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6 Accessibility and Universal Design for Learning: Serving Students with Disabilities


Librarians pride themselves on offering equitable access to resources and services for all patrons. For instruction librarians, one aspect of equitable access is ensuring that instructional programs and resources are accessible to people with disabilities. The Census Bureau (Taylor, 2018) reports that 27.2 percent of Americans have a disability, including 17.1 percent of children, 30.3 percent of adults aged 18-64, and 58.5 percent of adults aged 65 and older. These statistics reflect individuals living with permanent disabilities and chronic conditions; additionally, patrons experience temporary disabilities, such as a broken bone or recovery from illness or surgery. Thus, instruction librarians should assume that a substantial number of potential learners have, or will develop, a disability.

Unfortunately, in many cases, the accessibility of workshops and programs is an after-thought, something instructors address only after they receive a request for an accommodation from a patron. This accommodations-based approach can be unwelcoming and alienating to individuals with disabilities and may result in patrons skipping programs and services altogether. Librarians can adopt a more inclusive model using the ethos of universal design, a framework for making spaces and services usable by the widest array of individuals.

This chapter begins with an introduction to legal requirements for accessibility and then explores both the accommodations and universal design models for serving patrons with disabilities. Building on that background, the chapter examines specific disabilities, their effect on learning, and strategies instructors can use to support learners. Finally, it introduces more comprehensive strategies for ensuring accessibility through attention to four areas: pedagogy, physical space design, instructional delivery, and instructional materials.

Approaches to Accessibility: Accommodations and Universal Design

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability and requires that institutions make their facilities, services, and programs accessible to individuals with disabilities. Educational institutions must also comply with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which mandates that institutions receiving federal funds provide all students with equitable access to educational programs and activities. Both the ADA and Section 504 require equal access to online information, including institutional web pages (Bradbard & Peters, 2010).

The Accommodations Model

Traditionally, many educational and civic institutions have provided equitable access by implementing accommodations at the request of an individual with a disability. For example, a deaf patron who plans to attend a lecture can call ahead to arrange for a sign language interpreter to be present. Individual accommodations are very common in educational settings. Both K-12 schools and colleges and universities have established processes for identifying students with disabilities and arranging for accommodations.

In the K-12 educational system, accommodations for students with disabilities are handled at the school level. Although the exact process will differ from district to district, generally speaking the school system is responsible for identifying students with potential disabilities, testing students, and working with parents and teachers to develop appropriate accommodations. Parents may also recognize that their child has a disability and seek private testing or work with the school to arrange for testing. In many cases, teachers play a role in recognizing a potential problem and arranging for testing. Once in place, an accommodation plan will follow a student from grade to grade. School administrators must notify teachers if a student has an accommodation plan, and teachers are responsible for implementing the required accommodations in the classroom. Older students may participate in arranging some of their accommodations (e.g., reminding a teacher that they will need extended time on a test); however, overall the responsibility for identification and accommodation lies with the school. School librarians who work with the same groups of students on a regular basis can discuss the needs of individual students with teachers and school administrators.

Once they enroll in college, students are responsible for requesting accommodations at both the institutional and course level. Typically, students provide documentation of their disability to a central office for students with disabilities, and a staff member determines what accommodations will be offered. The staff member gives the student a letter outlining the accommodations, and each semester students approach individual faculty members to make arrangements for those accommodations within the course.

Public libraries and museums typically require that patrons contact the institution in advance of a program to request accommodations. The institution may have processes in place for common accommodations, such as sign language interpretation, or a staff member will work with the patron to make appropriate arrangements, such as sound amplification or large-print handouts.

While seemingly straightforward, the accommodations model can be complex to navigate. Patrons may be unaware of how to request accommodations, be reluctant to share personal medical information, or lack documentation that is recent enough to satisfy institutional requirements. In addition, many individuals with disabilities are reluctant to request accommodations for fear of being stigmatized by instructors and peers. Cost and time can also be a barrier; in higher education, students who lack recent documentation may need to arrange multiple medical appointments for updated documentation, and testing may not be covered by insurance. One study found that only 23 percent of college students who qualify for accommodations request disability-related support services (Roberts et al., 2011, p. 246). And school and academic librarians should be aware that even when students are registered for accommodations, teachers and faculty may not convey this information to librarians teaching workshops and course-related instruction.

Universal Design

Another problem with the accommodations model is its focus on making one-time changes for individual learners. These changes may not appear in the next iteration of the workshop or course, at least until another request is received and the instructor implements the same accommodations all over again. It is as if the library installed a ramp at the request of a wheelchair user, then removed the ramp when the patron left the library, reinstalling it each time a patron calls ahead to ask for it. Such last-minute modifications can be time-consuming, expensive, and stressful.

