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Breaking Down Barriers:  Considerations for Improving Accessibility in Libraries

by | May 7, 2024 | 0 comments


By Beth German  (Assistant Director for Library Assessment and User Experience, Princeton University Library) 

Against the Grain V36#2

There has been recent much-welcomed increased attention to equity within library work;  however, industry-created barriers still remain for users and staff with disabilities.  While these barriers were not created intentionally, all of us need to work collaboratively to remove them and increase access.  Inaccessible formats, unusable websites, complicated processes, and inadequate description all contribute to making it difficult for people with disabilities to make use of and work with library resources.  To help identify ways to create a more accessible library, this article will focus on the fulfillment process.  Thinking through a single everyday process within the library can identify different ways that different roles in different types of library-related organizations can contribute to dismantling legacy practices that prevent equitable access to library resources.

Barriers to Accessibility 

Many models that list varied barriers to accessibility are available to study and learn from.  Starting from a technical perspective, the World Wide Web Consortium (also known as the W3C) describes the types of abilities that exist and corresponding barriers that might be encountered.  The abilities identified include auditory;  cognitive, learning, and neurological;  physical;  speech;  and visual.1  This framing is important as it can allow an assessment of how a specific technology, process, or item might or might not be accessible for an individual.  One way to act on these considerations is to create a checklist that could list these varied types of abilities and barriers.  This checklist could be referred to as services and tools are developed in order to ensure that all abilities are taken into consideration.  Additionally, having a shared understanding of disability across our industry will allow for more effective communication between collaborators.  This definition of abilities informs the understanding of disability as this article shifts focus from an individual’s abilities to how the library industry must remove systematic barriers and move towards disability inclusion practices.

The World Health Organization (WHO) offers a model adopting a systems thinking and disability inclusion.2  Systems thinking considers interdependencies between elements of the parts of a process or system.  Disability inclusion is the philosophy, advocacy, and practice of creating systems and environments where everyone, as described by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “has the same opportunities to participate in every aspect of life to the best of their abilities and desires.”3  The WHO model identifies the “5 Ps” — People, Policy, Products, service Provision and Personnel — to create a people-centered approach to systematically improve access to assistive technologies and, as efforts are made in libraries to remove barriers, a person-centric approach is also needed: 

• Policy provides guidance on the rules, procedures, and data to support the adoption of equitable access.  In the library setting, issues such as loan policies could have implications on the accessibility of resources for individuals with disabilities. 

• Products describe the type of specifications to consider for assistive technologies.  This could be similar to libraries’ application of digital accessibility and conformance to Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) standards to websites and applications.  

• Provision discusses the inclusion and integration of assistive technology into the current healthcare system.  An analogous example in libraries is the inclusion of Voluntary Product Accessibility Templates (VPATs) into the procurement processes.  

• Personnel considers the people involved with making systems and environments accessible to all.  Library workers, publishers, vendors, and others need to work together to make libraries more accessible. 

The WHO model moves the analysis towards a systems approach; a framework from Indiana University can help place this work within the education setting.  The Indiana University framework focuses on “conditions or obstacles that prevent individuals with disabilities from using or accessing knowledge and resources.”4  This framework, grounded in guidance for disability inclusion from the CDC,5 identifies five types of such barriers.  These include: 

1. Physical — the structural environment that impedes the navigation of a setting.

2. Media format — information that is not in a usable format.

3. Technology — technologies that are not able to be used with assistive devices. 

4. Systematic — the processes and policies that place undue burden on individuals with disabilities.

5. Perception — the attitudinal issues of stereotyping and stigma that individuals with disabilities encounter.

The model from Indiana University is quite suited for consideration in the knowledge and education industry and it will be used to frame the discussion of barriers for individuals with disabilities within the example fulfillment process.

What is Meant by Fulfillment?

