by dona weisman
NTRLS Accessibility Program Coordinator
Access to the knowledge, information and services provided by libraries in the U.S. is a universal which transcends age, gender, national origin, ethnicity, faith, geographic location and all other diversity boundaries. Thus our libraries serve, ideally, as an equalizer for the masses. But are libraries truly as inclusive of the masses as they claim to be?
In the years since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, few Texas libraries have experienced a significant increase in use by patrons who have disabilities – despite the ever-increasing number of Texas residents with disabilities. With medical advancements lengthening lives, the number of young wounded veterans increasing and the aging of the Baby Boomers, it is inevitable that the population with disabilities will grow. Libraries must hurry if they are to be prepared for the service and accessibility demands which will result.
This might have been an easier task if libraries had been purposely selecting universally accessible items whenever those items were an option for whatever technology and furnishings the library was acquiring.
Universal Accessibility is a term, commonly used in the fields of disability, technology, education, healthcare and telecommunications, which refers to all people having equal access – in a productive and useful way – to a service or product from which they can benefit. Universal Accessibility results from a combination of Assistive Technology (AT) and Universal Design (UD). Not all AT is designed specifically for people with disabilities. We all use AT regularly… for communication, storage and retrieval, transportation and environmental comfort. Examples of AT include PDAs, the Internet, telephones and automatic doors. UD is the development of products and environments which are as useful as possible to everyone, without adaptation or specialized design. Central air/heat, wider doorways and large print keyboards are examples.
The good news is that it’s not too late for libraries to increase access to their programs, services and materials. The question is where and how to start.
One way to start is by hosting an Accessibility Fair within the library’s community. By working with one or more community partners to coordinate such a fair and by gathering information from Fair attendees and exhibitors, library personnel can develop an awareness of specific needs within the library’s community and set priorities for changes to services, programs and materials. Accessibility Fairs can focus on people with disabilities, speakers of other languages or even every member of the library’s community.
By including exhibits and/or informational presentations at those events, library personnel have an opportunity to do the following:
- Meet people who aren’t using the library because they either are unaware of what the library has to offer or are doubtful that the library can meet their needs
- Become more familiar with specific barriers to library access which exist within the community
- Open the communication channel among the library, people who face barriers to access, and local businesses, agencies, service groups and other organizations which can help the library improve accessibility
- Learn about those businesses, agencies, service groups and other organizations in order to better assist patrons facing access barriers
- Promote library programs, services and materials to people and groups who may not be familiar with everything that the library offers
- Increase awareness of the library’s value and, in turn, increase library support within the community
- Consider possible partnerships for increasing Universal Access at the library
- Showcase the library’s accessibility tools
- Spread the word, via Fair attendees and exhibitors, about improved library accessibility
Help promote the concept and benefits of Universal Access
In the NTRLS-area, eight public libraries partnered with local groups in late 2009 and early 2010 to provide Accessibility Fairs for their communities. Those fairs were the following:
- Arlington Public Library System/National Federation for the Blind - Arlington Low Vision Fair
- Bedford Public Library/Hurst Public Library/Easter Seals – Fort Worth/DARS Division for Blind Services Living with Low Vision Fair
- Colleyville Public Library/Colleyville Lions Club Low Vision Fair
- Fort Worth Public Library/Easter Seals - Fort Worth Accessibility Fair
- Krum Public Library/Krum Lions Club Accessibility Open House
- Watauga Public Library/Watauga Sertoma Club Everybody’s Library
Wichita Falls Public Library/Wichita Falls 50+ Zone Accessibility Fair
As might be expected, each Accessibility Fair had its own character. For example, the Krum Public Library staff decided to provide an Accessibility Open House rather than a fair, allowing them to show off the new accessibility tools within the setting in which they will be used, while the Colleyville Public Library included free eye exams and initial macular degeneration screening. Of the approximately 72 families which participated in CPL’s free eye exams, one included five children.
At least half of the libraries which offered Accessibility Fairs as part of this program have indicated definite intentions of having another fair next year. Most of the others say that they are strongly considering doing so.
Among the resources for library personnel considering an Accessibility Fair for their communities are the following:
Toolkit For Libraries Planning Accessibility Fairs; includes quotable quotes, success stories, suggested supplies, tips to make the Fair more accessible to attendees and exhibitors with disabilities, sample forms and promotional items, glossary
A list of accessibility tools purchased by the eight libraries which recently hosted accessibility fairs; includes live links to images/sources of those items and identifies the purchasing libraries so that potential buyers will know whom to contact to gather additional information about each item and its vendor/s
A google spreadsheet containing Accessibility Service Providers and Product Vendors contact information; intended for use by library personnel both for reference and for identifying potential exhibitors when planning an Accessibility Fair; constantly under development
A workshop scheduled for April 30, 2010, at the Grapevine Public Library which will include time for discussion of Library Accessibility Fairs and the related ToolKit
A variety of resources for serving people with disabilities