by dona weisman,
North Texas Library Partners Special Services Consultant

What is Universal Accessibility?

Universal Accessibility is a term, commonly used in the fields of disability, education, healthcare, technology 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. According to experts at Stanford (CA) University, "Universal Accessibility means conveying your ideas in such a way so that the [product] created can be re-purposed in many different ways without losing its meaning, intent or usefulness… It's about getting the most mileage out of the work you produce, saving you time, effort and resources…

"A simple analogy is sidewalk cut-curbs. Initially provided to assist users in wheel-chairs, cut curbs today also benefit people on roller-blades and skate boards, cyclists and mothers with baby strollers; user-groups never originally envisioned when cut-curbs were first mandated. And while retro-fitting older sidewalk intersections was a time consuming and expensive undertaking, today the inclusion of cut-curbs in new sidewalk construction is a matter of course, and adds little to nothing to the overall cost of sidewalk construction or repair."

Universal Accessibility results from a combination of Assistive Technology and Universal Design. All of us use Assistive Technology regularly, whether the technology enables communication, storage and retrieval, transportation or environmental comfort. Examples of assistive technology include PDAs, the Internet, automatic doors, vehicles, telephones, refrigerators and air conditioning. Not all Assistive Technology, however, is designed with the needs of people with disabilities in mind.

Universal Design is the development of products and environments which are as useful as possible to everyone, without adaptation or specialized design. Such products and environments can benefit people of all ages, abilities, social classes and backgrounds. Examples of Universal Design include appliances on wheels, ramps, adjustable car seats and wider doorways.

Having an access need at some point in one's life is a virtual certainty. In other words, accessibility is a universal. Everyone needs access. What's more, incorporating as much Assistive Technology and Universal Design into one's business or life style can ultimately result in savings of money as well as time.

Why libraries are addressing Universal Accessibility

In American society, accessibility to the knowledge, information and services provided by libraries and information centers is a universal that transcends all boundaries and categories of age, gender, national origin, ethnicity, faith, geographic location and all other types of diversity. Thus American libraries serve, ideally, as an equalizer for the masses.

Yet 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 truly significant increase in use by patrons with special needs - despite the fact that the number of people being identified as having special needs continues to grow throughout the state. In the years immediately before and after passage of the ADA, special needs-related training for library personnel was available everywhere one turned. By 2008 Accessibility-related training had taken such a backseat to other professional training in Texas that the 2008 TLA Conference didn't include a single presentation relative to serving people with special needs, despite the existence of a recently formed TLA Disability and Aged Issues Interest Group.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 20 counties served by the North Texas Library Partners (NTLP) had an estimated total population of 2,680,255 in 2006. Of those 387,304 - or about 6.9% - were recorded as persons with sensory, physical, mental, self-care, go-outside-home and / or employment disabilities. Medical developments enabling people to live longer, the aging of our country's Baby Boomers plus the ever-increasing number of wounded veterans are prompting a substantial increase in the population with such disabilities.

In his presentation at the 2007 TLA Conference, then-Texas State Demographer Steve Murdock included a slide reflecting a 20.7% increase in the state's 65-year-old-plus population in 2000 over that in the 1990 census. Considering the fact that the first of the Boomers began turning 60 in 2006, it is reasonable to expect an even more significant increase in our state's 65+ population during the next two decades. It is essential that libraries be prepared for the service and accessibility demands which will result.

What We're Doing in North Texas

Using funding from an LSTA Special Projects grant, the North Texas Regional Library System created the Expanding Accessibility program in September 2008. Under that program, NTLP is helping libraries

  • Identify members of their special needs sectors,
  • Host Accessibility Fairs to promote relationships among libraries, the special needs sector of their communities, and the groups and vendors involved with Universal Accessibility. Funding assistance is available to libraries planning such Fairs.
  • Develop partnerships among those groups,
  • Prioritize needs the library could and should be serving, and
  • Identify library-appropriate methods of addressing those needs. A Universal Access workstation is available at the NTLP office for hands-on trial by library personnel, and Assistive Technology peripherals are available for check-out by libraries to try within their communities while considering purchase.

Accessibility-related workshops at NTLP during 2009 include:

An NTLP Accessibility Advisory Council has been developed, and its members have participated both as a group and as individuals in the development of 1) the guidelines and application form for libraries requesting funding assistance for their Accessibility Fairs, 2) a ToolKit for Libraries Planning Accessibility Fairs and 3) workshops relative to the program. Additionally, the group repeatedly provides valuable counsel to NTLP staff regarding Accessibility issues.

Future plans include

  • Helping libraries move from digitally discriminating to Universally Accessible websites and online services,
  • Providing workshops on ways to remove barriers to serving the special needs sector and move toward Universal Accessibility, and
  • Negotiating with Assistive Technology providers to reduce pricing of products for public use at member libraries



Original Publication Date: 
March 1, 2009
Legacy Article Number: