Please note, the Accessibility Toolkit was last updated in 2014. Recommendations included in the Toolkit may not reflect current standards or best practices.

Accessible communications

What is “accessible communication”?

Accessible communication benefits all audiences by making information clear, direct and easy to understand. It takes into consideration the various barriers to accessing information, and provides opportunities for feedback.

Libraries communicate with users in a variety of ways, including in person, through printed materials, and via online spaces such as websites and social media. Providing clear and concise information, targeted to a particular audience, is important to ensure that all users have equal access to information. Although the vehicle for this information may change, the message is the same.

This section presents best practices for making communications accessible. Many of these techniques apply to multiple ways of communicating. For example, plain language is not only important when writing content for the web and printed materials, it is also important when speaking directly to library users.

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2005 (AODA) requires organizations to comply with standards to create an inclusive and accessible environment for all Ontarians. Part II: Information and Communications Standards of the Integrated Accessibility Standards Regulation (IASR) is particularly helpful to libraries in making their information accessible for people with disabilities.

Of particular relevance to this section is the Accessibility Standards for Customer Service (Customer Service Standard). To read more about the requirements and how this standard applies to Ontario’s university libraries, please refer to the Customer Service Standard section of this toolkit.

The following two resources also provide outstanding general information and tools about the Customer Service Standard, including compliance best practices:

What types of library communications should be made accessible?

Libraries should aim to have all communications be accessible, including:

  • Interpersonal communications
  • Public documents
  • Websites and online tools and/or services
  • Event invitations and session registration
  • Presentations
  • Videos
  • Guided tutorials
  • Online tests and surveys
  • Online Learning Management Systems
  • Billing and receipts
  • Telephone services
  • Social media

Interpersonal communications

Interpersonal communications comprise a significant amount of daily work of the public services staff. In-person queries, emails, virtual reference and phone consultations should all be approached with careful consideration of your audience and their specific needs. A library user might not always be clear about their needs, and these may not always be immediately obvious. In this case listening and asking for clarification can be important to ensuring good communication. This can be more complicated when communicating via emails or even the telephone, where it’s not as easy to read the library user’s body language.

Council of Ontario Universities (COU)’s Customer Service Online Training Tool and the Ontario Public Library Association (OPLA)’s Accessible Library Services for Persons with Disabilities webpage are both very useful resources for identifying and developing good interpersonal communications in the university and library context.

The University of Waterloo Library has also published a useful AODA Toolkit: Customer Service Standard. This covers best practices related to the Customer Service Standard,

including public documents, invitations, presentations, online events, surveys, billing, telephone and other interpersonal communications.

The following is a list of best practices that may help public services library staff in their roles.

In-person communications

  • Avoid making assumptions about the person you are interacting with.
  • Be patient and take time to understand the needs of the person you are interacting with. If you are not sure what they need, or if you need clarification, just ask.
  • Speak directly to the person you are addressing, even if they have an interpreter present.
  • Respect the personal space of the person you are interacting with. This may include assistive devices such as wheelchairs.
  • Keep a pen and paper at your desk. These tools will come in handy when communicating with a library user who might be hard of hearing or has a difficulty with directional instructions. Be flexible and open to supporting your user’s needs.
  • Be sensitive to the body language of the person you are interacting with.
  • Be aware of available campus support services and where to direct someone if they seem upset or disoriented.
  • Be aware of when the library patron has reached their information saturation point. Too much specific information can be difficult and overwhelming. Know how to distill information into a few very direct and specific points that are easy to remember.
  • Explain things in a simple and accessible language. Language can pose a barrier for library users with learning disabilities or those who have English as their second language. Please avoid using complex terminology or “library speak.”

Email and phone correspondence

  • If your user self-identifies as having a disability and is seeking assistance accessing library resources, ask them if they are registered with Accessibility Services on campus. It’s important to ensure that the student is aware of this service and has taken full advantage of the accommodation available to him/her.
  • Develop a practice of emphasizing the flexibility of library services to accommodate all users.
  • Stress the importance of user feedback. Ensuring and encouraging open feedback channels is an obligation under Section 11 of the IASR, and library users are more likely to provide feedback if opportunities for feedback are readily available and encouraged.
  • Ensure that your email signature is not an image file since these files are not accessible for screen reader users.
  • Ensure that email correspondence should be prepared so that assistive technologies (such as screen readers, magnifiers, Braille displays and speech input systems) can access the text and present it to the user. HTML is the preferred default format.
  • Consider your use of images. If they are images that convey meaning not addressed elsewhere in your email, consider providing a description.
  • Incorporate accessibility language into your email signature, welcoming library users to communicate regarding their accommodation needs. Here is an example which you could borrow/adapt/revise to suit your needs:
    • “[name of your institution] strives to foster a learning environment of inclusivity and equal access to information resources and services. If you require unique accommodation due to your disability, please notify us and we will be happy to assist you ensuring that you experience a barrier-free learning environment. If you have suggestions about how we can improve, we welcome your input.”
  • Accessibility Guides for individual software applications are becoming more readily available. If you regularly use a particular email application, see if they have provided guidelines on how to use their accessibility features.

