How to Create Inclusive Digital Library Interfaces for College Students with Autism


igital libraries are essentially “digital learning environments consist[ing] of technological, human and methodological elements” and have the potential to reach a global audience and a variety of users (Passerino & Santarosa, 2007, p. 402). Like patrons at brick-and-mortar libraries, users of digital libraries have a myriad of capabilities, competencies, and literacies. Users affected by autism spectrum disorder are unique in that they have specific, reflexive needs that a single assistive technology or modification cannot address. 

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) projects that one in every sixty-eight children between the ages of three and seventeen are affected by autism spectrum disorder (CDC, 2015, para. 1). Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a constellation of atypical, delayed, or impaired verbal and non-verbal skills, socio-emotional development challenges, and stereotypical and repetitive behaviors (Autism  Speaks, June 30, 2014; CDC, 2015). The spectrum itself is illustrated by an array of complex and unique combinations; such manifestations can deem those affected by the disorder to vary in functionality, independence, and social skills.

Adults with ASD. Youth-in-transition (YIT) is a demographic within the autistic population whose ages range from seventeen years to mid-twenties. Until recently, there has been little research and guidance on the functional development and life-skills of this group, and the educational and skill development has focused (and continues) on early childhood and school-aged children with autism.

The YIT population also encompasses those in college. Research reveals that ASD students comprise “0.7 percent to 1.9 percent of the college population with an 80% incompletion rate” (George Washington University, 2015, para. 3). Dr. David Mandell of the Center for Autism Research at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia explains this remarkable rate of educational attrition:

“While we think of autism as a disorder of childhood, it doesn’t end in childhood and we need to figure out how to continue to support these individuals as they age into adulthood” (Autism Expressed, 2013, minute 5:05).

In this way, creating inclusive interfaces for digital libraries may assist students with ASD to succeed in the college and research environment, thereby reducing attrition.

There is a plethora of literature on tablet and mobile technologies for children with autism, but very little on YIT and adults seeking information in a research capacity via digital libraries and digital environments. The needs of these users are not captured in the Section 508 web accessibility standards, nor are they explicitly captured elsewhere in the current body of literature.

How did you search on this topic?

My search of relevant literature involved the creation of an ad-hoc and interactive thesauri. First, my search in Boolean databases such as ProQuest, JSOTR, and Google Scholar (linked to Drexel Libraries) consisted of a string of broad terms:

 (inclusive OR assistive ) AND (web OR interface) AND digital librar*

The results focus on visually impaired users or those with non-ASD conditions. A sample of other search strings:

(inclusive OR assistive ) AND (web OR interface) AND austi* access* AND austi* AND web

Citation chasing proved to be a powerful strategy for peer-reviewed, sometimes tangential sources. Google searches retrieved relevant initiatives, non-profit organizations, and community resources on this topic. Results were limited to those published in scholarly journals since 2005 and to websites updated since 2010. The results were reviewed and synthesized to create recommendations related to effective and preferred user interfaces for digital library patrons affected by ASD.

Spoiler alert: There is a paucity of evidence on the preferred interface, search, and navigation for ASD users beyond the age of adolescence. Part of the functional behaviors of modern adulthood is the awareness and negotiation of digital citizenship, literacy, and access.

Is there federal guidance on inclusive interfaces?

The United States Federal government passed Section 508 in 1995 to ensure technological and web accessibility on all websites funded by federal dollars, and a few states have mirrored this requirement for sites funded by state dollars. Accessible design in interface and web operability is the cornerstone of a United States federal policy, the Rehabilitation Act Amendments (known as Section 508) wherein:

“When developing, procuring, maintaining, or using electronic and information technology, each Federal department or agency, including the United States Postal Service, shall ensure, unless an undue burden would be imposed on the department or agency, that the electronic and information technology allows, regardless of the type of medium of the technology –

Individuals with disabilities who are Federal employees to have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to the access to and use of the information and data by Federal employees who are not individuals with disabilities; and

Individuals with disabilities who are members of the public seeking information or services from a Federal department or agency to have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to the access to and use of the information and data by such members of the public who are not individuals with disabilities” (United States Access Board, n.d., para. 3).

