British Columbia Library Association

Accessibility and Vancouver Community College Library

By Jeff Verbeem, Alicia Copp Mokkonen & Melinda Baranieski


Vancouver Community College has a well-earned reputation in British Columbia as a gateway to professional and academic success for all. Indeed, the institute’s current Education Plan describes VCC as “a college of access, recognized for enabling all types of learners to reach their full potential” (Vancouver Community College, 2011, p.4). Towards this goal, the college offers a number of programs specifically for people with disabilities and for those who work with them; in the area of visual impairment alone, for example, there are programs in academic preparation, applied technology, and office administration.

Regardless of their program, the college offers professional advising, counseling and interpretive services to support the needs of students (not to mention employees including faculty) with disabilities. Yet sometimes forgotten in the discussion of educational and service support is the key role the library has to play. At VCC, when students ‘fall through the cracks’, they frequently end up in the library. The present authors, who are or have been librarians at Vancouver Community College, have worked to answer these questions:

  1. What are the library’s legal and professional obligations in terms of accessibility?
  2. How can the library improve access to the library’s and the college’s resources and services?
  3. Who is doing this better, and what can we learn from them?

The present paper is an attempt to synthesize the answers we have found to these questions so far, and an initial step in making our library more welcoming for all.

Accessibility: The basics

When discussing accessibility, we move quickly to the challenge of defining disability, for which there is no single definition. For example, according to British Columbia’s Human Rights Code, disabilities are physical or mental conditions which limit one’s activities, whether visible or not, temporary or lifelong. The scope of disability includes mental health issues, developmental disabilities, learning disabilities, substance abuse addictions, diseases and chronic illnesses, and sensory impairments (Ministry of Attorney General, 2008). On the other hand, the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health framework is much broader, looking at disabilities as individuals’ limits in activity or participation; the reason is seen as almost beside the point, but which could be anything from health restrictions to environmental barriers (World Health Organization, 2013).

Even defined narrowly, it is important to be aware that a significant portion of our population contends with disability, many of them invisible. Results from the Canadian Survey on Disability indicate that approximately 3.8 million Canadians report a disability, representing 13.7% of the adult population (Statistics Canada, 2013). Here in B.C., this figure is slightly higher- almost 15% (Province of British Columbia, 2015). With Canada’s aging population, this number is predicted to climb dramatically in the next decade.

The Legislative Landscape

In Canada, both federally and provincially, government protection of the rights of individuals with disabilities is based upon the Human Rights Code through the ‘duty to accommodate,’ which applies to all public services including educational institutions. Canada unfortunately lacks federal legislation similar to the United States’ Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). First introduced in 1990, ADA is credited with protecting the rights of persons with disabilities, changing the discourse from a focus on accommodating disabilities to ensuring accessibility, and taking the onus off individuals to seek compliance by mandating nation-wide standards in accessibility (Burns & Gordon, 2010). Thus, in spite of human rights legislation, Canada sees a wide variation among provinces in regards to ensuring equitable access to resources and spaces.

From 2013 to 2014, the B.C. government entered into consultation with British Columbians with the goal of improving accessibility and reducing barriers for those with disabilities. Themes that emerged from this dialogue with 60 organizations and from individuals in a variety of formats were rolled into “Accessibility 2024,” which outlines a 10-year plan proposing outcomes and measurements towards the goal of becoming the most accessible province in Canada. Plans range from aiming for a “made-in B.C. approach to accessibility related legislation” to providing $3 million dollars of annual funding for assistive technologies used in the workplace (2014). Encouragingly, the recent announcement of funding to support training of students in post-secondary institutions, including VCC (Province of British Columbia, 2015), suggests that there is substance to these plans.

Still, Ontario is the recognized leader on accessibility in Canada. It was the first province to implement legislation aimed at equity and accessibility in both public and private institutions. The AODA, Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (2005), provides accessibility standards with the aim of making all institutions fully accessible to all persons regardless of ability. In educational institutions this is implemented through the concept of the provision of barrier-free education and it affects all aspects of academic life – customer services, employment, information, communications, information resources, transportation, built environment, and so on. A very prescriptive set of requirements, as set out by Ontario legislation, is aimed at making the province fully accessible to persons with disabilities by January 2025 and non-compliance comes with hefty penalties. As we will see below, this legislation has compelled institutional changes in Ontario that accessibility advocates across the country can take as a model.

A Model: George Brown College

VCC Library was fortunate that one librarian (and one the authors, Melinda Baranieski) had the opportunity to investigate strategies for enhancing accessibility by working for a time in Ontario with librarians at George Brown College. George Brown College was the first college in that province to take concrete steps toward meeting the obligation of accessibility. Since 2005 it has made several policy and staffing commitments aimed at creating an inclusive, accommodating and barrier-free college experience and work environment for all members of the college community.

The following policy and training documents have been developed to guide the transition and implementation of the AODA requirements for George Brown College:

In addition to policy and documentation measures, George Brown College created key staffing positions throughout the College to support compliance with the standards.

These measures demonstrate a clear and proactive commitment to implementation of the AODA rather than a reactive response to legislation. They have embraced accessibility in the broadest way possible and assume various accommodations are needed as a matter of routine by the College community. George Brown adheres to the concept of universal design to ensure that barriers are broken down and inclusivity is planned for. They have not only created positive momentum within their own institution, but serve as a model for implementation of accessible services to colleges across the country. Accessibility and accommodation are at work every day positively impacting the daily lives of all who work and attend the College.

Applying the Model at VCC

Small steps

Melinda’s valuable work at George Brown College and her subsequent internal report (2012) inspired the librarians to follow through on the recommendations. Our main goal when considering recommendations is to promote independent access. Our modest short-term initiatives that we have accomplished include the following:

Long term initiatives

While these are viewed as small steps in the right direction, our goal is to place the library as a leader in accessibility not only among other departments at VCC but among other academic libraries in the province. To do this, the following long-term changes need to be implemented:


When academic librarians are faced with challenges, our first instinct is to go to the literature. Unfortunately, research in accessibility may be an insufficient source of guidance for those who want to make a difference in their library. A recent review of the library research on accessibility found an overall emphasis on physical and technological barriers rather than social barriers, a focus on print disabilities, and a reliance on the survey method of collecting information (Hill, 2013). There has been little research conducted in librarianship directly involving those with disabilities and there is a need for studies which give voice to the concerns of those with disabilities through in-depth interviews (Hill, 2013).

The authors of this paper advocate this approach and intend to follow this paper with a qualitative investigation of accessibility at Vancouver Community College working with library patrons who have disabilities. We are uniquely positioned as an institution to collaborate with those working and enrolled in programs targeting individuals with disabilities. As librarians in post-secondary institutions, we will draw upon the extensive expertise that public libraries have developed in this field. We are confident that collaborations in such forums as BCLA’s Accessibility Interest Group will be a further source of innovative ideas and best practices.



Accessibility 2024: Making B.C. the most progressive province in Canada for people with disabilities by 2024. Victoria, B.C. Retrieved from: Accessibility-Summit-LargeType_Accessible.pdf

Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, Province of Ontario. (2005, S.O. 2005, c. 11). Retrieved from:

Baranieski, M. (2012). Accessibility @ George Brown College Vancouver Community College. Unpublished report.

Burns, K. & Gordon, G.L. (2010). Analyzing the impact of disability legislation in Canada and the United States. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 20(4), 205-218. doi: 10.1177/1044207309344562

Canadian Library Association. (1997). Canadian Guidelines on Library and Information Services for People with Disabilities. Retrieved from Template=/CM/Content Display.cfm&ContentID=4065

Copeland, C. A. (2011). “Library and Information Center Accessibility: The Differently-abled Patron’s Perspective.” Technical Services Quarterly, 28(2), 223-241. doi:10.1080/07317131.2011.546281

Hill, H. (2013). “Disability and accessibility in the library and information science literature: A content analysis.” Library and Information Science Research 35, 137-142. doi: 10.1016/j.lisr.2012.11.002

Ministry of Attorney General (2008). “Human Rights in British Columbia (Fact Sheet).” Victoria, B.C.. Retrieved from:

Province of British Columbia. (2015). Supporting employment in the classroom and the workplace. Retrieved from:

Rocco, T.S. & Delgado, A. (2011). Shifting lenses: A critical examination of disability in adult education. In T. S. Rocco (Ed) Challenging ableism, understanding disability, including adults with disabilities in workplaces and learning spaces. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Statistics Canada (2013). Disability in Canada: Initial findings from the Canadian survey on disability (Cat. no. 89-654 – No. 002). Ottawa: Minister of Industry. Retrieved from:

Vancouver Community College. (2011). Education Plan. Retrieved from:

World Health Organization (2013). Disability and health (Fact Sheet no. 352). Retrieved from:



Jeff Verbeem is a librarian at British Columbia Institute of Technology and Vancouver Community College. Alicia Copp Mokkonen is a librarian at Vancouver Community College. Melinda Baranieski was a librarian at Vancouver Community College from 1995-2012. Melinda also worked as a librarian at Middlesex University in the U.K. for two years.



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