'Baking in' digital accessibility at the Library: Services and experiences from the U-M Library Digital Accessibility Team (DAT)

Delicious looking cake with a piece missing.

Introduction

Camila is a second year graduate student and research assistant with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder with dyslexia. Although she has difficulty with reading retention and with websites overloaded with distracting content, she enjoys reading scholarly articles about advances in her academic discipline, electronic engineering.

Camila’s department recently started using online digital textbooks. At first Camila was anxious about using an electronic format. She was surprised to discover that the ebooks format supports text-to-speech software that highlights the text on the screen as it reads it out loud. She can now focus on important aspects of the content more easily and she can return to previous sections to listen to them again, instead of struggling over every word.

The text-to-speech software is also helpful with reading other online text; however, Camila’s experience with websites, web and mobile applications varies greatly. Some websites or mobile apps use graphics and illustrations in ways that help her to recognize interactive controls.  Other sites and apps contain dense blocks of unstructured text that make it hard for her to discover useful content. She finds websites and apps that provide multiple means of navigation (features such as main and secondary navigation menus, search boxes, bread-crumbs, and a sitemap) to be much easier to use.

Camila’s department is also using a new online library catalog with improved accessibility. Before the new catalog was implemented Camila had to physically visit the library to receive assistance in searching and locating the best research materials. Now she feels more confident searching the catalog and other resources on her own using her mobile phone, tablet, or laptop. She can request that materials be delivered to her department mailbox. She can explore and download datasets and full text articles online. Camila still struggles with spelling but has found that search functionality that suggest alternative spellings and provides error corrections is very helpful and greatly improves her experience.

This fictional example offers a brief window into key parts of what a person with disabilities might experience as they navigate between digital services, resources, and platforms.

Working towards a more inclusive and accessible Library with the Digital Accessibility Team

Digital accessibility is a key ingredient to making any digital experience. Imagine baking a cake but forgetting to include sugar. You pour the batter in the cake pan and set it to bake for 30 minutes. After 15 minutes, you remember that your cake has no sugar. What do you do now? Would you pull the pan out of the oven and try scooping sugar into the half cooked batter or would you wait to sprinkle it on top after it’s done? Neither option would work very well, all the key ingredients need to be baked in from the beginning. When digital accessibility is included from the beginning of a project through launch, this will create the most valuable insights and improvements that improve the experience for everyone who uses your digital product or content.

The University of Michigan Library’s Digital Accessibility Team collaborates primarily with U-M Library partners to remove barriers that prevent people of diverse abilities from experiencing an equitable and inclusive library. Our team currently has five members from across the library. Three are from Library Information Technology (LIT) (Bridget Burke, Jon Earley, and Ben Howell), one is from Connected Scholarship within the Learning and Teaching Department (Stephanie Rosen), and one is from Michigan Publishing (Jon McGlone).

The Digital Accessibility Team’s mission includes:

  • Providing a broad range of expertise on digital accessibility standards (WCAG, 508, ATAG, ARIA, EPUB) and accessible design best practices.
  • Providing consistent, understandable, and actionable web accessibility evaluations for library staff as needed.
  • Consulting with Library & LIT staff to incorporate accessibility into all development practices.

Over the last year the Digital Accessibility Team has developed a portfolio of services to help Library staff and teams ‘bake in’ digital accessibility throughout their work. We’ve used service blueprinting as a way to align the underlying policies and guidelines at the foundation of our work, the backstage (internal) processes and systems that allow our team to coordinate work internally, and the frontstage (public-facing) services and interaction points where we connect with our colleagues. As we learn more about the accessibility needs of departments and individuals throughout the library our services and service blueprint adapt to meet current needs.

We want all our colleagues and end users throughout the library to feel excited and empowered by what’s possible through accessibility work for a more inclusive, effective, and diverse digital work environment. Here are a few examples of our services, what they’re for, and how they’ve helped individuals and teams in the library.

Office Hours

Often the best way to learn about accessibility and how it can be incorporated into an individual’s work or within a project is to start  with a simple, honest conversation with an someone familiar with web accessibility guidelines and practices. That’s why our team started our office hours service! Every second and fourth Friday of the month DAT team members are available to Library Staff in the Hatcher Library ScholarSpace to answer questions like: “What is accessibility about anyway?”, “What is the difference between web accessibility and usability?” or “How do I know if the scheduling tool we want to pilot in our department creates any accessibility barriers for our staff?”

To help market and improve outreach for our office hours service we’re piloting an appointment booking software (LibCal). Last year our team conducted an Accessibility Evaluation on the LibCal platform, and we’re excited to provide additional accessibility feedback to the vendor as we implement it within our services.

Light Accessibility Evaluations

Our light Accessibility Evaluation service is a fantastic way for Library teams to quickly find out if there are any significant accessibility barriers that would prevent people from using digital products and resources. Whatever stage a Library digital product or service is in (planning, procurement, design, development or assessment) a light accessibility evaluation highlights key areas where service and product teams can make improvements to reduce costly remediation and development work in the future.

Accessibility evaluations include reports and consultations to review results with development and partner teams. They have positively impacted teams throughout the Library as well as Library partners and vendors who maintain products or services. After one accessibility audit our library colleague shared the audit report with a product vendor who said, “the detail you have provided us here, is just simply amazing. Thank you so much!”

Going for the Win: Working to Embed Accessibility within Library Procurement and Development Processes

Web accessibility work is most effective and beneficial when incorporated early in procurement and development processes. Several proactive Library colleagues have requested DAT Accessibility Evaluations for vendor products under consideration (LibCal Room Scheduler and the Lean Library Extension) and LIT projects in development (Library Website Redesign, Deep Blue Data, U-M Library Search and the Bentley Historical Library Interface Redesign (example digital collection). Planning for and utilizing accessibility evaluation findings to inform product choices saves time and resources for all segments of a team (project managers, designers, developers) and contributes to equitable and improved experiences for internal and external product users.

The Digital Accessibility Team is working this year to collaborate with library and campus service teams (e.g., Service Design Task Force, End-user computing services, ScholarSpace, Web Accessibility Coordinators/Analysts in DEI and campus Information Technology Services [ITS]) to network, promote and utilize each others’ resources. The Help for Digital Accessibility page on the ITS website is a great place to find campus related resources for learning and requesting Accessibility services. The U-M Library is a leader on campus in web accessibility work. We are excited to continue working  proactively with colleagues to create inclusive experiences with Library services, products and resources.

Have questions about the Library Digital Accessibility Team? Email us at dat.library@umich.edu

For questions and requests for digital accessibility services available to all U-M departments, please contact ITS Accessibility Services through their help page.

Recommended Accessibility Resources

References

Horton, Sarah, and Whitney Quesenbery. A Web for Everyone: Designing Accessible User Experiences. Rosenfeld Media, 2015.  Associated WorldCat Record Link.

Sinclair, Norah. “Stories of Web Users.” Edited by Shadi Abou Zahra, Stories of Web Users | Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), W3C, 15 May 2017, www.w3.org/WAI/people-use-web/user-stories/.