User interfaces in compliance with Section 508 would contain the following standards (as adapted by Yi, Y.J., 2015, p. 77):

  • Text equivalent for any graphical elements (audio, video, alt text for images)
  • Synchronized equivalent alternatives
  • Use of color (color shouldn’t be used as the only method to differentiate content)
  • Organization (style sheets are encouraged)
  • Redundant text links on server-side image map
  • Client-side image maps
  • Row and column headers
  • Frames (title all frames and label all frames for easy identification and navigation)
  • Screen flicker frequency (limit or eliminate the use of flickering)
  • Text-only page default (if a web page cannot be made accessible)
  • Scripting languages
  • Linked plug-in or applet
  • Online electronic forms (all forms must be properly labeled and accessible)
  • Method to skip repetitive navigation links
  • Alerts on timed responses

Most modern web users can imagine how these mechanisms can fit in concert to produce an web page accessible with assistive technologies like screen reader and image contrast modifications. Figure 1 shows the relationships required of web accessibility: mainstream technologies, websites, users, and assistive technologies.

Figure 1. The core components of web accessibility. Source: Petrie, Savva & Power, 2014, p. 4.

For users with ASD, Section 508 does not address a requirement for synchronous and asynchronous service requests or prompts, nor does it require non-verbal cues such as icons and symbols.

So What are the User Interface Requirements for Users with ASD?

Across the board, research suggests that modeling behaviors and activities for those with ASD is the successful intervention for behavior change. According to the Instructional Technology Usage Research model (Figure 2), usage of a technology – in this case, visiting a digital library – rests upon the ease of use, usefulness and learnability. If a user with ASD does not find the digital library interface easy to use, learnable, or useful, then the intention is removed and the use will either not happen or will not repeat. (I recommend that you check out this short article about usability testing for young users with ASD, even though the 11-year-old participant is outside of the YIT age group.)

Figure 2. Instructional Technology Usage Research model. Source: Hyman, Moser  & Segala, 2014, p. 42.

Positive behavior support can guide how digital librarians and programmers design the interface Research from Passerino and Santarosa (2007) reveal that ASD learners in an online environment respond to mediated inquiries, or opportunities to interact directly or indirectly with a responsive actor (computer-generated or human).

The social interaction, though in itself the challenging and identifiable component of those with ASD, is the key to imitating, supporting, and maintaining functionalities and providing a positive experience for users of digital libraries. Figure 3 shows how the ASD user (labeled “student”) can exert indirect, direct, and self-control.

Figure 3. Mediation categories for information seeking in an online environment. Source: Adapted from Passerino & Santarosa, 2007, p. 387.

In the context of digital libraries, the “verbal response” is the user clicking, tapping, or selecting the items of interest while simultaneously not selecting items or executable actions that are not desired. Digital library interfaces can support these competencies and preferred methods of inquiries in the following ways:

  • Direct control
    •  Imitation
      • The interface could create a video or a series of screenshots by the search bar to show how to search, or how to use the
      • Each subcollection could show another video of how to search within that collection (assuming that each subcollection has the same layout).
    • Request for help
      • Each page could show a “HELP” or “FAQ.” This should be paired with a unique image consistent across all For example, the FAQ page could have an icon with a raised hand; HELP could have an icon of a first-aid cross or commonly identified symbol for assistance.
      • FAQ: This page would offer solutions in verbal and non-verbal formats (e.g., detailed screen shots, step-by-step solutions).
      • The HELP page would be self-contained in a simple contact form (not mailto:help@xyz) to encourage the user to stay on the site and reduce an unanticipated transition of a new program or
  • Indirect control
    • Verbal responses
      • The navigation bar could provide more detailed and descriptive For example, instead of subcollections with short names could be more concise and descriptive; alternatively, collections with more flowery and poetic names (e.g., The Many Moons of Light: Lunar Eclipses in Historical Perspectives and Their Common Themes and Future Implications”) may also be reduced to plain language, as in “Lunar Eclipses, Past and Present.”
    • Oriented questions
      • Offer a prompt within the search bar “What are you searching for?” or “Type in an author, title, or ”
      • Create checkboxes with symbols and texts for An example would be “Author” with an icon of a human.
    • Model verbalization
      • Under the search bar, a message could say, “You could type in Thoreau and check the box ‘author’ to see ”

