RLI 281 25
DECEMBER 2012 RESEARCH LIBRARY ISSUES: A QUARTERLY REPORT FROM ARL, CNI, AND SPARC
Universal Design, Inclusive Design, Accessibility, and
Usability
D
igital content cannot be assumed to be accessible to assistive or adaptive technologies such as
text-to-speech screen readers. Early PDFs that still populate library websites and databases were
often image-only files, and some software will not recognize columns in articles nor translate
charts, graphs, and figures into something meaningful and accurate. Crowded database search screens
with image-only buttons for critical navigation or access to full text have similarly been problematic.
But even as some problems are solved, others are created if accessibility is not an upfront consideration.
E-books are a key example.
The primary factors that have excluded visually impaired users from the e-book revolution
are the use of file formats that cannot be read by the technologies used by the blind; DRM
schemes that prevent such technology from accessing these files; and proprietary e-book
reading software or devices that the blind cannot use. E-books, which hold the promise
of truly equal access by the blind to all printed information, are in serious danger of
becoming an even greater barrier to such access.47
In a Canadian study of students using screen readers to use popular library databases, the authors
found significant barriers to discovery and full-text access.
Studies have shown that information literacy is a critical element in fostering problem
solving and independent learning in higher education students…The question this study
asked was whether the barriers in database design can affect a student’s information
gathering process. The results would point to yes, the first step in information literacy—
the ability to critically locate and select appropriate articles is being compromised. The
students in our study were forced to abandon articles because of technological barriers and
this limited the amount of resources they could use to write their assignments. Only the
intervention of a librarian or peer would have allowed them to continue in locating the full
text and reading the article. Their self-efficacy as independent learners is challenged every
time they encounter an unreadable PDF or take up to eight hours to find four articles.48
Universal design is a concept that originated in architecture and the built environment. Perhaps
its most cited example and metaphor is the curb cut, mandated and designed for wheelchairs but
appreciated by anyone with a stroller, shopping cart, bicycle, or rolling suitcase. “Similarly, text captions
of speech in videos were intended for individuals who are hard of hearing or deaf, but the primary users
are patrons at noisy sports bars and fitness centers and spouses who wish to continue watching television
while their spouse sleeps. In addition to being more sustainable, integrated accessibility features are also
far less costly in the long run and, according to a study by Microsoft, are used by up to 67% of users.”49
Retrofitting technology, like architecture, is far more expensive than planning for inclusion by design.
“The cost of accessibility when carefully planned and designed is almost zero…However, often extreme
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