Online Accessibility and Leadership: A Critical View at the American Library Association

By Schmetzke, Axel | Information Technology and Disabilities, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Online Accessibility and Leadership: A Critical View at the American Library Association


Schmetzke, Axel, Information Technology and Disabilities


INTRODUCTION

The American Library Association (ALA) is the largest and most influential professional library organization in North America. In a variety of ways, including legislative lobbying, the issuing of model policy, standards, and guidelines, educational campaigns, the granting of scholarships, etc., it seeks to keep the profession on track in an ever changing social, political, and technological environment. While some might argue, particularly with regard to policies and guidelines, that ALA's activities are fairly irrelevant in the big scheme of things--who, other than some core members, pays attention to them anyway?--I am prepared to argue that ALA's impact should not be underestimated. Whether with regard to information literacy, distance learning, reference services or any other aspect of librarianship, guidelines developed by ALA often serve individual libraries as a starting point for drafting their own institutional policies.

On January 2007, at the ALA midwinter meeting, I gave a speech at the Accessibility Assembly, a standing committee within the Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies (ASCLA). The Accessibility Assembly is dedicated to the advancement of "ALA's continuing commitment to diversity and to accessibility of library and information services for all, including people with physical, sensory or mental disabilities" [1]. In this speech, I took a critical view at ALA's leadership, questioning whether enough is being done to promote a barrier-free online library environment. Not meant to disregard the many positive things that key groups within the ALA - particularly the Accessibility Assembly and ASCLA's Libraries Serving Special Populations Section (LSSPS)--do in support of people with disabilities, it addressed some serious shortcomings along with suggestions to overcome them.

Here is the text of the speech in its original form (except for some minor editorial changes).

SHORTCOMINGS OF ALA'S LEADERSHIP WITH REGARD TO PROMOTING A BARRIER-FREE ONLINE LIBRARY/INFORMATION ENVIRONMENT ... AND WHAT WE CAN POSSIBLY DO ABOUT IT

I take it as a given that you understand the basic issue: Accessibility to online resources requires barrier-free design. In principle, the situation is the same as in the physical environment. Web pages that do not provide "electronic curb cuts," such as text alternatives for non-textual components, proper skip navigation links, meaningful link text etc., pose barriers. Documents in PDF image-only format cannot be read by screen readers. A catalog in which search boxes and buttons are not properly labeled leaves some people stranded. Online surveys, meant to find out about users' needs and wants, systematically exclude the voices of people with certain disabilities if they are not free of barriers. I further assume that you all understand that accessible design serves more than just a "special population." Especially in the age of hand-held do-it-all devices, it is widely acknowledged that accessible design tends to be good design and that it is beneficial to all. To provide you with an example of how accessibility to online information plays out in real life, let me share with you the following letter, which I received last September from a blind person, a retired psychology professor in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

 
   Dear Axel, 
 
   Since you're familiar with accessibility issues, I 
   thought I'd seek your advice. I'm blind and use a WindowEyes 
   screen reader. My public library provides a literary database 
   called Novelist, which I would like to use to find authors 
   similar to the ones I like. When I try to access Novelist, I 
   get a "please wait while application loads" message, but it 
   never loads. Apparently, it does load for other remote users, 
   so I'm assuming something in the application doesn't work with 
   screen readers. … 

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