Fulfillment in libraries relates to the functions around providing users with their requested item(s).  As the Ex Libris Alma documentation defines, “Fulfillment is the process by which patrons borrow and return physical resources, or access electronic or digital resources, from the institution.”6  To examine fulfillment more fully from the user perspective, part of the discovery process will be added to the accessibility analysis.  Discovery encompasses various elements, including formulating search terms, configuring algorithms, and utilizing automated search assistance.  However, the focus for this accessibility analysis will be solely on aspects of discovery that occur after a potential item has been identified.  These include determining whether the found item is desired and the methods for requesting or accessing the resource.  To identify areas where barriers could be removed within the fulfillment process, a simplified user flow will be used that consists of selection, request, access, and use. 

A Note on Digital Accessibility

Digital accessibility, such as the application of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), is a factor throughout the fulfillment process.  Websites and web applications should have common accessibility features, such as a logical reading order, appropriately-formatted headings, adherence to color contrast standards, ability to change zoom levels, and support for keyboard navigation.  Increasingly, due to potential liability, public institutions are unable to license resources that do not meet WCAG standards.  These technical issues for standard web functions that have known accessibility solutions are a requirement for any web-based tool or content provider to address, and must be applied to website and web applications used throughout the discovery and fulfillment process.

Discovery, Fulfillment, and Disability Inclusion

Taking each in turn, this section will examine aspects of the discovery and fulfillment process with respect to the elements of the Indiana University framework identifying ways that barriers could be lessened or removed for individuals with disabilities.  For each step in the workflow, consideration will be given to one or more barrier — physical, media format, technological, or systemic — and how these might be successfully accommodated to help all users. 

The perception barrier applies to all steps in the fulfillment process;  a general description in this context could be library workers, vendors, sponsors, creators, or helpers (individuals involved in the process) behaving in ways that question whether these issues need to be addressed or if accommodations are necessary, and even potentially participating in the stigmatization of individuals with disabilities.

As each of these areas of fulfillment are discussed, the goal is to explore ways to break down the different types of barriers and consider how this example could apply to other aspects of library work. 


Item selection is an important aspect of the process.  An individual will need to choose from one or more options that a specific item is the one that they want or need.  The inability to identify the correct item might indicate issues in description: metadata should be robust with information to help the user determine if the item is in an accessible format and what accessibility features the item might have.  Additionally, any physical requirements to navigate book stacks or capability to carry books, or possession of enough mental energy to engage in in-person interactions with library staff, if needed, could all influence whether or not an individual would be able to make the selection of their item a successful task. 


From the user’s perspective, the request process could be the click of a button or link or submission of a form:  a consideration in this context is the placement of online features and required dexterity to navigate between them.  A request process could also involve an in-person approach to a circulation desk or check-out station:  the space design of service points could create a barrier if individuals are unable to navigate the circulation space. 

Within the request process itself, there are many opportunities to increase options for individuals with disabilities.  For example, when a user is requesting a scanned book chapter, there could be a way for a user to indicate what type of format (such as DAISY or EPUB) they would need to be compatible with their assistive technology. 

When considering library policies, systematic barriers could be common.  Libraries often do not have a policy to require scanned documents to support optical character recognition (OCR) which would make them more accessible to users who are sight-impaired.  Another example of a systematic barrier could be the existence of a library policy that prevents an individual from requesting holds or campus deliveries automatically because of their patron type (for example, student versus faculty), and that individual might not be aware that their disability enables an exception to the restriction. 


Providing access to materials may be a complicated process with potentially many local policies in effect.  One major barrier-reducing activity has been the global ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty which permits copyrighted material to be made available for users with print disabilities.7  However, while the legal barrier has been removed, there are still systemic issues which often prevent individuals with print disabilities from being able to access campus or library resources.  One issue is the lack of awareness of accessibility standards and legal requirements for fulfillment on the provider side as well as the individual with print disabilities. 

