Informed Librarian Online -- Guest Forum --

Accessibility Doesn’t Have to Be Expensive
by JJ Pionke

Abstract: Accessibility is something that doesn’t have to be expensive or overwhelming. Having an open mind in terms of how we see our spaces and services as well as doing usability studies, that include observation, can help us evaluate our spaces and services and make them more accessible for all people to use.

One of the first things that comes to mind when people talk about accessibility for people with disabilities is ramps, handrails, and elevators, which are generally all things that cost a lot of money and are focused on people with mobility disabilities. I’m here to tell you that while you should have all those things, this isn’t what accessibility is about. Ramps, handrails, and elevators are about compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act if you live in the United States. When most people talk about accessibility, what they are really referring to is compliance, and compliance is a minimum standard as demarcated by law. Accessibility however is where a building or service is easy to use by anyone, regardless of ability, from cradle to grave. Compliance with the law does not automatically equal accessibility.

Accessibility is as much about being aware of issues within your building and services as it is about being able to see your building and services from a completely different perspective. Being accessible means that someone with a physical disability can easily enter your building, use your computers, print their work, and go on their merry way. It also means that the young man with an anxiety disorder has a place in your building where he feels safe, can calm himself, and ask for assistance with confidence. Accessibility also means reaching the patron at the reference desk who is frustratedly trying to communicate a need but is having trouble saying exactly what that need is because he is less verbal than most people. While we see physical disabilities, there are many more people who have an invisible disability like autism, diabetes, anxiety, or dementia. Far too often, it is people with hidden disabilities that we don’t reach out to or think about in terms of making library spaces and services more accessible to them.

Looking With New Eyes
One thing I am going to challenge you to do is to walk your building or observe your services from the perspective of someone different than yourself. Start off easily and think about how someone might navigate your spaces using a cane or if a patron only has the use of one hand. From there, move up to thinking about your spaces and services from the perspective of a combat veteran or someone who has a scent sensitivity or a person who is easily overwhelmed by people. This relatively simple exercise can be really eye opening in terms of what your spaces and services look like. While somewhat out of date at this point (2005), the IFLA report, “Access to libraries for persons with disabilities – CHECKLIST” can absolutely provide ideas about what to look for in terms of disability. A more thorough and more recent publication (2014) is Jane Vincent’s Making the Library Accessible for All and is a fabulous primer about accessibility with practical instructions and things to think about. Another excellent introductory guide is Creating Inclusive Library Environments: A Planning Guide for Service Patrons with Disabilities by Michelle Kowalsky and John Woodruff (2017).

More importantly, ask your patrons for their input. One of the most powerful things that I have done is just ask patrons with disabilities, where are we getting it right and where are we getting it wrong? I work at a large research institution so I tell students that I’m not recording their names but rather am only interested in their experience as a person with a disability trying to use our spaces and services. If you come to people with disabilities with an open mind and a genuine curiosity for knowing the answers, you will be surprised more likely than not. By just asking those two questions, we discovered that students in motorized wheelchairs got stuck nearly every semester in an elevator in one of our buildings and that this had been going on for years. Removing the construction padding in the elevator made the elevator look ugly but students never got stuck again, and now the students in motorized wheel chairs are more likely to come to that library. Asking bluntly, with curiosity, and without judgment enabled those students to tell us what was really going on and empowered us to make a change that benefited them. The asking and the changes that were made also built a connection between the library and this particular user group and that connection has continued to grow and flourish.

Accessibility is a Priority
A major issue in libraries is that as we design spaces and services, accessibility is an afterthought. We design something and then we hopefully ask ourselves, how can this thing I’ve made be adapted to a person with a disability? That question of adaptability should be asked at the very beginning stages of design. For example, you want to try out a new way to teach an information literacy session. As you start brainstorming activities and how you want to teach, you should also be asking questions of yourself like, how would a person with vision impairment be able to complete this task? As well as, how can I make this more visual so that people with dyslexia can understand the concepts I am trying to get across? Using concepts of Universal Design, which believes that spaces should be accessible by everyone throughout the life cycle, will help with making spaces and buildings more accessible. Using Universal Design for Learning will assist you with adapting services and instruction. This movement of inclusivity and accessibility at the beginning of the design process especially has a home within web development and is well represented by Horton and Quesenbery’s A Web for Everyone: Designing Accessible User Experiences (2014).

Accessibility is as much about making changes to buildings and services as it is about an awareness and attitudinal change in how we think about disability and accessibility. While many accessibility and compliance modifications can be very expensive, more often than not they require minor changes like moving furniture around or awareness of different communication styles. Doing some usability studies that include observation of our spaces and services can also help us not only learn what our patrons are actually doing but also help us reach them more fully.

Horton, S. & Quesenbery, W. (2014). A web for everyone: Accessible user experiences. Brooklyn: Rosenfeld Media.
Irvall, B. & Skat Nielsen, G. (2005). “Access to libraries for persons with disabilities – Checklist.” International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions.
Kowalsky, M. & Woodruff, J. (2017). Creating inclusive library environments: A planning guide for serving patrons with disabilities. Chicago: ALA Editions.
Vincent, J. (2014). Making the library accessible for all: A practical guide for librarians. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Copyright 2017 by JJ Pionke.

About the author:
JJ Pionke is the Applied Health Sciences Librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research focuses on disability in the library.