Data Behind Key Web Accessibility Success Indicators and Staff Training Needs
by Sonya Schryer Norris and Jared Oates
In 2020, I (Sonya Schryer Norris) introduced a poll of key web accessibility success indicators. The poll was distributed on the Niche Academy platform in which the audience is primarily public library staffers. Over the next 20 months, 627 respondents reported on their library’s web accessibility practices. In 2022, I interviewed four assistive technology users on what’s most important to them when accessing a website.
These two datasets demonstrated important markers of web accessibility success in libraries. They also showed that web content authors—and not just administrators—have a short but vital skills list that provides visually impaired site visitors with the ability to access information. My co-author, Jared Oates, is the co-founder and COO of Niche Academy. Niche Academy provides a training platform and a training provider that help people solve big problems together. It is used by a majority of U.S. state libraries to provide professional development to tens of thousands of librarians. The platform itself is WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) 2.1-compliant at the WCAG Level AA, and keeping it that way is a part of Oates’s work. He lent his support to this project.
Part I: Polling and Data on Responses
For more than 20 years, I served as the website administrator at the Library of Michigan. In 2014, it was the first state library agency to sign a consent decree after a web accessibility complaint. Its agreement was with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, and the complaint was filed against its parent organization, the Michigan Department of Education. After 8 years of administering an accessible website and more than 10 years of training Michigan library staff on accessibility, I found myself in a unique position to understand the staff training and institutional supports necessary to create and maintain an accessible digital footprint. I was curious to know how many public libraries were already using the same supports we had found necessary, and I wanted to know if they were having similar, positive results.
I also wanted to collect data while providing an immediate, practical benefit to staffers who self-selected to participate. I needed polling capacity that showed aggregate results in real time on a platform with wide distribution. In addition, I aspired to teach those necessary accessibility supports by exposing library staff to them and demonstrating how frequently their peers were using them, because these supports work.
Why I Chose Niche Academy as the Polling Platform
Since 2020, the equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility modules I created for the Niche Academy platform have been experienced by 1,000-plus learners, including international learners. I added the accessibility poll to them.
Niche Academy features a marketplace in which libraries can share tutorials with each other. Subscribing libraries create tutorials, called Academies, within their own online learning environments. When libraries choose to share something they have created, it appears in the marketplace, from which libraries can select it for inclusion in their own academies. Niche Academy can highlight specific tutorials in a featured section of the marketplace and in a monthly newsletter distributed to all subscribers.
These methods are how Niche Academy helped libraries in all 50 states become aware of and participate in this poll. While administrators in each participating academy were only able to see the responses from their own academy, Niche Academy was able to aggregate and share the responses from all participating libraries with me: 627 participants responded on seven key accessibility success indicators between April 2020 and November 2021. My partners at Michigan State University Extension and Michigan ArtShare conducted the data evaluation.
Polling Results for Seven Key Accessibility Success Indicators
Here are the seven key success indicators for what managers and web content creators and administrators need in order to implement and maintain e-accessibility in a library environment—along with the polling results.
Where is your library when it comes to attitude among the staff? Seventy-eight percent of staff report that most, or nearly everyone, cares about accessibility.
Where is your library when it comes to accessibility skills among the staff responsible for web content? Half of library respondents reported that they are hitting it out of the park regarding skills for the staff responsible for web content.
Is accessibility training available, promoted, and supported for web team staff? Almost half (48%) report that training is available and promoted for the web team staff. Only 7% report that training is not available for the web team staff.
Are you working under an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice that requires you to maintain an accessible website? Sixty-nine percent reported that they are not working under an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division; 31% reported that they are.
Is your library WCAG-compliant? Twenty-seven percent of libraries reported that they are WCAG-compliant. About 2% of all U.S. websites are WCAG-compliant.
Do you have accessibility champions in your library that serve as go-to people for technical knowledge? Two-thirds of libraries reported that they have accessibility champions on staff.
Does management have the support they need from the larger institution? If we take out the responses from staff who said they weren’t sure, only about half of respondents have this support. No single manager can make a library accessible without institutional support.
What Are the Supports That Managers and Administrators Need?
Procurement support —If a library doesn’t include accessibility in its procurement language, accessibility is nearly impossible. The Big Ten Academic Alliance provides strong support to libraries, including Standardized Accessibility License Language. This is for e-resource vendors to apply and use in license agreements to ensure vendor contracts address accessibility concerns for library clients ( btaa.org/library/reports/library-e-resource-accessibility---standardized-license-language).
Accessibility policy —The top two complaints cited in accessibility lawsuits in 2020–2021 were lack of a policy and a lack of alt text. Having an accessibility policy alerts site visitors that you take accessibility seriously, and it hardens you as a target.
An accessibility policy should include the name of an ADA contact (such as the director). It should also contain a complaint form and procedure. A good place for this policy is in the website footer, where it is plainly available at all times on the site. Most libraries are under no obligation to name specific technical specifications or standards in their policy. Don’t overpromise. The best strategy for avoiding a lawsuit is to comply with WCAG, and most of the free accessibility tools use it as a base. But it’s not a legal mandate for most libraries in most places to name it in their policies.
An accessibility policy is not the same thing as a values statement about accessibility. They each have unique purposes. For instance, a values statement may include that the library will be guided and informed by certain beliefs and commitments. Such statements are often written in the first or second person. Effective policies need to be written in plain, easy-to-understand language. Policies have to be in line with the law, and they should be reviewed by your library’s attorney. ALA has several excellent policies related to services for people with disabilities, including web accessibility guidelines.
Part II: Web Staff Training on Accessibility
Alt text —The other most common accessibility error cited in lawsuits in 2020–2021 is lack of alt text. Alt text describes images to computer users who are blind and accesses websites via screen reading software, such as JAWS. One of the reasons this is so commonly cited in lawsuits is that it is very easy to detect by free code checkers. It is also very easy for libraries to correct, and it is not a difficult skill for web content authors to learn and to apply.
Alt text across applications —I call alt text the sunshine skill for web authors because it can be practiced across applications. Some examples of where you’d use alt text are to describe an image on a website, to describe image content in an email signature file, to describe images used in social media, and to describe image content in PDF documents.
As the polling data shows, most library staffers care about accessibility. This skill gives them a concrete way to participate in creating and maintaining an accessible digital footprint in their jobs and in their online lives. That ability to use alt text outside of work duties gives them opportunities to practice. Applying this skill can help them feel good about themselves while they are providing necessary accessibility supports for library users.
There are three fundamental accessibility competencies for web content authors. All of them can be practiced across platforms, including in productivity software such as Microsoft’s Office Suite (now Microsoft 365) or Google Docs.
Part III: Feedback and Recommendations From Users
In 2022, I interviewed four computer users who are blind and use adaptive technologies to access the web. The subjective data I collected in these interviews is heartening. I spoke with Al Puzzuoli (an accessibility support engineer for TPG Interactive), Kellie Blackwell (the Michigan Assistive Technology Program’s co-director), Scott Norris (the manager of Michigan’s Braille and Talking Book Library), and Rebecca Swain (a poet and social justice advocate).
Reading about how to implement accessibility requirements can be dry work. Learning heading structure may not help a web content author feel the impact of applying that skill. Hearing real users talk about what aspects of accessibility have the biggest impact on them helps close that circle.
This list of practices (noted in the quote from Scott Norris) was consistently reported by other interviewees. Subjects also talked about alt text and EDI. There is not just one way to describe personal characteristics. Across interviews, subjects reported the importance of context, interpretation, and emphasis by the web content authors and growing their own understanding of the changing world through visual representations in media.
You can see the interview subjects’ thank you to web content authors for their work on my website (snakeladylibrarian.wordpress.com/eaccessibility-training-support). I provide synchronous accessibility training for web content authors at individual libraries and at the state level. You can read more about that training as well as contact me through plumlibrarian.com.