Enhancing Library Accessibility

A new collection of resources offers libraries ways to improve accessibility for patrons with disabilities.

by Melina ShermanElliott Bowen
Oct 20, 2022

Libraries have long been among the most accessible institutions in society. In the 1800s, libraries were at the forefront of a movement to create accessible spaces and materials, developing book collections in braille and other alternative formats. Since then, libraries have steadily expanded and formalized the services they offer to disabled and/or neurodivergent patrons. Whether it be large print materials, talking books, reading machines, video enlargement, screen readers, screen magnifiers, or e-books, today, libraries around the country are committed to incorporating new assistive technologies into their physical spaces.

Despite this, significant challenges remain. Like many public spaces, libraries present a variety of physical barriers to access—from parking spaces and entryways to book stacks, bathrooms and reference desks. On top of these architectural obstacles, libraries need to ensure that programming accommodates the needs of people with disabilities. This includes things like event publicity, the creation of accessible online platforms, and the provision of accessible materials for crafting and writing. Despite the impressive strides that have been made over the past two centuries, there is still much that can be done to enhance library accessibility.

So what can libraries do to make their spaces and services more accessible? In "Accessibility in Libraries: A Landscape Review," we explored recent scholarly literature on this question, and developed a collection of resources designed to help libraries better meet the needs of patrons with disabilities. Our review demonstrated that libraries have struggled in two main areas: the implementation of "universal design" (UD) principles and the provision of "assistive technologies" (AT).

Universal Design (UD)

The core idea behind the concept of "universal design" (UD) is that physical spaces and institutional services should be created so as to meet the needs of all people—including those with learning disabilities, mobility impairments, and visual, speech, or hearing-related difficulties. If libraries are accessible to everyone, then there is less need to create special accommodations for specific groups.

Implementing UD is an ongoing process, as changing social conditions always present the possibility for new disabilities to arise. Thankfully, there are a number of resources libraries can make use of to help ensure that their physical spaces and services are UD-compliant. Among these are:

  • Equal Access: Universal Design of Libraries - This website, created by Dr. Sheryl Burgstahler (University of Washington), offers a checklist to help libraries become accessible to all patrons. Covering everything from physical environments to library policies and staffing needs, this website poses a series of questions for libraries to consider in connection with their physical environments, policies, staff, information resources and technology, and event-planning.
  • Resources for Planning: Accessibility / Universal Design - This website, put together by the Association of College & Research Libraries, contains dozens of links and citations to materials and resources, providing context-specific guidance on UD for libraries of all types.
  • SPEC Kit 358: Accessibility and Universal Design - This guide, which can be downloaded as a PDF, was published by the Association of Research Libraries. In addition to offering an overview of UD resources, policies, and procedures, the guide includes examples of accessibility services, policy statements, and job descriptions for library staff.
  • Universal Design: Places to Start - This article, which was written by Dr. Jay Dolmage (University of Waterloo) and published in the journal Disability Studies Quarterly, seeks to move discussions about UD away from checklists and formulas. It includes a linked Wiki page on which users can share ideas and brainstorm new, more active ways to put UD into practice.

Assistive Technologies (AT)

The term "assistive technology" (AT) is used to refer to any items, pieces of equipment, or product systems that have the ability to improve the functional capabilities of people with disabilities. Examples of AT range from things that help patrons navigate physical spaces (including walkers, wheelchairs, reachers/grabbers, and environmental control systems like canes and lever knobs) to devices that facilitate communication (including alternative keyboards and mice, text-to-speech programs, and speech-generating equipment) to things that enable learning and information reception (including adjustable workstations, CCTV magnifiers, and screen-readers).

Assistive technologies are enormously beneficial in libraries. Here are some resources that library workers can use to gain familiarity with them, and to promote their use and implementation within library settings:

  • Assistive Technology: A Selective Bibliography Introduction - Assembled by the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled, this bibliography provides information on a variety of technologies designed for people with disabilities. A specific section highlights resources for use in libraries.
  • Assistive Technology: What You Need to Know - This website, put together by the Association of Specialized, Government, and Cooperative Library Agencies (a division of the American Library Association), offers tips for assisting individuals with blindness or visual impairments, along with links to some common hardware and software aids for these patrons.
  • ATSTAR - ATSTAR ("Assistive Technology Strategy Tools Accommodations Resources") offers an online curriculum geared toward helping teachers, administrators, and parents integrate AT into the classroom in ways that improve educational outcomes for students with disabilities.
  • Common Assistive Technologies - This website is maintained by the Illinois University Library, and provides explanations and links to a wide variety of assistive technologies—including those for mobility and reading assistance, speech disorders, autism spectrum disorders, and tourette syndrome.
  • TechDis - TechDis was a leading expert on the use of AT to facilitate inclusive learning. Supporting the development of various AT tools, it created a variety of e-learning materials for use in different educational contexts. Though TechDis closed in 2014, its website is still active.

General Tools for Enhancing Accessibility

Along with the above UD and AT resources, there are also many other excellent online resources that can help libraries further their commitment to creating accessible spaces and services. Some of these include:

  • Project Enable - A product of Syracuse University, this project seeks to help libraries build capacity for equitable access. Toward that end, it offers training designed to make library workers more aware of the information needs of patrons with disabilities, and to help libraries design programs, services, and facilities that meet those needs.
  • Libraries and Autism: We're Connected - Created by Dan Weiss (Fanwood Memorial Library, New Jersey) and Meg Kolaya (Scotch Plains Public Library, New Jersey), this projects offers a variety of services (including training workshops and web resources) to help libraries better serve individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
  • Design for Accessibility: A Cultural Administrator's Handbook - This guide, which was published by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA), is designed to help cultural institutions comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and also offers suggestions on making accessibility a focal point of organizational planning, budgeting, staffing, programming, and outreach.
  • Downloadable Disability Access Symbols - Created by the Graphic Artists Guild, this website lists and describes twelve symbols (including those to indicate wheelchair accessibility, audio description, assistive listening systems, and sign language interpretation) that can be used to signal accessibility to those patrons, staff, and community members who access library spaces.
  • Accessibility: Publications, Checklists, and Resources - This website is maintained by the National Endowment for the Arts and includes links to a number of useful references, including tipsheets, workbooks, accessibility guidelines created by the Smithsonian Institution and the Kennedy Center's Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability, among others.
  • Web Accessibility Evaluation Tools List - This website lists various tools that libraries can use to help determine whether or not the web content they create conforms with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). As compliance checkers, these testing tools can be used to both spot errors and to fix accessibility violations (in images, text, colors, PDFs, and other forms of content) in apps and sites.

Let's Put it To Work!

When it comes to modifying their services and spaces in the name of enhanced accessibility, libraries face a number of challenges. But as the above discussion indicates, none of these are insurmountable. Increasing accessibility need not be cost-prohibitive or excessively time-consuming. There are in fact many online resources that library workers can use to quickly familiarize themselves with UD and AT, and many of the suggestions included in them are easy to implement. In pursuit of these goals, libraries should first and foremost seek to learn about the specific needs and interests of people with disabilities. Through conversation and consultation with these patrons, libraries can help center their voices and ensure that people with disabilities become "agents of negotiation." This is the key element in any program to enhance library accessibility.

About this Article

This article is adapted from "Accessibility in Libraries: A Landscape Review," a report authored by Knology researcher Melina Sherman in collaboration with the the American Library Association (ALA) Public Programs Office and Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services.

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

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