Virtual reference

  • Incorporating accessibility service training into your online interactions is a good start. An excellent resource on this topic is the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario (ADO)’s guide to the Customer Service Standard.
  • Communicate clearly and use plain and accessible language. For additional information about making your writing accessible, please consult the Best practices for online communications section of this toolkit.
  • Highlight the different communication channels that are available to all library users.
  • Be responsive to the user’s needs. Keep in mind that not all users might feel comfortable self-identifying as having a disability. It is up to the service provider to assess what level and complexity of information should be communicated to each user.
  • Be careful about directing library users to external resources that might not be fully accessible (such as maps or public websites).
  • Wherever possible, make sure that your default font is a minimum 12 points without a serif to accommodate users who might experience eyestrain or who have low vision.
  • Be prepared to answer questions about how users with disabilities are accommodated at your institution, what levels of accommodation are available to them and which services are responsible for this work.

Print and written communications

Resources for creating accessible documents

There are a number of guides available for creating accessible documents, including those specifically addressing various software applications such as Microsoft Office and the Adobe suite.

Online communications

The following guidelines apply to a variety of online and interactive forms of communication used in academic libraries.

Best practices for online communications

Language use

  • Write in a concise and simple style to ensure users understand content quickly and completely
  • Avoid jargon
  • Explain all acronyms
  • Use short sentences

Reading level

  • Write general communication at a grade 7-8 reading level
  • Write specialized information intended for an informed audience at a grade 10+ reading level
  • Use forward looking and confident language, for instance, “We are planning an open house for new students in September” instead of “An open house for new students will be planned for September”
  • Give your audience direction on what to do once they have heard/read your message
  • Use active and descriptive headlines, email subject lines, and social media messages.


  • Use an easy to navigate layout that shows connections between ideas
  • Prioritize essential information
  • Use headings, subheadings, and bulleted lists to make content scannable (where appropriate)
  • Use links to provide more information. Make sure these links are explicit in terms of where they are directing the user (avoid using language like “find it here”)
  • Use enough white space to ensure information is not visually overwhelming and the most important information is highlighted


  • Vary use of multimedia and text to reach different types of learners
  • Always use descriptive language tags (known as alt tags) for digital images


  • Offer feedback options via multiple channels
  • Ensure appropriate resources are available to respond to feedback in a timely manner
  • Use enough white space to ensure information is not visually overwhelming and the most important information is highlighted

For more information please refer to the Accessible Digital Documents & Websites section of the Council of Ontario Universities (COU)’s Accessible Campus website.

Making websites accessible

Websites are created using a wide range of programs and techniques. Regardless of the editor or content management system you use, the accessibility guidelines are the same.

For example, writing accessible content applies whether you are updating your website on an existing system or manually coding a website; appropriate colour contrast between background and font is the same regardless of the tool or editor used.

Compliance timeline

All institutions have the following requirements and compliance dates:

  • January 1, 2014
    New internet websites and web content on those sites must conform with theWeb Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 Level A.
  • January 1, 2021
    All internet websites and web content must conform with WCAG 2.0 Level AA, other than:
    • Success criteria 1.2.4 Captions (Live)
    • Success criteria 1.2.5 Audio Descriptions (Pre-recorded)

For more information, refer to Section 14 of the IASR, and Section 14 of the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario (ADO)’s Guide to the IASR.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0

  • Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0
    WCAG 2.0 is an international standard for making web content accessible, developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
  • W3C's Quick Reference to WCAG 2.0
    This quick reference guide from the W3C offers an explanation of what these guidelines are and how to meet them.
  • Stamford Interactive's WCAG 2.0 Requirement Map (PDF)
    This chart outlines different accessibility principles which need to be kept in mind when designing a new website or improving your current website.
  • Web Accessibility in Mind (WebAIM)'s WCAG 2.0 Checklist
    This website provides a simple checklist with recommendations for implementing HTML-related principles and techniques. The WCAG guideline is explained in plain language and examples on how to implement guidelines are provided. For example, a guideline is “use appropriate alt text;” WebAIM will explain how to compose alt text for different situations because the situation determines what is appropriate.

Making LibGuides accessible

University of Waterloo Library LibGuides for Guide Authors - Usability & Content offers useful tips for writing for the web and accessible writing for LibGuides.

The Staff Guide to LibGuides - Accessibility Tips (PDF) from the Syracuse University Libraries offers a list of accessibility tips to consider while designing your LibGuide, in accordance with WCAG 2.0.

Making LibAnswers accessible

LibAnswers is increasingly used by academic universities as it combines LibChat real-timechat service with email reference and SMS messaging to assist with library queries.

Making LibAnswers accessible means adhering to the general accessibility principles applicable to web design. Refer to Best practices for online communications.

Making videos and guided tutorials accessible

The Inclusive Library: Empowering Users with Accessible Tutorials (PDF) created by Corinne Abba, Christina Kim, and Corrie Playford offers useful tips on making accessible tutorials, considering how accessibility needs to be incorporated throughout the entire design. Some sample tips include:

  • Use large font
  • Consider timing and pauses
  • Consider appropriateness of language
  • Keep tutorials short
  • Provide an audio transcript
  • Test your product before making it widely available. (Use a test group comprised of diverse members of the user community).

For more information on creating accessible audio-visual materials, refer to the section of this toolkit on the procurement of Audio-visual materials.