Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

"There Is Nothing Inherently Mysterious about Assistive Technology": A Qualitative Study about Blind User Experiences in US Academic Libraries

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

"There Is Nothing Inherently Mysterious about Assistive Technology": A Qualitative Study about Blind User Experiences in US Academic Libraries

Article excerpt

Equal access to online resources is an important social justice issue, one that has increasingly been investigated and enforced by the federal Office for Civil Rights at institutions of higher education since at least 2011. (1) Although all resources provided by academic libraries are required to be "equally effective" for users with disabilities, (2) studies continue to find lack of accessibility and usability of library websites and vendor provided e-resources. (3) Therefore, when a blind user requests reference assistance navigating a library's online resources, librarians and users can be put in a difficult situation. The American Library Association and independent experts in the field have agreed that librarians should be knowledgeable about adaptive technology. (4) However, numerous studies have documented librarians' lack of education about assistive technology and related digital accessibility issues. (5) Librarians are not always aware, for example, that blind individuals use screen reader software with a keyboard (not a mouse) to read computer device interfaces aloud or that websites and applications need to follow standards to function effectively with screen readers.

Even librarians who do have some understanding of digital accessibility may find it difficult to know how to respond to a user who is asking for assistance with a resource the librarian knows has not been checked for "equal effectiveness" or that has accessibility problems. Questions that arise include the extent to which the librarian should attempt to make up for lack of accessibility and usability by providing extra services; the extent to which the librarian should attempt to foster--or insist on--independent library use, particularly with users for whom this appears to be difficult or unrealistic; whether librarians should rely partially or entirely on disability office staff in such situations; and the extent to which librarians should teach the user to navigate using their screen reader, as librarians teach sighted users to navigate visually with a mouse. Similar questions can arise for users regarding how best to make use of librarians' assistance, campus disability office assistance, and their own time and effort to navigate resources that are not always reasonably accessible and usable. These issues deserve wider discussion, in the library literature and in practice. This study attempts to provide some context for such discussion.

Eighteen academic library users who are blind were interviewed about their experiences using academic libraries and library websites. This article focuses on reference assistance for users who are blind, including in-person reference services, chat reference, and teaching citation style.


Many introductions to digital accessibility technology, policy, and ethics are available. (6) A full introduction is impractical within the scope of this article, so this review mentions some relevant points. (7) Accessibility and usability overlap. However, generally, accessible web design may be described as compliance with specific technical standards that allow users with disabilities to access websites. One component of accessible sites is that they are designed so screen reader users can navigate to and read all the information on each page independently of sighted human assistance. Website accessibility is commonly measured by compliance with the World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 success criteria. (8)

Usable web design may be described as a "decent" level of user friendliness and navigability. (9) Usable web design is less easily quantifiable than accessible web design. Although usability is not always easily quantifiable, many aspects of design that might be described as "usability" are required by the WCAG 2.0 success criteria. While technical compliance with accessibility guidelines would be a first step, websites may be technically compliant without being particularly usable for screen reader users. …

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