Librarians can improve the accessibility of programs and services, and minimize the need for last minute accommodations, by following the ethos of universal design. Universal design is an approach to architecture and design that emphasizes creating spaces and products that are usable by the widest number of individuals. The National Disability Authority (2020) explains:

Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability. An environment (or any building, product, or service in that environment) should be designed to meet the needs of all people who wish to use it. This is not a special requirement, for the benefit of only a minority of the population. It is a fundamental condition of good design. If an environment is accessible, usable, convenient and a pleasure to use, everyone benefits. By considering the diverse needs and abilities of all throughout the design process, universal design creates products, services and environments that meet peoples’ needs. Simply put, universal design is good design.

Universal Design has seven principles for creating equitable and accessible environments (Center for Universal Design, 1997):

  1. Equitable Use: The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
  2. Flexibility in Use: The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
  3. Simple and Intuitive Use: Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
  4. Perceptible Information: The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
  5. Tolerance for Error: The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
  6. Low Physical Effort: The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
  7. Size and Space for Approach and Use: Appropriate size and space [are] provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of the user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

Curb cuts are an excellent example of universal design. They make sidewalks and buildings accessible for people using wheelchairs and other mobility aids, and are also used by delivery people, bikers and skateboarders, and caregivers pushing strollers. Kitchen appliances with large, soft touch buttons are another example of universal design; they can be used by people with arthritis or other fine motor disabilities as well as able-bodied individuals. Activity 6.1 asks you to think more deeply about universal design in everyday life.


Activity 6.1: Universal Design in Everyday Life

The principles of universal design guide us in creating environments and experiences that are accessible to all users. The ethos of universal design maintains that planning for accessibility is not a special requirement because all users benefit when environments are accessible.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion:

  1. The chapter provides a few examples of universal design. What other architectural features or products exemplify universal design?
  2. Think about a space or product you use on a regular basis. Does it employ universal design and if so, how? Is there room for improvement?


While created with architecture and product design in mind, the proactive approach of universal design is equally applicable to instruction. For example, patrons should not have to request that captions be added to an instructional video; rather, captions should be created for all of the library’s videos as part of the production process. And just as curb cuts benefit all citizens who move around public spaces, closed captions will be used by a wide variety of learners, including students studying in noisy coffee shops, parents working while their children nap, and non-native speakers of English who want to see the spelling of unfamiliar vocabulary. As we will see in the remainder of this chapter, adopting a universal design approach to instruction will create a more inclusive instructional environment for all patrons and, by mitigating the need for after-the-fact accommodations, save time and minimize stress for instruction librarians.

Types of Disabilities

This section of the chapter provides a brief introduction to specific disabilities and how they may affect a patron’s ability to access instructional spaces and materials as well as the learning process. While knowledge of specific disabilities can assist librarians in implementing universal design practices, it is important to avoid making assumptions about an individual’s abilities or preferred accommodations. For example, people with hearing disabilities use a variety of strategies to operate in the hearing world, and not everyone uses sign language or lip-reading. Librarians should take their cues from patrons or explicitly ask what accommodations or support strategies would be most helpful, rather than imposing accommodations or insisting learners use specific strategies or supports.

Librarians should also recognize that patrons with disabilities are individuals who are more than their disability. One way to acknowledge the primacy of the individual is by using person-first language, such as “patron in a wheelchair” or “learner with a visual disability.” At the same time, some individuals and communities see identity-first language, such as “disabled people” or “autistic,” to be both accurate and empowering (Liebowitz, 2015; Kimura, 2018, p. 427). Pionke (2018, p. 245) recommends the term “functionally diverse” because it implies a spectrum of abilities, rather than the binary of disabled/able-bodied, and recognizes the diversity of ways people function in the world. In all cases, librarians should avoid terminology that is patronizing, such as “special”; that evokes pity, such as “afflicted with” or “suffering from”; or that places individuals on a pedestal, such as “courageous” or “inspirational” (Disability Resources & Educational Services, 2020).

Visual Disabilities

Visual disabilities encompass a range of conditions, from low or partial vision to blindness. Common conditions such as nearsightedness and farsightedness also qualify as visual disabilities (Berman, n.d.), as does color blindness. A visual disability may affect the learner’s ability to see information on a whiteboard or slides, view information in print or on a computer monitor, or read and interpret color-coded charts and tables.

Hearing Disabilities

Hearing disabilities also encompass a range of conditions from mild hearing loss, common as we age and often mitigated through the use of hearing aids, to deafness. Patrons may have difficulty hearing the instructor’s presentation or student contributions, engaging in conversations in small group work, or hearing the narration in instructional videos and tutorials.

Physical Disabilities

Physical disabilities can affect gross motor skills, such as walking or standing, or fine motor skills, such as writing, using a computer mouse, and manipulating small objects. Patrons who use mobility aids such as wheelchairs and walkers will need wide, clear aisles and flexible seating arrangements in classrooms. In addition, instructors should be attentive to activities that require moving around the classroom or library or standing for long periods of time, and provide flexible options for participation. Instructors can ease processes that require fine motor skills such as note taking by providing outlines, handouts, and copies of slides, and highlight labor-saving devices such as citation management software and shortcut keys (Chodock & Dolinger, 2009).

Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorders

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders result in a pattern of inattentiveness, hyperactivity-impulsivity, or both (National Institutes of Health, 2016). Individuals may be easily distracted, be disorganized or forgetful, have poor awareness of the passage of time or difficulty with long-term planning, exhibit restless and repetitive movements, be overly talkative, and/or be prone to interrupting or blurting out answers (Smith & Strick, 2010, p. 44-45). Instructors should take care to minimize distractions in the classroom and present only one activity or piece of information at a time. Agendas, outlines, handouts, and copies of slides can help learners stay focused, organize content, and fill in information gaps caused by momentary distractions. In school and academic settings, where students may have difficulty planning and completing complex assignments, librarians can break down the steps of research assignments and introduce assignment calculators that allocate sufficient time for each task (for an example, see University of Minnesota Libraries, 2020).

Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities affect the ability to comprehend and retain information in particular ways and include conditions such as dyslexia and visual and auditory processing disorders. Learning disabilities are not intellectual disabilities; individuals with learning disabilities have normal to gifted intelligence. As Chodock and Dolinger (2009, p. 25) point out, a student with dyslexia may struggle with written text but comprehend lectures and audiobooks on par with students without dyslexia.

Learning disabilities can result in decreased reading speed, poor auditory or reading comprehension, and/or difficulty writing, among other problems. Learners may have difficulty remembering instructions or working as quickly as their peers. Instructors can support individuals with learning disabilities by providing agendas, outlines, and note-taking guides; giving written instructions for activities and assignments; breaking large assignments into smaller steps; and emphasizing learning and quality of ideas over speed or the mechanics of writing.

Intellectual or Cognitive Disabilities

Individuals with intellectual or cognitive disabilities learn more slowly than their peers and may require extra time to process information or perform tasks (Association of Specialized Government and Cooperative Library Agencies, n.d.). They may also have difficulty with communication and/or self-care tasks such as cooking or living independently. Nord notes that individuals with developmental disabilities have an emotional maturity on par with their peers (2014, p. 29) and want “a safe place to continue learning, sharing, and growing intellectually throughout their lives” (Nord, 2014, p. 32). Libraries can help meet this need through their programs and instructional services.

The Association of Specialized Government and Cooperative Library Agencies (n.d.) recommends that librarians working with learners with intellectual disabilities use graphical representation on signage; give concrete, step-by-step directions; and demonstrate tasks, rather than describing what to do. Because patrons with intellectual disabilities read at varied levels, audiovisual materials are valuable resources for information and programming. For example, instead of a book club, libraries can host film discussion programs. Nord (2014) describes one such program where participants watched documentary and feature films and then analyzed the films’ themes and their personal reactions. Librarians should also take care to talk directly to patrons, rather than to caregivers.

Nord (2014) and Brady et al. (2014) describe ways to make makerspaces and craft projects more accessible to patrons with developmental disabilities. Both note the importance of respecting individuals’ autonomy and recommend librarians resist the urge to step in and take over for a struggling participant. Rather, librarians can ask guiding questions, give advice, and demonstrate techniques (Brady et al., 2014, p. 337), while allowing participants to do the hands-on work of their own project.

Chronic Illness

Chronic physical and mental illnesses also encompass a wide range of conditions from autoimmune disorders to diabetes, and depression or anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder. With both physical and mental illnesses, symptoms can wax and wane; individuals may be in good health for an extended period of time and then experience a flare-up of their condition. Symptoms of chronic illness can be debilitating, and medications may cause side effects, such as drowsiness or difficulty concentrating, that affect learning.

Instructors should be conscious of activities that require physical effort, such as touring the library, carrying heavy items, or standing for long periods of time, and be prepared with alternatives. Librarians can also advertise the availability of online learning objects such as videos and tutorials that patrons can access from home and at their convenience. In order to be mindful of patrons with mental health issues, librarians can avoid potentially disturbing search examples or, when necessary, provide advance warning of potentially disturbing content.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder “characterized by repetitive and characteristic patterns of behavior and difficulties with social communication and interaction” (National Institutes of Health, 2018). Many in the autism community refer to themselves as “neurodiverse,” a term that recognizes the unique experiences and strengths that accompany ASD (individuals without ASD are referred to as “neurotypical”).

Individuals with an autism spectrum disorder often prefer familiar routines and may struggle in unstructured situations; providing an agenda for the session, giving ample warning before switching activities, and establishing predictable routines when possible (for example, in school libraries where classes visit the library weekly) are all helpful strategies. Difficulty with social interaction is common (Kuder & Accardo, 2018, p. 723), and individuals may find it challenging to interact with peers and instructors. Following the Universal Design model and giving learners varied ways to engage with classroom materials and activities will create a more accessible classroom. Librarians can also stress varied ways to contact librarians with follow-up questions, such as via chat and e-mail.

