Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Making Your Digital Library Accessible

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Making Your Digital Library Accessible

Article excerpt

Here are some suggestions to help you implement today's online accessibility guidelines and regulations.

Whether you know it or not, your Web site gets visitors who have disabilities. When most of us think of accessibility for the disabled, we think of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The law "prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, programs and services provided by state and local governments, goods and services provided by private companies, and in commercial facilities." [1] In 1990, when the ADA was made law, the Web was not the popular communication tool it is today. For most of us who have worked in a library over the past 10 years, our most tangible experience with the ADA was probably how it relates to workplace and equipment accessibility, as in wider doors, ramps for wheelchairs, lower computer tables, etc. We thought of the ADA as covering those things that were physical barriers to our libraries.

Regulations to Consider

While we've been busy ensuring that the library is accessible from a physical standpoint, we've probably paid less attention to making our digital libraries accessible. When we consider the accessibility of our digital library, three laws are interpreted together to form the necessary protection for the disabled. In addition to the ADA, there is also the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (sections 504 and 508) and the Telecommunications Act (section 255). Although most were written and passed before the Web became popular, each can be more broadly interpreted to include the Internet and specifically the rights of disabled audiences to enjoy equal access to the Web.

Increasingly, these laws and their applications to the Internet and Web are being put to the test. In 1998 the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights cited the ADA in requiring California's community colleges to make all print and electronic information available to students who were visually impaired. More recently, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) sued America Online (AOL), saying that AOL's software was not accessible to those who were visually impaired. [2]

Currently, a new federal regulation that was introduced during the Clinton Administration applies to communications occurring via the Internet and specifically Web sites. This new law extends ADA coverage to any entity that receives funding from state and federal sources. Since many libraries receive these funds, the regulation will eventually be enforced in our industry. (Enforcement may have already begun by the time this article is published. The Bush Administration opted to delay the June 2001 start of enforcement for 60 days.)

Most relevant to libraries is that, at some point, the specific rules that enforce the ADA and the civil rights of the disabled will require that Web sites be accessible. The law clearly requires communication services to be available to the public, so it's only a matter of time before the law is applied to Web pages.

Regardless of the timing of a specific law, libraries have always been about making their resources accessible to all. This is especially true for public libraries or those funded by state or federal dollars. Now that more of our patrons are accessing the library remotely, we don't have the face-to-face contact that makes us aware of the special needs of our users. Although we may not be able to see them, we can be sure that some of our digital library patrons are disabled. We have an obligation to serve them fairly by making our virtual libraries as accessible as the physical buildings have become.

What does it mean to make our pages "accessible"? Webster's defines accessibility as "easy to approach, reach, enter, speak with, or use." When you apply that definition to the Web, it means making sure your site doesn't put up unintended barriers that keep people from navigating smoothly or using your content. …

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