Libraries strive to provide access to information for patrons regardless of age, ability, socio-economic status, cognitive skill, and other potential discriminatory criteria. Accommodating the disabled can be a challenge for libraries. Nationwide, libraries have made admirable progress in upgrading their facilities and services to make access more convenient; however, one area that is frequently overlooked is the library's website. This article explains why website compliance with recognized standards is essential for your library and offers suggestions on how to make your site more accessible. We conclude with a list of recommended web resources.
Website accessibility is becoming increasingly important. According to the Pew Internet and American Project (www.pewinternet.org/reports/), 12% of Internet users have some type of disability. This number will increase as people live longer. According to the Census Bureau (www.census.gov/prod/3/97pubs/p70-61.pdf), almost half of us can expect to have some sort of disability by age 65. When you combine this with the fact that many Internet users are using old and inadequate equipment, accessibility becomes a much larger issue.
Website accessibility is becoming law. The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act states:
No otherwise qualified individual with a disability shall, solely by reason of his/her disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity of a public entity. Library websites are integral to the programs and activities offered by hosting libraries, but the federal government did not originally provide guidance on how to meet this mandate, although that has changed recently. In 1998, a law known as "Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973" requires the federal government to buy and develop information systems that are accessible to people with disabilities. The legislation is broad and covers all sectors of technology, including websites. This spurred the creation of a set of guidelines for website accessibility by the Access Board (www.access-board.gov/), a federal agency committed to promoting accessible design. The legislation not only affects government websites but also requests all vendors who do business with the government to comply. At this point the guidelines are just that: guidelines, which are non-enforceable. Eventually, the government plans to enforce Section 508. One of the benefits of the law has been the development of the guidelines discussed here. As far as libraries are concerned, the guidelines provide a much-needed outline for dealing with a challenging and time-consuming issue.
Website accessibility is a labor-intensive goal and it will not be accomplished overnight. Trying to implement every aspect of the guidelines can be both frustrating and time consuming. We recommend starting small and with something familiar. The guidelines are directed at large government and commercial websites that often use animation, pop-ups, pull-downs, etc. Many of the guidelines will not apply to library websites and most librarians do not have the time or expertise to develop complicated sites.
Basically, the guidelines cover sixteen key areas (labeled a-p in the legislation). They all rest on the foundation of (a), which states that websites must provide "a text equivalent for every non-text element." For example, screen reader software (software that helps legally blind individuals read web-based text) and other assistive technologies cannot interpret graphical images. Rather, they look for distinct containers called "alt tags" to describe...