Accessibility and Universal Design: A report on the BTAA Library Conference

This month, along with several others from my library, I was able to attend the Big Ten Academic Alliance Library Conference. Every year, the Big Ten Academic Alliance (BTAA) chooses a topic of interest to libraries, finds experts and organizes speakers, and holds a conference on that topic. This year, the conference was about accessibility, and since one of my secondary job responsibilities is accessibility, I had the opportunity to attend. This was my first BTAA conference and my first conference that didn’t offer breakout sessions, so I was excited to see how it would play out.

There was a keynote each day, from Jay Dolmage and Amelia Gibson. Both were fantastic. Dolmage began by discussing the design of buildings, including libraries, with several examples of buildings designed around stairs. Though there may be a ramp or elevator available, it is not the focal point of the building. Of course, then, we must ask, “Why?” Why is universal design not prioritized? Why is universal design not the norm? Taking the buildings as an example, Dolmage then moved on to discussing universal design in other contexts, especially with regard to teaching and learning. Dolmage stressed the importance of “positive redundancy,” ensuring that there are multiple modes of engagement, such as having information for a lecture in slides, in a handout, and in an electronic form.

Amelia Gibson touched on similar themes as Dolmage, such as the existence of internalized ableism that must be identified and worked against. Gibson advocated for moving beyond ADA requirements and instead focusing on meeting individual needs, beginning with the premise that anyone who is at a school is there because they can succeed and that it is our job to help them succeed. Gibson also discussed the fact that identities, including disability identities, are intersectional. This means that challenges can be even greater for people of color who also have disabilities. Gibson asked us to consider the various reasons that people might not seek information or help from a library, citing cases where potential library patrons have faced ridicule for their child’s behavior because their child was on the autism spectrum, or cases where black patrons have been thrown out of libraries. For some people, concern about being in library spaces is real and justified.

Finally, a point brought up by both Gibson and Dolmage and throughout the conference was how often people with disabilities are asked to disclose their disabilities and how detrimental this is. People with disabilities should not be asked to disclose their status; instead, we should be creating inclusive spaces that do not retroactively try to account for disabilities but instead are designed to accommodate various needs right from the beginning. For example, there is no need for publishers to require an individual student disclose their disability before an accessible version of a document is supplied. Electronic publications could be accessible from the start or, if remediation is necessary, the extra step of disclosing a disability does not need to be mandated. There are also numerous reasons that people might not disclose their disabilities, be they financial (getting diagnosed is expensive) or out of fear of repercussions. Again, designing with accessibility in mind is key.

This brings us back to the idea of universal design. These principles can be applied in any library space, from making library instruction more welcoming to people with a variety of learning styles to working with vendors and publishers to ensure that content is readable not only for screen readers but for users who want to change the font size or color to suit their own needs. We cannot make everything completely accessible immediately; in many cases, accessibility will be an iterative process, with changes made over time. However, we can strive to bring principles of accessibility and universal design into our own individual practices as librarians to begin making changes today.

Overall, I found this conference extremely worthwhile. I often find myself a bit untethered at conferences, unsure how to choose which sessions to attend from a long list and drawn in several different directions because of all my different interests. This conference provided a more concentrated experience and, because of the more focused theme, there was enough time and space to delve into library accessibility in more detail than I’ve experienced in other conferences. Now it’s time to refocus, take what I’ve learned, and find more ways to incorporate accessibility into my work on a daily basis.

For more on universal design, get started by looking at the UDL guidelines website.

Read more about the BTAA’s e-resource testing initiative.

And check out the conference hashtag, #BTAALib19, for more on the conference.