Individuals may be highly sensitive to stimuli such as light and noise, leading them to be easily distracted or overwhelmed (Cai & Richdale, 2016, p. 35); in the classroom, librarians can dim lights or pull shades, lower the volume of multimedia, or offer noise-canceling headphones. Some public libraries and museums offer “sensory-friendly” programming specifically for patrons with ASD, providing maps of sensory-friendly spaces, toning down stimuli such as bright lights and loud sounds, and even creating opportunities for families to visit before regular hours to avoid large crowds (Cottrell, 2016; Shrikant, 2018; Metropolitan Museum of Art, n.d.).

Inclusive Pedagogy

As a first step in creating a more equitable classroom, librarians can examine and enhance their pedagogy, or the ways they design and teach classes. As discussed in Chapter 5, inclusive pedagogical practices mirror many other best practices in instructional design and create a more engaging, memorable learning experience for learners of all ages and backgrounds, including learners with disabilities.

A powerful framework for thinking about inclusive pedagogy is Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Created by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), UDL is a three-part framework that recommends instructors vary how they engage and motivate students, present information, and allow students to demonstrate what they have learned (CAST, 2018). The three principles of UDL are Multiple Means of Engagement, Multiple Means of Representation, and Multiple Means of Action and Expression.

The principle of Multiple Means of Engagement suggests that instructors provide “flexible options for generating and sustaining motivation, the why of learning” (Hall et al., 2012, p. 2). Instructors should share their instructional goals, emphasize relevant content, and use real-world examples. For example, a school or academic librarian teaching course-related instruction might begin by asking learners to share their research topics and any challenges they have encountered, then use that information to suggest appropriate databases and search strategies that address students’ needs (even when the librarian has preplanned the resources and strategies they would like to teach, a discussion of student needs gives the librarian an opportunity to frame that content in ways that resonate with students).

Since classroom environment also plays a role in motivation, instructors should create a safe, welcoming environment and foster collaboration among learners. Learners vary in terms of what they find motivating and engaging, from those who are comfortable with risk taking to those who want more guidance and support, and those who thrive on competition to those who prefer collaboration. To engage students across these preferences, instructors should use a variety of learning activities. Feedback that focuses on individual learning also supports student motivation.

The Multiple Means of Engagement principle also emphasizes the importance of student agency and encourages instructors to give students choices about their own learning. In credit courses, instructors can allow learners to make assignment-related choices, such as identifying a topic of personal interest or selecting between a research paper or presentation. In workshops, librarians can allow students to choose the topics they research, the examples used in class, or how they participate, such as working on a practice activity alone or with a partner.

The principle of Multiple Means of Representation suggests that instructors use “flexible ways to present what we teach” (Hall et al., 2012, p. 2). Instructors should provide information in multiple modalities, for example by accompanying a verbal explanation with a textual and/or graphic representation and highlighting the availability of varied media in the library’s collection, including print materials at varied reading levels, online resources, audiobooks, and video resources. Additional strategies include using concrete, relevant, and diverse examples to illustrate concepts; highlighting main ideas, patterns, and relationships; scaffolding new knowledge and skills in small steps; and providing learning supports such as graphic organizers and glossaries.

The principle of Multiple Means of Action and Expression suggests that instructors provide flexible options for how students learn and express what they know (Hall et al., 2012, p. 2). As noted earlier, instructors should use a variety of learning activities within instructional sessions, including lecture and discussion, as well as individual, pair, and small group work. Activities such as collaborative notes, polling, and games can also add variety to sessions and provide students with flexible ways to engage in learning. When asking for feedback, librarians can offer learners the option to write a brief textual reflection, capture their thoughts in bullet points, or draw a picture to convey their thoughts. School and academic librarians can work with classroom teachers to incorporate alternatives to the research paper, such as multimedia projects (Robinson, 2017), infographics, and presentations. Activity 6.2 is an opportunity to apply UDL’s three principles to an instruction session.


Activity 6.2: Using UDL in Lesson Planning

Review the following lesson on search strategies designed for graduate students in library science. With a small group of peers, brainstorm ways to enhance the lesson using UDL’s three principles of Multiple Means of Engagement, Representation, and Action and Expression. Try to develop at least two ideas for each principle.

Pre-class work: Students read textbook chapter on online searching.

