The Librarian as Teacher & Advocate: Addressing Accessibility Issues for Students

There are many areas to take into consideration when addressing access for library patrons, from the ease of using databases, to great chat features, all of which is wrapped up in the commitment to offer the greatest customer service. Even more fundamental is the ability to use any of these at all; the basic right to access all the library offers. The American Library Association Policy Manual states, “All information resources that are provided directly or indirectly by the library, regardless of technology, format, or methods of delivery, should be readily, equally, and equitably accessible to all library users” (Haycock & Sheldon, 2008) and addresses the need for fairness in all aspects of providing information. The issues regarding accessibility, particularly for students with disabilities, which have come to light provide an opportunity to librarians to teach, as well as to advocate. It is a critical arena for library staff to participate and encourage discussion, and in doing so create a dialogue that will move libraries forward in offering even better service to their patrons.

In looking at this matter of accessibility, it is helpful to consider what it means. In the Resolution Agreement for the South Carolina Technical College System it states:

Accessible means a person with a disability is afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective and equally integrated manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use. The person with a disability must be able to obtain the information as fully, equally and independently as a person without a disability. Although this might not result in identical ease of use compared to that of persons without disabilities, it still must ensure equal opportunity to the educational benefits and opportunities afforded by the technology and equal treatment in the use of such technology.  (Resolution Agreement, 2013, para. 3)

There are many avenues that students explore of library-provided resources to gain information for various courses. From databases and journals, to chat reference help among other tools. It is critical that all these different resources be analyzed to ensure that students with disabilities are given the same opportunities as students without. If these resources are not carefully examined it places the library and its university at risk of legal disciplinary action.

Such has been the case with many universities and libraries in the past few years. Both the Free Library of Philadelphia and the Sacramento Public Library have been involved in litigation over e-reader lending programs which allow patrons to use devices, namely Barnes and Noble Nooks. These devices have been found to have serious flaws for the blind and visually-impaired customers as they are not equipped with text-to speech capabilities. (National Federation of the Blind, 2012; Department of Justice, 2012) For universities that are aided by government funds and their students, the concerns are a bit broader, ranging from inaccessible classroom clickers to course registration. One case in particular, involving a University of Montana student Travis Moses, outlined in its allegations the matter of library databases being inaccessible for his studies. In her letter regarding the investigation, Alliance for Disability and Students at the University of Montana (ADSUM) director Courtney Damron states, “These barriers to educational technology should not be tolerated by students on campus […] students with disabilities have a civil right to post-secondary education” (Szpaller, 2012). Understanding these rights and devising ways to resolve these matters is a chance for library professionals to fully engage with the values of providing information, and serving their students are they need to be served.

A way for this engagement to happen is for librarians to take a critical look at their resources and evaluate what could be done to improve accessibility if needed. It is possible to perform this evaluation from the perspective of the student, that is, the information seeker. The criteria to be used can range from content to search capabilities and vendor (Sharma, 2004). Aside from databases, libraries must take into account websites that must be easily navigated by screen reader users by providing descriptive texts for images, skip-navigation links, as well as understanding if and how vendors are responding to accessibility concerns in their online content (Blansett, 2008). If a library also allows the borrowing of e-readers, then providing students with accessible devices such as Kindle using Pagebot or the Nook using Pico, is imperative as well (Accessible Technology Coalition, 2014).

There are also libraries that are taking this topic and its concerns to a different level, such as devising their own accessibility plans to implement at their campuses. This is the case at my own library, and part of the reason this topic got my attention. The plan currently being drafted by three librarians with the aid of our Disability Resource Center, covers areas from web accessibility and assistive technology to the formation of an advisory group and trainings for staff. (A. Vecchione, personal communication, November 4, 2014) The draft was presented to our library staff and was an opportunity for us to not only learn more but engage in a discussion of the needs of our students. It really brought home the idea that librarians can be teacher-advocates in their library environments and reinforce the impact that they have on the lives of their students.


Accessibility Technology Coalition. (2014). Accessibility and e-readers. Retrieved from

Blansett, J. (2008). Digital discrimination: ten years after section 508, libraries still fall short of addressing disabilities online. Library Journal, 133. Retrieved from

Haycock, K. & Sheldon, B.E. (Eds.). (2008). Appendix A in The portable mlis: insights from the experts (pp. 215-217). Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

National Federation of the Blind. (2012). National federation of the blind assists in litigation against free library of Philadelphia [Press release]. Retrieved from

Sharma, M. (2004). Is it ‘accessible’ online? Evaluating the quality and accessibility of online databases. Current Studies in Librarianship, 28. Library Literature & Information Science Full Text (H.W. Wilson). EBSCOhost, viewed 14 November 2014.

Szpaller, Keila. (2012). Disabled UM students file complaint over inaccessible online courses. The Missoulian. Retrieved from

United States Department of Education. (2013). Resolution agreement south carolina technical college system (OCR Compliance Review No. 11-11-6002). Retrieved from

United States Department of Justice, Office of Public Affairs. (2012). Justice department settles with Sacramento, California, public library authority over inaccessible e-reader devices [Press release]. Retrieved from


2 thoughts on “The Librarian as Teacher & Advocate: Addressing Accessibility Issues for Students

  1. One of my group’s members wrote a blog similar to this, I’m glad we weren’t the only ones to tackle it. I did not know this about some e-readers- I figured they were all fairly disability accessible since I know the Apple and Android market were. Making sure all people feel welcome in libraries is definitely a task that librarians have to work towards for the future.


  2. This was one of my favorite posts to write. It’s an area that is still new to me and only caught my attention a few weeks ago. I have friends that have disabilities and connecting my work to the issues in their lives and the lives of various other students gives everything a deeper perspective. A deeper meaning as well. I was also surprised at all the information I’ve found and think it will be a hard fight with not only companies that produce these kind of technologies but vendors of e-resources as well.


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