Other challenges include the need to support transparency around the process by which an individual gets authenticated to use accessible material.  For example, access to Bookshare, an online library with a large collection of accessible books, might have a different procedure to validate an account and access the material than the procedure for an account within the Accessible Text Request Service from HathiTrust.  Lastly, even if an individual might know their options and have access to resources, the Marrakesh Treaty does not create the obligation to create accessible versions.  When an accessible version of a piece of content is not provided by creators or publishers, a local remediation process is necessary to create one, and the timeliness of user access to the material is greatly reduced as this is attended to. 


Throughout the fulfillment process, the goal in the library is to get a usable item to a user.  The ideal user path would include checks to ensure the specific type of item that they need is usable to them, technology to support this process, simplified policies rather than barrier policies, and supportive and affirming assistance along the way.  Regarding the use of material, another aspect to explore is the ability of individuals to use material on-site.  Assistive technology can be difficult for someone to transport;  by providing tools such as video magnifiers, document scanners, high contrast keyboards, or text-to-speech software, the library can reduce barriers for individuals with disabilities to use its materials. 

Disability Inclusion within the Profession 

Often the emphasis on accessibility in libraries is towards our users.  However, within our own organizations, staff members with disabilities are also present as contributing colleagues and fully belong in all types of workplaces.  The systematic barriers that exist for users and patrons are the same for our own staff members.  This analysis of the fulfillment process centered on our end users, but these ideas are similarly applicable to our policies, technology, and attitudes for everyone involved in the workflow.  Additionally, less scrutiny is often given to non-public facing tools and software, but the same considerations and analysis should be made for internal staff systems such as library service platforms, interlibrary loan software, library guides, and electronic resource management tools.  Lastly, hiring processes and accommodation procedures should be inclusive and reduce any potential stigmas against individuals with disabilities.  To be an inclusive library and information industry, we need to be inclusive not just for our users but for all that work within the industry. 

Conclusion and Collaboration 

This examination of the fulfillment process, using frameworks and principles, could be used for any type of process within the library to improve accessibility in a more holistic way.  Considerations for the instruction program, archival exhibitions, or space design would all benefit from a mindful examination of how a user might approach the library with their information needs and how different library partners are required to be involved in making any experience for individuals with disabilities an inclusive one.  There are many people in the library and information industry that are tackling these issues with regards to accessibility.  When we start thinking about accessibility as a core part of the whole system, and not just an isolated part of a process, we can find all the different partners that we need in order to remove barriers for individuals with disabilities.  A major benefit of centering accessibility is that generally the measures needed to improve the accessibility of our services for individuals with disabilities will also improve the user experience for all users.  


1. W3C.  “Diverse Abilities and Barriers.”  Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).  September 10, 2019.  https://www.w3.org/WAI/people-use-web/abilities-barriers/, Accessed 8 March 2024.

2. “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  2019.  “Disability Inclusion.”  April 9, 2019.  https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/disability-inclusion.html, Accessed 8 March 2024.

3. Banes, David and Evert-Jan Hoogerwerf.  United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia.  “Framework for Building Capacity for Assistive Technology and Alternative Augmentative Communication for Children.”  August 2023.  https://www.unicef.org/eca/media/30341/file/Framework%20for%20building%20capacity%20for%20assistive%20technology.pdf, Accessed 8 March 2024.

4. “Indiana University.  “Accessibility: Barriers to Access” https://accessibility.iu.edu/understanding-accessibility/barriers-to-access.html, Accessed 8 March 2024.

5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  “Disability and Health Disability Barriers.”  September 16, 2020.  https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/disability-barriers.html, Accessed 8 March 2024.

6. “Introduction to Fulfillment.”  Ex Libris Knowledge Center. December 3, 2015.  https://knowledge.exlibrisgroup.com/Alma/Product_Documentation/010Alma_Online_Help_(English)/030Fulfillment/010Introduction_to_Fulfillment, Accessed 8 March 2024.

7. “Marrakesh Treaty.”  National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled (NLS), Library of Congress.  https://www.loc.gov/nls/who-we-are/laws-regulations/marrakesh-treaty/, Accessed 27 March, 2024.


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