Lesson outline:

  1. Instructor gives daily welcome and announcements.
  2. Students complete a practice problem in Dissertation and Theses using limiters; then the instructor models an effective search.
  3. Students complete a practice problem in Ethnic Newswatch using limiters; then the instructor models an effective search.
  4. Instructor delivers a short lecture on keywords and subject headings using slides with screenshots.
  5. Students practice searching database thesauri for subject headings.
  6. Students complete a practice problem in PsycInfo using subject headings; then the instructor models an effective search.
  7. Instructor delivers a short lecture (accompanied by slides) on Boolean operators, phrase searching, truncation, and wildcards.
  8. Students complete a practice problem in Academic Search Complete using Boolean operators, etc.; then the instructor models an effective search.
  9. Students complete one to two additional practice problems, time permitting.

Homework: Students complete a practice problem and post their answer to a forum.


If you are new to UDL, it can be overwhelming to think about all the changes you could make in your instructional design. Tobin and Behling (2018, p. 134) recommend an approach they call Plus-One: “is there just one more way that you can help keep learners on task, just one more way that you could give them information, just one more way that they could demonstrate their skills?” They go on to suggest that instructors identify “pinch points,” the areas where students regularly ask questions, exhibit confusion, or struggle, and implement UDL by adding an additional option for learning and engagement at that point. For example, if learners struggle to understand a complex concept despite your best explanation, you could add a metaphor to tap into prior knowledge, develop a conceptual illustration, add a short pause for reflective writing and processing, or have a brief activity where students develop their own metaphor or illustration. Activity 6.3 asks you to think about “pinch points” in information literacy and apply a UDL lens.


Activity 6.3: Using UDL to Address “Pinch Points”

Select one of the following topics, all of which can be challenging for new learners:

  • Distinguishing between primary and secondary sources
  • Composing citations
  • Identifying “fake news”
  • Identifying spam and phishing e-mails
  • Organizing and managing electronic files

Brainstorm ways to teach this concept or skill using UDL’s three principles of Multiple Means of Engagement, Representation, and Action and Expression. Try to develop at least two ideas for each principle.


While much of the writing on UDL focuses on face-to-face instruction, UDL is equally applicable to other modalities. Smith and Harvey (2014) argue that online instruction offers unique opportunities for personalized education, including multiple means of representation for content and the ability for students to demonstrate learning in nontraditional ways. Webb and Hoover (2015) show how the principle of Multiple Means of Representation can be applied to multimedia tutorials.

Physical Spaces

In order for learners with disabilities to participate in instruction programs, they must be able to access and work comfortably in the library’s classroom spaces. While we will not always have the ability to remodel or completely control our classroom spaces, we should be familiar with best practices and use them to adapt the spaces we have as best we can.

Classrooms should be conveniently located with clearly labeled accessible routes, level floors, and wide aisles. Entrances should be wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs and scooters, and doors should be lightweight with large, easy-to-grasp handles or electronic door openers. Instructors can offer preferred seating near the front of the classroom for learners with visual or auditory disabilities, while students with learning disabilities may prefer to sit in the rear of the room or along the sides, where there are fewer distractions. If learners have interpreters or aides, they will need a seat as well.

Classrooms with flexible seating, such as lightweight, movable tables and chairs, will accommodate the widest variety of learners. If furniture is moved during a session, the room should be returned to its original configuration to ensure easy access for the next group of learners. In computer classrooms, at least a few stations should be on an adjustable-height desk and offer an alternative input device such as a trackball mouse. Librarians can install adaptive software and/or make use of options for magnifying and reading text that are now included in many operating systems and applications. Whether offering adaptive software or utilizing built-in options, librarians should take time to learn how to use these technologies, rather than relying on patrons to figure it out on their own.

Adjustable lighting will allow instructors to vary illumination according to learner needs. In all cases, whiteboards and the instructor’s face should be well lit. Display screens should be large enough that content is easily readable; many libraries now equip classrooms with multiple displays so that information can be easily viewed from any seat. Librarians should seek to minimize environmental noises that distract or make it difficult to hear the instructor.

Librarians involved in the construction or renovation of library spaces should be sure to consult both the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and individuals familiar with accessible design to ensure new spaces meet both legal requirements and the ethos of accessibility (Stochl, 2020). Kowalski and Woodruff (2018) include a chapter on designing library facilities that are accessible to and inclusive of a wide range of learners.


While librarians may feel constrained by the classroom spaces available to them, we have a great deal of control over how we deliver instruction, and our choices can make the difference between a learning experience that is accessible and inclusive and one that is not.

You should always face the audience when speaking. This benefits not only those who are hard of hearing but also students with learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders who may need a visual cue that you are speaking. One place many librarians forget this practice is when writing on the whiteboard; although it may feel awkward initially, it is essential to remember to pause, turn to write on the whiteboard, then turn back to the audience to resume speaking. Avoid placing hands, pencils, and other obstructions in front of your face, or standing in front of windows, as backlighting and glare will make it difficult to see your face. In large spaces, instructors should use a microphone to ensure everyone can easily hear instructions and lecture content.

