Academic Libraries and the Development of Accessibility Policy

As the Manager of Library Accessibility Services (LAS) at the University of Guelph, I provide assistive technology and alternative-format text support to students with disabilities.  I also provide document accessibility support both in the Library and as part of University committees working on campus compliance with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).

Last Spring, a working group I chair conducted a survey of students who were registered with our Student Accessibility Services on the issue of document accessibility.  The survey yielded some unexpected findings with respect to the students’ knowledge of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act and their willingness to request accessible versions of documents and other supports.

After providing more background on the survey and some analysis of the results, I will briefly discuss how, in my opinion, the Library and the campus should respond to them.    

One of the tasks given to the Document Accessibility Working Group was to develop a better understanding of document accessibility training needs across campus.  The Group felt that students with disabilities could be a valuable source of information with respect to this issue: they could give us a sense of which document formats were most problematic from an accessibility perspective, where students may be encountering a higher incidence of inaccessible documents, and how students were being impacted by inaccessible documents.

The Survey

Accordingly, a 20-question on-line survey was developed and circulated solely to students who were registered with Student Accessibility Services (SAS).  The survey was activated on Friday March 27, 2015 and a link to the survey, as well as a brief explanation of its objectives, was posted to the SAS student email listserv.   It was taken down two weeks later on April 10, before examinations commenced.

Here is a breakdown of the survey respondents:

  • 135 SAS-registered students (out of a total population of 1,725) responded to the survey; 10 students started the survey but didn’t complete it.
  • 90% of the respondents were in their 2nd, 3rd or 4th year of university and 8% were graduate students. Only 2% of the students who took the survey were in their first year.
  • 69% or respondents indicated that their disability was cognitive in nature (e.g., a learning disability, etc.), while 17% and 14% had physical and visual disabilities respectively.
  • 22% of respondents (29 individuals) indicated that they had a disability that makes it difficult to use text-based documents. 50% of this group use some form of reading support technology (e.g., text magnification, scanning/reading software, etc.)

The lack of first-year student respondents to this survey is a little puzzling.  It’s possible that first-year students do not have a clear understanding of terminology like document accessibility, do not feel personally connected to this issue (i.e., they are still developing as students and learners, especially in relation to their disability), or were simply too busy to respond.

The substantial majority of respondents who identified as having a cognitive disability reflects the demographic make-up of Guelph’s Student Accessibility Services: students with learning disabilities, ADD/ADHD and Acquired Brain Injury collectively make up close to half of those registered with the service.  Finally, while we might have hoped from more participation from students who have a print-related disability, we recognize that this group may face additional challenges with respect to participating in online surveys.

The survey confirmed that students are indeed encountering documents in inaccessible formats and are also being negatively affected by them:

  • 60% of the students (18 of 29) who identified as having a print disability said that they had encountered inaccessible documents or forms on campus, with the majority indicating that this occurs 3-5 times or more in a given semester.
  • The most frequently identified inaccessible formats were: print materials (e.g., handouts and other paper-based resources), PDF documents, image files and PDF forms.
  • Inaccessible print and electronic documents were most frequently encountered in in-class courses and in-class course websites.
  • The most frequently selected impact of inaccessible documents upon survey takers with print disabilities were: falling behind in course work (69% selection rate), being unprepared for a class discussion (38% selection rate), and being unaware of a potentially useful service or opportunity because the information was not conveyed in an accessible format (38% selection rate).

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Students and AODA

We had expected that students would be encountering some level of document accessibility issues.  However, we did not expect the following survey results:

  • 49% of students (63 of 129) had not heard of the AODA legislation. Of the students who had heard of it, 66% indicated that only had ‘minimal’ or ‘some’ knowledge of the legislation.
  • Only 3 students in the survey indicated that they had cited the AODA in making a request for accommodation.

This is all the more surprising given that the survey takers were almost exclusively higher-level undergraduate and graduate students who might be expected to have a greater awareness of political and legislative issues related to accessibility.

Equally interesting were the answers to the final survey question in which students were asked to identify circumstances that would prevent them from requesting accessible documents or supports.  Responses and response rates are captured in the table below:

Table 1: Factors that would prevent students from asking for accessible documents or supports

Choices

Responses

Response Rate

I didn’t want to make a fuss.

68

59%

I didn’t think there was enough time to create an alternative format.

47

41%

I don’t like having to disclose that I have a disability.

46

40%

I was afraid to mention it to my prof/TA.

43

37%

I didn’t know who to ask for help.

41

36%

I was unaware of my right to request accessible documents or services.

38

33%

The process seemed too difficult.

