As of the 2010 census, more than 20% of the American workforce had some kind of disability. Half of the population older than 65 had some kind of disability. Libraries have long been committed to serving the entire community. Library services for disabled people require providing access to the facilities, collections, and programs.
These services may not be obvious, or even evident, to most patrons. I came across an article about how the pandemic has hindered library services for disabled people. It describes how four different public libraries are struggling to function under pandemic restrictions.
When I visited those libraries’ web sites, I did not find a single page that described their library accessibility services. With or without an easy-to-find web page, libraries do make special efforts to meet the needs of disabled people.
What are disabilities?
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities defines disability as:
long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder [a person’s] full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.
Some are obvious. For example, a person in a wheelchair can’t walk. A blind person can’t see. A deaf person can’t hear.
Some disabilities are less obvious, however. A person who is hard of hearing may have discreet hearing aids. A person who needs corrective lenses to see well may wear contacts. And no one can distinguish people with learning disabilities from those without simply by looking at them.
Disabled people have legal guarantees through the Americans with Disabilities Act. The act does not attempt to list disabilities. It defines them as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. It guarantees that people with disabilities have the same accessibility to the mainstream of American life as anyone else.
Libraries need to go beyond ADA requirements in order to make their services accessible to disabled people.
Access to library facilities
A library can either occupy its own building or a set of rooms in a building. In either case, library accessibility requires attention. According to a checklist from the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, it needs sufficient parking with parking spaces for the disabled close to the entrance.
When parking lots are cleared after a heavy snow, snowplow operators have to pile snow where it doesn’t make obstacles for people in wheelchairs. Or for that matter, those who use canes, crutches, or walkers.
Moreover, an accessible library has well-lighted paths to the library entrance without obstructions. The entrance have a smooth, non-slip surface. If a ramp is necessary, it needs railings on both sides.
People in wheelchairs need to be able to turn around. The door into the building and all doors and security points inside have to be wide enough for a wheelchair to get through. Elevator buttons ought to be low enough to reach from a wheelchair.
Wheelchair-accessible restrooms require not only room enough for the wheelchair to get next to the toilet but also washbasins and mirrors at appropriate height.
The blind and visually impaired need different accommodations. They need signage in elevators and elsewhere in Braille. People with partial but poor eyesight need for stairs and steps marked with contrasting colors as well as warnings to identify glass doors.
The accessible library must accommodate for the entire range of disabilities. It is more complicated than it might sound. What helps a person disabled in motor skills of some kind may increase burdens on a blind person.
Access to library materials
In recent decades, libraries and library vendors have offered a variety of library accessibility tools.
Library accessibility tools for the blind and dyslexic
The National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled (NLS) uses human voice actors to record a wide variety of reading material to produce talking books. NLS makes more than a hundred thousand book and magazine titles available for free to individuals certified as reading-disabled. It uses software called Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD). Patrons can download to a computer, phone, or tablet.
Libraries can also provide equipment that can scan text, enlarge it, or read it back for the visually impaired. Also, some special software enables them to edit and save Word files and print in Braille or enlarged text.
Dyslexic patrons can take advantage of many of the same resources devised for the blind. In addition, some software exists that can ease their burden.
- Text-to speech software includes Voice Dream Reader and Claro ScanPen Reader.
- SnapType makes up for dyslexic’ notoriously illegible handwriting.
- Voice recognition software, such as Dragon Naturally Speaking, turns spoken words into writing.
- There is even a special font, OpenDyslexic, devised to help dyslexic people read and write better.
Library services for deaf people
Deaf people can communicate by lip reading or American Sign Language. But only a small number of the deaf are proficient at either. Library staff will therefore need experience and training to communicate effectively with their deaf patrons.
Libraries can offer assistive listening devices such as TTY phones, text phones, or newer videophones. For patrons with some residual hearing, the library needs to provide phones with amplification.
Where available, libraries should provide audiovisual materials in sign language.
Special facilities for the disabled
Libraries can offer rooms designed especially to help disabled patrons.
The Assistive Technology Learning Center at Cleveland State University, for example, offers six specially adapted computers. Patrons with limited movement can use mini keyboards. Others might need enlarged keyboards. Still others need hands-free keyboards they can operate with head-mounted devices. It also has videophones for the deaf.
In recent decades, using library services requires access to computers and well-designed websites. Patrons interact with the catalog and databases through the library’s website. The website also contains information about the library’s facilities and programming.
Libraries must insure that the entire range of disabled people find the web pages accessible.
The Web Accessibility Initiative intends “to create Web content that is perceivable, operable and understandable by the broadest possible range of users and compatible with their wide range of assistive technologies, now and in the future.”
Poorly designed web pages hinder usability even for people without disabilities. Here is a sample of the requirements for conformity with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines:
- If someone can’t use auditory or visual content, textual content must convey essentially the same purpose of function.
- The color blind must be able to understand all text and graphics without color.
- Web page accessibility for deaf patrons includes insuring that audio tracks are captioned and that transcripts of audio files can be downloaded.
- When new technologies come along, pages must be accessible even without them.
- Users must be able to pause or stop moving, blinking, scrolling, or auto-updating objects.
- Accessible tables require markup that accessible browsers or other agents can transform.
- Users must be able to activate page elements with a variety of input devices. The user interface must work with any of them.
- Every non-text element (such as an image) must have a text equivalent, which must be kept up to date.
- The site must have clear and consistent means of navigating to help users find what they’re looking for.
Access to libraries for persons with disabilities: checklist / Birgitta Irvall and Gyda Skat Nielsen, International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions IFLA Professional Report no. 89. 2005
Accessibility / ALA Support
Assistive technology for students with dyslexia—22 apps and resources / Angie Barnett, Reading Horizons. December 18, 2017
Guidelines for library services for deaf people / John Michael Day – 2nd edition, International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions IFLA Professional Report no. 62. 2000
Library accessibility: what trustees need to know / American Library Association
Talking books and reading disabilities / National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled, Library of Congress