For individual conversations, gain learners’ attention before speaking by saying their name, approaching them, or touching their shoulder or desktop. To get the attention of the entire class, flickering the lights as you speak is more inclusive for those with auditory disabilities. If the patron has an interpreter, speak directly to the patron, not the interpreter.

When writing on the whiteboard, use dark ink and print clearly. Letters or images should be large enough to be seen clearly from anywhere in the room. If the room is large and more than one whiteboard is available, you can repeat information in two locations (right/left or front/back). If you are using multimedia materials, turn on closed captions. If closed captions are not available, select alternative materials that are accessible.

Keep activity and assignment instructions simple and brief. Written directions, distributed as a handout or displayed on a slide, will support learners with attention or memory difficulties while also helping all students stay on task. Instructors should also be flexible with activities. For example, if an activity calls for learners to stand, they can raise their hand instead, or students can pair up and have only one partner move around the room.

Since students may have difficulty maintaining focus or sitting still for long periods, instructors can intersperse different types of activities (Part III of this book provides numerous ideas for classroom activities). Invite students to take breaks as needed, and in long classes, schedule formal stretch breaks. Chapter 12 provides additional advice on delivering instruction in ways that are engaging and effective.

Instructional Materials

Instructional materials such as handouts, slides, online guides, and videos should be designed for accessibility at the time of creation. Not only does this create a more inclusive classroom by serving learners who chose not to self-disclose a disability, it prevents the need for later revisions, which can be time-consuming and expensive. Chapter 11 on instructional materials and Chapter 16 on creating learning objects such as instructional videos and multimedia tutorials provide more detail on designing accessible instructional materials.

In some cases, instruction librarians may want to use materials created by others. While it is tempting to assume our colleagues would be mindful of accessibility practices, this is often not the case. Clossen and Proces (2017, p. 814-18) reviewed videos and multimedia tutorials from academic library websites and found that 48 percent of videos and 60 percent of tutorials lacked accessibility features. Librarians should carefully evaluate any materials created by others to ensure they follow accessibility guidelines.

Communicating Accessibility Information to Patrons

A final step in creating accessible, inclusive instruction and welcoming learners with disabilities is making the library’s practices transparent. Brady et al. (2014, p. 337) write that people with disabilities may find travel more difficult and will not just drop by the library to see if a program or makerspace is accessible. Graves and German (2018) reviewed the websites of 68 academic libraries and found that fewer than half contained information on whether instruction sessions would be accessible or how to request accommodations. When information was available, it was most often on pages devoted to disability services, rather than “on instruction sites at the point of need” (Graves and German, 2018, p. 568).

Librarians should review their websites with an eye to ensuring that any web pages for the library’s disability services include information related to instruction, including the physical accessibility of classrooms, the availability of adaptive workstations and software, and a link to request services such as sign language interpretation. Web pages devoted to instructional services, including events calendars, should include similar information. Graves and German (2018, p. 563) also recommend that pages for instructional services include a clear statement on accommodations for patrons with disabilities, noting that such statements “can go a long way toward creating an inclusive environment.” Brady et al (2014, p. 337) recommend librarians provide images or video tours of spaces, writing “a video tour would allow people with disabilities to view the space and assess for themselves how well it would work for them.”

In school and academic libraries, any forms used by instructors to request course-related instruction should include a space for requesting accommodations. While this chapter advocates a universal design approach to minimize the need for individual accommodations, patrons may have unique needs, and librarians should make the process of requesting such accommodations as clear and easy as possible. Even in the absence of formal requests, librarians can communicate accessibility information to learners prior to any course-related instruction. Wong and Myhill (2019) suggest that librarians prepare a brief email or handout, such as that seen in Example 6.1, and ask that the regular instructor distribute it to students a week in advance. The document should provide information on the classroom’s location, layout, and equipment, along with planned accessibility measures and contact information for the librarian.


Example 6.1: Accessibility Statement for Library Instruction

Research Instruction for History 380: U.S. Civil War

Tuesday, March 12, 1:00-2:40 p.m.

Jemisin Library, Room 212


Accessible entrances to Jemisin Library are located on the south (Quad) and north (Butler Street) sides. From either entrance, elevators in the main foyer will take you to the second floor. As you exit the elevators, turn right to enter Room 212.


Room 212 is on one level with a level floor. The room contains 25 student workstations with lightweight, movable chairs; two of the workstations are on adjustable-height tables. Additional tables can accommodate students who wish to bring their own laptops. The librarian will display their computer on a large screen at the front of the room and two oversize screens located halfway back. Lighting includes a large wall of windows facing west (with shades) and overhead fluorescent lighting (shaded and dimmable).


Accessible gender-specific and gender-neutral restrooms are located across from the elevators on both floors.

Instructional Materials:

All visual information will be described, and video content will include captions. An advance agenda, as well as electronic and/or large print versions of handouts, are available upon request.