36

31%

Other – Please explain

11

10%

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Implications

It is clear from these answers that many of the student respondents would be reluctant to request an accessible version of a document or seek an accommodation for a disability in a variety of situations:  they may not want make staff carry out additional work for them (especially if the staff in question are professors or teaching assistants), they don’t want to disclose a disability, and they may not want to invest time and energy in seeking an accommodation if they think the process is difficult, unclear or will take too long.

Reflecting the lack of student knowledge of the AODA noted above, a significant number of respondents indicated that they had been unaware of their right to request accessibility accommodations.

This ambivalence towards requesting support for a disability is further underscored by students’ written comments in the ‘Other’ category of this question.  Respondents were uncomfortable with approaching authority figures and concerned about potentially negative perceptions of individuals with disabilities:  ‘[I’m] afraid of profs denying me accommodations,’ and ‘The professor thinks less of you.’

Others found it easier to follow established routines:  ‘I have a temporary disability – not eager to do anything that promotes pain,’ and ‘Sometimes I feel there is too much information at once and I stick with what I am comfortable doing.’  Finally, one student cited their mental state as a reason for not seeking accommodation: ‘Motivation to get these supports is difficult during bouts of depression & anxiety.’

In my opinion, these survey results raise a potential caveat with respect to how institutions are drafting accessibility policies.

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Impact on Accessibility Policies

As many readers are no doubt aware, public and private organizations in Ontario are currently responding to the AODA Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation (IASR) and its requirement that a wide range of information and communication resources be made accessible to users with disabilities. For academic libraries, this includes the provision of information and communication supports and accessible, alternative formats, both in an academic and non-academic context, the creation of accessible websites and web content, and the provision of accessible or conversion-ready formats of print, digital or multimedia resources in a Library’s collection.

However, with the exception of websites and web content, the IASR only requires that the above accessibility supports be provided upon request by a person with a disability. If our accessibility policies adopt this ‘service only upon request’ model, the policies may comply with the literal requirements of the IASR but they may not actually help students as much as we would hope. As was clear from our survey, requesting accessibility supports is something which many students with disabilities (even upper-year ones) seem reluctant to do.  This problem is compounded by many students apparently being unaware of their legislative right, as secured by the AODA, to request these supports in the first place.

Developing accessibility policies that better support the needs of students with disabilities may involve going beyond the stated requirements of the AODA IASR legislation and pre-emptively incorporating accessibility features into our text, digital and multimedia resources where possible.  This would reduce the need for students to ask for accommodation and also ensure that accessible, alternative formats are made available without delays.

The University of Guelph Library’s ARES course reserve system has already adopted this approach for the provision of locally digitized PDF material.  LAS and E-Learning and Reserves staff are working jointly to ensure that this PDF content meets a reasonable level of accessibility designed to support the needs of the majority of students with print disabilities – i.e. accurately OCRed text and properly structured headings.*

No doubt other academic libraries have also recognized the limitations of taking a literal compliance approach to the AODA and are pursuing similar strategies.

In my opinion, the lack of student knowledge regarding the AODA and the connection (noted above) between the disinclination to seek accommodation and negative perceptions of disability, would best be addressed through a Library or campus-wide media campaign aimed at students, faculty and staff.  Such a campaign could focus on disability and stigma issues, provide information on relevant campus support services and tools, and raise awareness regarding AODA rights and responsibilities.  Indeed, it’s possible that if more students with disabilities were aware that universities are legally bound to provide accommodations and that they are not offered simply at the discretion of the institution, they would be more willing to ask for them.

Going Beyond

In closing, I think this survey is a reminder that we need to stay focused on the overarching goal of the AODA: ensuring that persons with disabilities have equal access to the social, economic and educational fabric of Ontario.  Making meaningful progress towards this goal will likely require us to go above and beyond simple compliance with provincial accessibility standards.

As many of those consulted in Mayo Moran’s Second Legislative Review of the AODA argued, we need to treat the current AODA standards as “the floor, not the ceiling” of our efforts to create an inclusive environment for our users. As everyone knows, the best libraries have the highest ceilings.

Athol Gow is the Manger of Library Accessibility Services (LAS) at the University of Guelph Library. He can be reached at agow [at] uoguelph.ca.

* The decision not to remediate the e-reserve PDFs to fully comply with WCAG Version 2 Level AA standards was an attempt to balance our desire for accessibility with limited staff time and resources.  Meeting a more rigorous standard would have benefited only a small minority of students with visual impairments whose required course readings are already being made accessible (at least, at the University of Guelph) on a per-course basis by our alternative format text service.