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Toward Greater Accessibility in the Physical and Digital Library
Posted On May 3, 2022
How does it feel when you walk through the stacks of your library? When you enter the building, do you feel welcome? As you browse materials, are you able to find offerings that you can pull off the shelf, put in your bag, walk with to the circulation desk, check out, and excitedly take home to crack open? When browsing the website, can you easily find everything you need?

I hope the answers to all of those questions are positive. But how might the answers differ if you change the way you interact with the spaces around you? Would you have the same experience if you used a wheelchair to get around? What about if you were blind or deaf? Accessibility in our public spaces, both physical and digital, is something many people take for granted.

If you have never considered accessibility before, don’t shame yourself. Just be proud you are thinking about it now! I am the first to admit that accessibility was not on my radar enough until it slammed directly into my life. My dad had a lifesaving operation that resulted in the amputation of his leg. Navigating the world by his side in a wheelchair or walker opened my eyes to the number of public facilities and businesses that never considered people with disabilities in the design, construction, or function of their space. It is a mistake that we, as library professionals, cannot afford to keep making.

By using concepts such as universal design and taking a closer look at the way our spaces are created—and how they function and for whom—library professionals can better fulfill the goal of making libraries a space for everyone.


If you are unfamiliar with the concepts of accessibility and disability, it is important to define exactly what we mean by each term. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990 and defines a person with a disability as someone who currently has, has a history of, or is perceived as having a physical or mental impairment that “substantially limits one or more major life activities.” This is called the medical model of disability, in which the disability resides in the individual and is perceived as something wrong with them in need of being fixed.

The social model of disability places the onus on society to change for the benefit of people with disabilities. In the social model, people with disabilities are not broken or in need of fixes. Society’s inability to serve them is a social problem with a collective solution. People of various abilities need to be considered in design and construction so they are not excluded by virtue of their very existence. In the social model, disability has no inherent moral value; it is not negative or positive—it just is.

An easily understandable example of the social model of disability is eyesight. Wearing glasses or contacts is a normal part of life for an enormous number of people. But have you ever tried to go about your life without your glasses or contacts? There are probably a lot of things you struggle to do, such as drive or read signs. Society has deemed corrective eyewear as standard. Thus, we do not look at people who wear glasses or contacts as disabled. They are not considered disabled because society normalized corrective lenses, and the “disability” disappeared.

In this article, I employ the social model of disability to guide the discussion of accessibility of library spaces. However, the language around disability is nuanced and should be treated with kindness and understanding, especially by those outside the community.

People in the disability community prefer different types of language when speaking about their disabilities; it is a very personal choice. Person-first language is when the individual is emphasized before the disability they experience, such as “person with schizophrenia.” Identity-first language can indicate when someone’s disability is a central part of who they are or how they see themselves, such as “deaf person.” It is important not to assume how a person would prefer to speak about themselves or want to be spoken about. Disability and disabled are not dirty or shameful words. If you don’t know how a person would like to speak about their disability, the best thing to do is the most obvious thing to do, although not always the most comfortable: Just ask them.

Another important term to define is accessibility. NC State University writes that accessibility (based on Office for Civil Rights resolutions) is when “a person with a disability is afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective and equally integrated manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use. The person with a disability must be able to obtain the information as fully, equally and independently as a person without a disability.”

It is a library’s job to serve its community. If any portion of the library is inaccessible, there are members of the community who are not being equitably served. While that idea may seem overwhelming at first, because there are so many areas that could need improvement, remember that every step toward greater accessibility is meaningful to the people who need it.


There are some common standards of accessibility that anyone who is starting to improve their library’s facilities or offerings should keep in mind. The first is universal design. Universal design, per School Library Journal, was created by Ronald L. Mace, a disabled architect. He wanted to improve design so that all people could benefit, not only those with disabilities. Universal design can bring people together instead of dividing them by ability. This concept starts with the assumption that every topic is of diverse interest and therefore should have many natural options instead of individualized accommodations that require a request.