Accommodation Requests:

For additional information or accommodations, please contact Anne Liu at or 555-123-4567 by March 5.


(Adapted from Wong & Myhill, 2019)


While some patrons will seek out information about the accessibility of an instructional offering or make a formal request for an accommodation, oftentimes librarians will not receive advance notice or even know that a learner has a disability. Patrons may prefer not to disclose their disability, may assume that the library cannot or will not provide accommodations, or may be unaware of how to request accommodations. Thus, it is imperative that instructors in all types of libraries be attentive to issues of accessibility and create inclusive instructional services and materials.

Key strategies librarians can use include:

  • Apply the Universal Design for Learning framework of Multiple Means of Engagement, Representation, and Action and Expression when designing lessons and courses.
  • In the classroom, practice inclusive delivery strategies, such as facing the audience when speaking and providing written directions and ample time for activities.
  • Maintain the accessibility of existing physical spaces, and when planning for remodels or new construction, consult experts on accessibility.
  • Ensure instructional materials such as handouts, videos, and multimedia tutorials meet accessibility guidelines.
  • Publicize accessibility practices on websites and promotional materials and through direct communications with learners.

Suggested Readings

Brady, T., Salas, C., Nuriddin, A., Rodgers, W., & Subramaniam, M. (2014). MakeAbility: Creating accessible makerspace events in a public library. Public Library Quarterly, 33(4), 330-347.

The authors explore how the makerspace movement’s emphasis on problem- solving, as well as learning, fun, and social interaction, aligns with the needs of individuals with disabilities. They describe successful makerspace activities for people with visual and developmental disabilities and provide recommendations for successful programs.

CAST. (2018).

Researchers at CAST created the Universal Design for Learning framework. This site includes the complete framework, explanations of each principle, and numerous ideas and resources for implementation. The site also provides relevant publications and professional development resources and is a rich resource for those who want to learn more about UDL.

Chodock, T., & Dolinger, E. (2009). Applying universal design to information literacy: Teaching students who learn differently at Landmark College. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 49(1), 24-32.

Chodock and Dolinger provide a concise introduction to learning disabilities and then outline numerous strategies librarians can use in the classroom. Although written from a higher education perspective, the recommendations in this article are applicable to any setting. Highly recommended for readers seeking to better understand learning disabilities and/or find actionable strategies to support learners.

Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (DO-IT).

The University of Washington’s DO-IT focuses on making education and the workplace more inclusive. The site offers information on invisible disabilities and universal design, along with tip sheets on designing accessible course materials.

McGowan, S., Martinez, H., & Marcilla, M. (2018). AnyAbility: Creating a library service model for adults with disabilities. Reference Services Review, 46(3), 350-63.

The authors outline a program that aims to eliminate bias and develop services for adults with cognitive and developmental disabilities. This is a useful model for other public libraries.

Palacios, K. (2015, July 30). The 7 principles of universal design [Video]. YouTube.

Palacios provides a concise introduction and numerous examples of Universal Design.

Pionke, J. J. (2017). Beyond ADA compliance: The library as a place for all. Urban Library Journal, 23(1), 1-17.

Pionke argues that when librarians focus accessibility efforts on compliance with the law, they miss opportunities for true accessibility and inclusion. They advocate for the use of universal design in all areas of library services. This is a valuable introduction to taking a social justice approach to services for functionally diverse users.

Pionke, J. J. (2018). Functional diversity literacy. Reference Services Review, 46(2), 242-250.

Pionke looks at the language used to describe patrons with disabilities and how it reveals dismissive or patronizing attitudes on the part of librarians. They advocate for the term “functionally diverse” as well as the need for greater awareness and understanding of disability and accessibility in the profession.

Project Enable.

Project Enable provides free professional development resources on designing accessible, inclusive services for school, public, and academic librarians.

Remy, C., & Seaman, P. (2014). Evolving from disability to diversity: How to better serve high-functioning autistic students. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 54(1), 24-28.

This article provides a thoughtful introduction to autism and how librarians can best serve adults with autism in reference and instruction.

Smith, C., & Strick, L. (2010). Learning disabilities A to Z: A complete guide to learning disabilities from preschool to adulthood. Free Press.

Smith and Strick offer an excellent introduction to learning disabilities and how they affect learning. Although the support strategies are aimed at parents and K-8 teachers, librarians in all types of libraries will find ideas of value.

Tobin, T. J., & Behling, K. T. (2018). Reach everyone, teach everyone: Universal design for learning in higher education. West Virginia University Press.

Tobin and Behling explain UDL, argue for its benefits in better serving all learners, and provide concrete strategies for implementing UDL across campus. Written primarily for experienced faculty and administrators in higher education, it contains a wealth of ideas that will be useful for librarians teaching credit courses.

W3C Web Accessibility Initiative. (2018). How to make your presentations accessible to all.

