Instant Ideas and Collaboration
Thank you to Jamie for this month’s feature article. Join us for the chat on Tuesday 2 September on Accessibility and Libraries, 18.30-20.30 BST. Accessibility Agenda available to add questions for the chat.
We like to think of libraries as pioneers of social justice. Indeed, the Public Libraries Act stated that libraries were created to provide information freely to all. And this ‘all’ should be an inclusive ‘all’, including those who find themselves disabled by majority society.
Libraries do have a history of being champions for disabled people. From Liverpool’s public library service being among the first to provide books for blind people in 1857 (Atkinson 2007) to RNIB’s annual Make a Noise in Libraries fortnight [link to page on RNIB] it seems like libraries are striving to be accessible to all.
But as I started to research the topic it became obvious that barriers to accessibility in libraries still existed. It seemed like lack of awareness was a recurring theme (e.g. Lee 2007, Deines-Jones 2007, Hill 2012). Disabilities are as diverse as the individuals that have them. If you aren’t already certain what a ‘disability’ exactly is, take a look at the definition of disability under the Equality Act 2010. As you can see, the term covers a wide range of conditions, and accessibility goes beyond installing a wheelchair ramp and induction loop.
The social model of disability [link to definition from Scope] proposes that people are disabled by their environment. Therefore, inaccessible libraries themselves are the cause of disability, and it is up to the library service to break down barriers to allow for accessibility.
Disabled people have most likely experienced discrimination their whole life, and will come to libraries, or avoid them, expecting this trend to continue. Looking further into the topic of discrimination in libraries revealed that staff beliefs ranged from worrying that a disabled user would threaten health and safety, or that they’d take too much time to help, that the staff member will not know how to help (Deines-Jones 2007). The assumption that all library users have basic literacy skills (Allen 2007), also provides an obvious barrier to communication with disabled people.
Staff have to be prepared for the unexpected, and keep an open mind. Learning difficulties might mean someone’s level of knowledge is different to what you expect. Sensory difficulties might mean your light fixtures are problematic or that your high ceilings reflect noise in a way that’s unbearable. Mental health problems might make it difficult to read and retain information that seems simple enough to you. And this is just a small list of problems I’ve encountered anecdotally. No matter how accessible you make your information, there’s likely to be something you’ve overlooked in making your environment welcoming to all.
Accessibility encompasses access to information as well as access to resources. Libraries need to have a range of information that is in formats accessible for all users, be it audiobooks, Braille, large print, or easy read. This is something that can be written into policy to guarantee that accessibility is in the long-term outlook for the library.
With libraries facing budget cuts it’s hard to implement the services that they need. But there are resources that provide information that might prove useful for library services. A couple of good starting points include:
I don’t maintain that all things have to be accessible at all times, since you’re never going to be able to predict the accessibility needs of your users, but that you must be prepared to make accommodations in any method that is required, and assure users that their needs will be met and understood.
But how do you know what your library users will need? I’m a firm advocate of the idea of ‘nothing for disabled people without disabled people’. Find out why disabled non-users of the library are staying away. Invite your disabled users to a (carefully planned) focus group or two to discuss their needs in relation to your services! Find out what works and what doesn’t and what needs to be done. Then promote what you do as widely as you can to raise awareness of your open attitude towards accessibility.
Atkinson, M. T. 2007. Improving Library Services to People with Print Disabilities – The Role of Technology in Public Libraries. Loughborough University Institutional Repository. Available at: https://dspace.lboro.ac.uk/dspace-jspui/bitstream/2134/4476/1/ILSPD-Author-01.doc [Word document, accessed 28 August 2014].
Hill, R. 2012. Strengths and Opportunities: School Librarians Serving Students with Special Needs in Central New York State. School Library Research Volume 15, 2012. Available at:http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ994325.pdf [accessed 28 August 2014].
Lee, Y. S. 2007. Finding the means to improve services. In: Deines-Jones, C. ed. Improving library services to people with disabilities. Oxford: Chandos Publishing.
Jamie Redgate (@libraryjamie) is a newly-qualified librarian whose research interests include accessibility, works in a library whose users have a diverse range of needs. She is also a disabled library user herself.