Ayotte, Vass, Mitchell and Trevianus (2014) describe the concept of preference discovery, wherein presets for interfaces can determine the layout and functionality in response to the user’s abilities. For example, perhaps the digital librarian or designer wishes to provide alternate interfaces that a user could select via a prompt at entry. This would change the usability features and interface of the library while maintaining the core temporal content and providing flexibility to typical users who wish to have a streamlined, minimalist interface (i.e., of the en vogue typical aesthetic).

Why don’t we build ASD into Section 508!

Wellllll…about that. The existing law of the land does in no way guarantee its compliance.

In a 2015 survey of twenty public libraries, “neither public libraries comply with the legal standards, nor do they consider their users or potential users with physical difficulty when designing their websites overall low accessibility of the sample suggests that state requirement for accessibility compliance has no effect on enforcing their libraries’ Web accessibility” (Yi, Y.J., 2015, p. 79).

This mandate flows down as a model to non-federal programs but it neither guarantees nor requires compliance. In the face of digital libraries of private universities, this accessibility is not expected and there are no repercussions.

Most library websites are required by law to comply with inclusive design but do not carry even these bare elements, let alone illustrations of implementing complex requirements of ASD-centered user interfaces.

The design of web content and interfaces for typical, non-ASD users deter the application of these competencies. For example, a college student with ASD searching their college’s digital library for sources may be unable to navigate the site or locate a convenient link for service requests or inquiries.

Now What?

For Digital Librarians.  Information seeking behaviors for users with ASD operate on a continuum and the guidelines listed above may act as a guide for upgrading and redesigning interfaces. Digital librarians can shape the ASD user experience through implementation and awareness:

  • Digital librarians can advocate for self-selected preference prompts to alter the current interface to increase ASD-responsivity.
  • Facilitate modeling videos and webinars can offer all users the ability to practice navigation, search skills, and other digital and information literacy strategies.
  • Understand how search strategies and requests from ASD users may require extra time, especially through asynchronous mechanisms such as email and look for alternative formats for posting answers to FAQs.

For Programmers and Web Designers. Programmers and web designers can facilitate a culture of web accessibility by offering services to digital libraries—old and emerging—to increase service usage from ASD users.

  • Create packages and guidance for ASD users and include ASD users in usability.
  • Promote human-centered computing, continued requirements analysis and interactive feedback.
  • Orient the ASD accessibility to mobile Design an interface that is responsive to multiple streams/customizations. Though not explored in this paper, tablets and mobile interfaces are widely used and are almost a staple for the younger children (a.k.a. future digital library users) with ASD.

For Policymakers. In light of the state and federal libraries’ low to non-compliance of Section 508 and to the limitations to federal and state funded project, I do not think it is an essential priority to incorporate ASD-centered accessibility standards—although it would certainly garner some press. This does not mean that it should not be addressed, but that there are better avenues to reach users and influence design.

  • For example, Autism Speaks, Autism Expressed, and A11Y are respectable conduits of ASD interfaces for information organizations.
  • Design specifications can be suggested to YIT digital collections and resources (non-digital libraries) to become the “norm” for ASD information-seeking user interfaces.

A responsive design such as a self-contained digital library without pop-ups or links to external programs, and increased capacity and attention to modeling searching skills, can decrease disruption of the user’s experience. By expanding the definition of web accessibility to include the dynamic digital continuum of ASD, we can contribute to the reduction of the digital divide, increase information access and promote lifelong information-seeking skills for this population.

See the references here.

Feature image courtesy of baldiri.

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