This website offers clear, concise advice on developing accessible presentations and events; very applicable to instructional offerings such as workshops.


WebAIM is devoted to accessibility for websites and online materials. An excellent resource for information on accessibility standards, accessibility technology, and training.

Zhong, Y. (2012). Universal design for learning (UDL) in library instruction. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 19(1), 33–45.

Zhong presents a case study in applying UDL to information literacy instruction, specifically exploring how to improve instruction in Boolean searching by applying the three principles.


Association of Specialized Government and Cooperative Library Agencies. (n.d.). Developmental, cognitive, and intellectual disabilities.

Berman, D. (n.d.). Solving web accessibility: Leaving no one behind [White paper]. 3PlayMedia.

Bradbard, D. A., & Peters, C. (2010). Web accessibility theory and practice: An introduction for university faculty. The Journal of Educators Online, 7(1), 1-46.

Brady, T., Salas, C., Nuriddin, A., Rodgers, W., & Subramaniam, M. (2014). MakeAbility: Creating accessible makerspace events in a public library. Public Library Quarterly, 33(4), 330-347.

Cai, R. Y., & Richdale, A. L. (2016). Educational experiences and needs of higher education students with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46, 31-41.

CAST. (2018). Universal design for learning guidelines 2.2.

Center for Universal Design. (1997). The principles of universal design.

Chodock, T., & Dolinger, E. (2009). Applying universal design to information literacy: Teaching students who learn differently at Landmark College. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 49(1), 24-32.

Clossen, A., & Proces, P. (2017). Rating the accessibility of library tutorials from leading research universities. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 17(4), 803-25.

Cottrell, M. (2016, March 1). Storytime for the spectrum: Libraries add services for children with autism. American Libraries.

Disability Resources & Educational Services. (2020). Accessible language: A guide for disability etiquette.

Graves, S. J., & German, E. (2018). Evidence of our values: Disability inclusion on library instruction websites. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 18(3), 559-74.

Hall, T. E., Meyer, A., & Rose, D. H. (2012). Universal design for learning in the classroom: Practical applications. Guilford Press.

Kimura, A. K. (2018). Defining, evaluating, and achieving accessible library resources: A review of theories and methods. Reference Services Review, 46(3), 425-438.

Kowalsky, M. & Woodruff, J. (2018). Creating inclusive library environments: A planning guide for serving patrons with disabilities. ALA Editions.

Kuder, S. J., & Accardo, A. (2018). What works for college students with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 48, 722-31.

Liebowitz, C. (2015, March 20). I am disabled: On identity-first versus people-first language. the body is not an apology.

Metropolitan Museum of Art. (n.d.). Resources for visitors on the autism spectrum.

National Disability Authority. (2020). What is Universal Design.

National Institutes of Health. (2016). Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

National Institutes of Health. (2018). Autism spectrum disorder fact sheet.

Nord, L. L. (2014). Reaching out: Library services to the developmentally disabled. Public Libraries, 53(5), 28-32.

Palacios, K. (2015, July 30). The 7 principles of universal design [Video]. YouTube.

Pionke, J. J. (2018). Functional diversity literacy. Reference Services Review, 46(2), 242-250.

Roberts, J. B., Crittenden, L. A., & Crittendon, J. C. (2011). Students with disabilities and online learning: A cross-institutional study of perceived satisfaction with accessibility compliance and services. Internet and Higher Education, 14(4), 242-50.

Robinson, D. E. (2017). Universal design for learning and school libraries: A logical partnership. Knowledge Quest, 46(1), 56-61.

Shrikant, A. (2018, January 5). How museums are becoming more sensory-friendly for those with autism. Smithsonian Magazine.

Smith, C., & Strick, L. (2010). Learning disabilities A to Z: A complete guide to learning disabilities from preschool to adulthood. Free Press.

Smith, S. J., & Harvey, E. E. (2014). K-12 online lesson alignment to the principles of universal design for learning: The Khan Academy. Open Learning, 29(3), 222-42.

Stochl, E. (2020, January 3). In library renovations, when do discussions of accessibility arise? BookRiot.

Taylor, E. (2018). Americans with disabilities: 2014. U.S. Census Bureau.

Tobin, T. J., & Behling, K. T. (2018). Reach everyone, teach everyone: Universal design for learning in higher education. West Virginia University Press.

University of Minnesota Libraries. 2020. Assignment calculator.

Webb, K. K., & Hoover, J. (2015). Universal design for learning (UDL) in the academic library: A methodology for mapping multiple means of representation in library tutorials. College & Research Libraries, 76(4), 537–553.

Wong, M., & Myhill, W. N. (2019, May). Inclusive instruction for academic librarians. Big Ten Academic Alliance Library Conference, Ann Arbor, MI, United States.


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Instruction in Libraries and Information Centers Copyright © 2020 by Laura Saunders and Melissa A. Wong is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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