Why Be Accessible?

In Colorado: new accessibility rules, same old ethics.

Accessibility, however, is more than just physical access to library services. In conventional terms, accessibility generally refers to functionally equivalent access to the materials and services. In essence, this means that individuals with disabilities should be able to use and access all the same services and materials in the library as their non-disabled peers, either through alternate means or with assistance. […] Ultimately, in order to promote broad access for all patrons, librarians should consider the accessibility of their materials and services during the procurement and implementation process, and develop a plan to maximize accessibility for all patrons. – American Library Association (ALA)

Accessibility rules in Colorado

Accessibility is a hot topic in Colorado. The passing of HB21-1110 expanded the standards for what can be considered discrimination under the Colorado Anti-discrimination Act (CADA), requiring Colorado state and local governmental/public entities (such as public libraries) to comply with the new technology accessibility standards, which go into effect on July 1, 2024. These entities across the state are now busy finalizing their plans for compliance and setting about making their information and communication (ICT) fully accessible to all.

According to the Plain Language Guide to the State Technology Accessibility Rules, as outlined by the Governor’s Office of Information Technology (OIT):

The technology accessibility rules are established by the Chief Information Officer (CIO) of OIT to ensure that people with disabilities enjoy the same access as everyone else to participate in state and local government services, activities and employment opportunities.

There are no exemptions to the rules:

Every person who contributes content to a website or application; develops or manages IT products and services; and every government entity employee who creates and shares emails, documents or presentations is responsible for making it accessible to everyone.

For a full overview of requirements and a range of accessibility resources, consult OIT’s Guide to Accessible Web Services.

Why be accessible?

Aside from the fact that Colorado law requires it of public entities, it is worth remembering the reasons why it is so important to make everything we do fully accessible. The main reason is that it is, quite simply, the right thing to do, the ethical thing to do, the responsible thing to do – and in many cases well overdue. Overlooking accessibility is indeed a form of discrimination because it prevents some people from accessing resources that public entities must make available to all, without exceptions.

Accessibility increases equity

The law in Colorado seems to be focused on web accessibility, but in fact applies to more than web-based content.

Accessibility is defined as ‘perceivable, operable, understandable and robust digital content that enables an individual with a disability to access the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services offered to other individuals, with the same privacy, independence, and ease of use as exists for individuals without a disability.’

Technological accessibility (websites, text documents, PDFs, etc.) is one aspect of our general accessibility responsibilities as public servants, something that libraries are increasingly familiar with as library spaces evolve in design to become more responsive to community needs. Accessibility is often talked about as a standalone concept, but it is a tangible and highly actionable aspect of equity that we should all be able to get behind. User experience (UX) is a practical issue that affects people in every community, but it is a situation that can be greatly improved with some care and attention.

What were are talking about is ceasing to exclude people with disabilities such as blindness, or any of the conditions laid out by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which lists cancer, intellectual disabilities, autism, and PTSD as examples of disabilities, to name a few.

A significant portion of Americans is covered under this law. As the ADA considers a broad range of conditions or personal characteristics to be disabilities, there is no simple way of quantifying exactly how many Americans have a disability, but it is estimated to be somewhere in the region of 20-30% of the population, or more than 61 million people. What is certain is that people in every community, who also contribute taxes to our public services, have difficulty or cannot access or absorb the information they are entitled to, denying them knowledge, resources, and opportunities. With increased awareness and more stringent requirements like the rules passed in Colorado, this situation is set to improve, but it requires work and diligence from all content creators.

Accessibility as part of general operations

Libraries will need to make accessible everything that the public currently has access to, even documents that were created many years ago, which we can think of as mitigation. But the ideal scenario is, going forward, content creators and web designers will intentionally include accessibility in everything they do at the point of creation. For example, if you are creating a document that will end up as a PDF on your website, it is quick and easy to run Word’s accessibility checker on the text before converting it to a PDF (after which it is worth running Adobe’s accessibility checker too). This will prevent the need to go back and bring the PDF to the correct standards after the fact, which will save time, labor, and worries about being out of compliance.

Hear it from the people most affected

For people who do not have a disability, it might be hard to grasp exactly the difference true accessibility makes in real life. There are plenty of resources for gaining a deeper understanding of the importance of accessibility. Here are just a few:

  • The National Center on Deafblindness has an accessibility toolkit page which states that “everyone benefits from accessibility”
  • W3C testimonials of personal impacts from the perspective of people on a range of technological issues.
  • W3C’s Stories of Web Users

More resources:

Michael Peever
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