Serving the Disabled Patron: Making the Library Useful for Everyone

Libraries are, first and foremost, created for everyone to utilize. Ensuring accessibility to resources is a librarian’s prime objective. In the vast galaxy of information, there is much to be discovered. However, not all patrons are alike. Some have physical limitations that impede their ability to access resources. In fact, “Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities. According to these laws, no otherwise qualified individual with a disability shall, solely by reason of her/her disability, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity of a public entity. (” Since libraries have been at the forefront of public service for centuries, it’s been a standard practice to ensure the library building and resources are accessible.

An article in American Libraries Magazine details the history of how libraries have participated in the inclusion of those with disabilities:

“The history of libraries serving people with disabilities is long and distinguished. Libraries were often the first social or government institutions in many communities nationwide to recognize the humanity of people with disabilities and provide services to promote their rights and equality… In 1897, when the Library of Congress opened its reading room for the blind, some public libraries, school libraries, and library consortia had already been building collections of materials in alternate formats for about 50 years. The establishment in 1906 of the American Library Association’s (ALA) first committee for services to people with disabilities cemented the national leadership of libraries in the struggle for including persons with disabilities. Soon after, the federal government and state governments began to create special libraries of materials specifically for people with disabilities, while libraries all over the nation began to build collections of materials in new formats, like records and talking books. These developments in librarianship occurred before people with disabilities had gained many basic rights in many other contexts, from the right to education or employment to even the right to go outside at certain times of day… In the 1920s and 1930s, libraries formalized and expanded service to patrons with disabilities.”

With libraries leading the quiet charge, people with disabilities were treated more fairly than before and could engage with their communities in a previously impossible way.

Much of the reason for this development of society was also due to technological advancements. It was evolving rapidly, and with it came tools to help disabled people. Along with those new tools, there were basic rules of engagement that continued to help make life easier for disabled people in general, as detailed (in italics below) by

  • General Guidelines

    • Treat people with disabilities with the same respect and consideration that you give others.

      • This is common decency, but it does often happen that a non-disabled person might treat a disabled person as inferior or “less-than” unintentionally.

    • Ask a person with a disability if they need help before helping.

      • No one wants others to assume they are unable to do something. Well, maybe someone does, but very few.

      • As librarians, we commonly notice that someone needs help before they say anything, but instead of just jumping in and doing it for them, ask first. They will likely appreciate this act of respect.

    • Talk directly to the person with a disability, not through the person’s companion

      • Unless it’s indicated that speaking to the companion is the only way to communicate with the person in need of your library expertise,

    • Refer to a person’s disability only if it is relevant to the conversation.

      • No one likes their hardships discussed openly unless necessary. Think about how you’d like to be treated and treat them the same way.

    • Refer to the person first and then the disability. “A man who is blind” is better than “a blind man” because it emphasizes the person first.

      • Words matter, especially in a front-line librarian position. It’s easy not to realize how important phrasing is, and we all make mistakes.

  • Visual Impairments

    • Be descriptive with people with visual impairments. Say, “The computer is about three feet to your left,” rather than, “The computer is over there.”

      • Being considerate is second nature to some but a challenge for others. Sensitivity training may be necessary for all staff to understand information like this.

    • When guiding people with visual impairments, offer them your arm rather than grabbing or pushing them.

      • Since we don’t always know what trauma a person has suffered, which could cause them to jump in alarm at a sudden touch, it’s best to verbalize this arm offer to them as well. Say something like, “If you take my arm, I’ll gladly guide you to the computer.”

    • Always ask permission before you interact with a person’s guide or service dog.

      • These animals are specially trained, and interacting with them without permission is unwise.

  • Learning Disabilities

    • If asked, read instructions to users with some specific learning disability.

      • Dyslexia is quite common, so make sure these patrons don’t feel uncomfortable in the library. Libraries aren’t only about books but also about information access for all.

  • Mobility Impairments

    • Try sitting in order to make level eye contact with patrons in wheelchairs when you interact.

      • This is a communication tactic that can be useful to just about everyone. Getting on their physical level helps to even the proverbial playing field.

  • Speech and Hearing Impairments

    • Listen carefully and ask people with speech impairments to repeat what they have said if you don’t understand.

      • It can be challenging to understand what someone else is saying, especially if there’s a lot of background noise. I frequently have trouble with this and must make the “I can’t hear you” gesture.

All these pointers are essential for success in working with or assisting disabled patrons. An excellent rule to encompass all of them is to be considerate. Librarians are great at that, so we can easily continue it. It isn’t about being inclusive for the sake of being politically correct; rather, it’s necessary to ensure we can all enjoy our libraries.