The next thing to keep in mind is the ADA. There are a lot of specific standards in this law, which were last updated in 2010. The New England ADA Center has a great guide with pictures and measurements to follow along with for each kind of physical accessibility section in your library, such as entrances and exits, counters, and bathrooms.

Then there’s IFLA’s 2005 checklist for library access for people with disabilities, featuring information that remains evergreen. The checklist covers everything from physical facilities and collections to staff interactions and websites. IFLA recommends that libraries include disabled people in their discussions of changes. This step is crucial because changing facilities without knowing what the people who use them actually need leads to wasted resources.

The final standard to be familiar with relates to websites and is called WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) 2.1. These guidelines are developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the international organization that creates and maintains online accessibility standards. The most recent update was in 2018. The U.S. government has adopted these guidelines, although most federal government websites are covered by a government-specific accessibility law, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. WCAG ensures that online content is perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust.


With those standards as the foundation, it is easier to take a critical, detailoriented look at the way the library functions in its physical form. When you work in a building every day, it is easy to miss things that are easily navigable for you but would be obstacles to people with disabilities.

Project ENABLE is a great place to find universal design resources. It is a grant-funded project geared specifically toward accessibility and disabilities in libraries. Its checklists focus on the seven principles of universal design, which are:

  • Equitable Use—Libraries should provide services according to ability levels and not segregate people with disabilities away from other people.
  • Flexibility in Use—Libraries should ensure that everything is adaptable and can be used in different ways.
  • Simple and Intuitive Use—Things should not be overly complex and should be consistent throughout the library building.
  • Perceptible Information—Libraries should make information redundant (aka found in many different places) and easy to read and use high-contrast colors.
  • High Tolerance for Error—There should be clear warnings for hazards or potential pitfalls.
  • Low Physical Effort—Seating, doors, and computer stations should be able to be easily used by people of various abilities.
  • Size and Space for Approach and Use—There should be clear sight lines, the ability to use services while seated or with a variable grip, and the availability of assistive technology.

All of these principles can benefit people without disabilities as well. By designing spaces and services with universal design in mind, fewer accommodations are needed, disabled people feel welcome and considered in the space, and people who are not disabled can use the same tools or services in a destigmatized way.

Taking a list of universal design principles and comparing them to ADA standards of accessibility and the IFLA accessibility checklist will help you come up with a comprehensive list of accessibility factors to look for when assessing your library. Your assessment can be as simple as making yourself a list and taking a walk to the different sections of the library with a measuring tape.

If you are just starting out tackling these issues in your space, here are a few things to consider without overwhelming yourself with a project list. How wide are the doorways? They should be a minimum of 36 inches. How long are the ramps? They should only rise 1 inch per foot. Do the signs use clear language with high-contrast colors, such as white backgrounds and black lettering? Do the doorways have thresholds? They should be no more than a quarter-inch high. Does the library have study tables? The table tops should be 28–34 inches off the floor to accommodate an average wheelchair. These are just a few of the many factors that impact physical accessibility in the library that can be improved over time.


Just like an uneven threshold can preclude people from using the library in an equitable way, a website without a search bar or an organized menu system presents an accessibility challenge. For many people, their first interaction with the library is online. That interaction can impact whether a person ever comes through the physical doors or even returns to the website. Everyone has been to a website that does not make sense or frustrates them so much they just find somewhere else to look for the information they seek. We never want the library to be a digital space that someone turns away from.

There are a lot of great tools out there to help you evaluate how accessible your library website is based on WCAG standards. WAVE by WebAIM is a tool developed by Utah State University that allows you to plug in your website URL for free and tells you all of the different accessibility issues on the site, such as color and contrast issues, missing captions and labels, missing alternative text, and more.

The Bureau of Internet Accessibility’s Color Contrast Accessibility Validator also lets you plug in your URL and tests the site to see if the contrast is at accessible levels for people with low vision and blindness. In addition, the Human-Computer Interaction Resource Network has a tool called Coblis, which simulates what a website looks like for people with color blindness. Keeping these principals in mind when redesigning or updating your website can go a long way to helping someone have a more equitable experience in your library’s virtual space.

Poring through the WCAG standards will give you a list of changes a mile long to apply to your website, which will probably be instantly overwhelming. To get you started off on an easier foot, I have a few beginning suggestions for a simple checklist:

  • Having a consistent site—wherein information is generally located in the same place on each page using consistent font, color, and high contrast—is key.
  • The site should have a search feature and simple navigation buttons.
  • Alternative text for images and captions for moving images should never be an afterthought, since someone with a screen reader will have no idea what is on the page.
  • Websites should have full functionality for people on smartphones or tablets.
  • Links should never say “Click here.” Doing this is called “suspicious link text” and a blind person will not be able to tell via a screen reader where “here” is. Links should always be in the same place as the content the words are describing.
  • Adding a virtual reference chat to your website is a simple feature that helps people with a wide variety of disabilities attain equitable service both in the library and at home.

For those who wish to do a deeper dive into website accessibility, see the Website Features Accessibility Checklist, Website Functionality Accessibility Checklist, and Website Design Accessibility Checklist at the end of this article, which are based on factors from multiple academic articles.


Making changes to your physical or digital library with people with disabilities in mind is a thoughtful act that will pay dividends. The tools provided in this article will hopefully help build your confidence in your ability to make impactful changes.

If you are unsure how many people with disabilities live in your community, what types of disabilities they experience, or what types of changes to make, a great place to start is the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS). ACS data in Table S1810, called “Disability Characteristics,” breaks down disability statistics in your area by age, race, sex, and disability type. After getting background data, talking to community members can help you dig into the details.

If your building or website has many issues, prioritize the simplest fixes and work your way up. Any positive change you make may be the difference for someone with a disability being able to use the library. Making our spaces fully equitable for the people who interact with our resources and services is an ongoing process that requires commitment, funding, and the willingness to learn. Even though complete accessibility for every ability may be an elusive goal, by starting with the factors in our control, no change is too small to make an impact.

Website Features Accessibility Checklist

  • Library name and logo at the top of the homepage
  • Hours posted
  • Contact information present
  • Navigation to homepage on each page
  • Navigation at the top of all pages
  • Catalog search present
  • Headings have easy explanations
  • Online renewals available
  • Library services information posted
  • Electronic resources information posted
  • Library policies posted
  • Virtual reference available
  • Services and materials for people with disabilities posted
  • Circulation information posted
  • Website creation/updated date

Website Functionality Accessibility Checklist

  • Text is resizable
  • Plain language used throughout
  • All links have content
  • Site is keyboard-navigable
  • Users can skip to content
  • Logical menu hierarchy
  • Website has search tips
  • Website is jargon-free
  • Images have alternative text
  • All links have alternative text
  • User mistakes are correctable
  • Links do not use suspicious text
  • All multimedia has captions

Website Design Accessibility Checklist

  • High-contrast colors
  • Multibrowser-friendly
  • Mobile device-friendly
  • Color scheme is color blind-friendly
  • Content layout is predictable
  • All acronyms are spelled out
  • Font is consistent throughout
  • Mobile site has same functionality as desktop site
  • Website asks for feedback
  • Flashing/blinking elements can be paused or eliminated
  • All search boxes have form labels

Jessica Hilburn is the executive director of Benson Memorial Library in Titusville, Pennsylvania, and the CEO of the Crawford County Federated Library System. She enjoys popular culture in libraries, true crime, and audiobooks, and she is passionate about advocating for rural communities and libraries, as well as broadband equity and information access. Hilburn’s writing has been published by Information Today, Inc.; ABC-CLIO/Libraries Unlimited; Library JournalThe Oilfield Journal; and The History Press (which published her book, Hidden History of Northwestern Pennsylvania).

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