page (467). Based on these findings, we see that there is a higher level of compliance to the WCAG guidelines and a greater level of consideration for users of adaptive technologies such as those seen in Guder’s (2012) review, including screen readers and literacy software (15-16).

What does this mean for the world of accessible web content writ large? Well, it could mean several things, many of which must be widely qualified. So, here are the qualifiers:

  • First, there is no silver bullet of accessibility. One-hundred percent compliance is not likely to ever be achieved. We should not delude ourselves into thinking that pie-in-the-sky goals should be our mission; this takes away from the hard work of incremental improvement.
  • Second, this is a recommendation of approach only. Obviously implementation will be locally flavored and will influence the success of the initiative.

Having gotten that out of the way, here are my recommendations.

Considering the overall positive assessment of LIS schools in terms of compliance to the WCAG framework and the deplorable state of other web content, I envision a dual partnership that parlays the positive behaviors of library and information science professionals and scholars into the accessibility initiatives of the overall web community. As we already have clearly-documented evidence that LIS professionals (and their associated web content) are savvier to topics of accessibility, we may turn to them as reasonable intermediaries between the W3C and individual content producers in terms of understanding accessibility guidelines and proper implementation of the same. What form could this take? Here are some examples:

  • Education and Consciousness-Raising Initiatives: the role of LIS departments – in addition to their research activities – are educative. However, as a matter of social welfare, they should think about extending their education tasks to beyond the classroom through such initiatives as public teaching days and free seminars. I’m sure that for many content producers, their failure to produce accessible content is solely because of a lack of awareness. Through introductory seminars and “day-in-the-life” activities – experiential learning exercises where students can see just how inaccessible their data is when accessed through a screen reader application – participants can gain a firsthand understanding of what it means to be accessible and what the dangers of remaining inaccessible.
  • On-Demand training materials: Perhaps those that search for information on creating accessible content are turned off by the complexity of available materials (such as the WCAG technical specs which, I’ll admit, are a bit daunting). LIS professionals and department members can bring their skill sets as seasoned educators to the arena and create easy-to-use online tutorials that content providers can access at their leisure. These materials may in turn make the prospect of realigning their content less scary.
  • An open assessment environment: As educators, LIS department members should be familiar with the ins and outs of open door policies. Why not extend that to the broader world of content providers? By advertising assessment services, LIS departments can communicate to the broader world that they know what accessible data is and will let you know if you have it. Content providers can then collaborate with LIS staff to assess their content via manual testing or automated applications (like Bobby) in order to determine how compliant their information is and what can be done to improve their standing.

Granted, these are just recommendations, but let us consider the alternative. If LIS professionals and other content providers continue to develop their materials in separate silos, the LIS world may continue to move along at an acceptable rate while other content continues to grow exponentially and with a questionable rate of compliance to accessibility guidelines. Rather than allowing this status quo to continue, we can take proactive steps to altering the trajectory of content production. By providing a helping hand to our non-academy affiliated content-providing brethren, we can all work towards a better, more accessible future of web content.


 

Works Cited

 

  • Brophy, P. & Craven, J. (2007). Web accessibility. Library Trends, 55(4). 950-972.
  • Comeaux, D. & Schmetzke, A. (2007). Web accessibility trends in university libraries and library schools. Library Hi Tech, 25(4). 457-477.
  • Gruder, C. (2012). Making the right decisions about assistive technology in your library. Library Technology Reports, 48(7), 14-21.
  • W3C. (2012). Web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG) overview. Retrieved from http://www.w3.org/WAI/intro/wcag.php
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