Creating Accessibility in Libraries

What do accessible spaces/programs/services look like in libraries? Ongoing engagement with disabled patrons and staff is key.

Ongoing engagement with disabled patrons and staff is key 

What do accessible spaces/programs/services look like in libraries? Keep in mind that when we talk about accessible spaces or facilities, we aren’t talking about Americans with Disability Act (ADA) compliance. ADA compliance is a bare minimum standard and, more often than not, does not create actual accessibility. For instance, having a ramp at the back of the building by the dumpsters does technically mean that an entrance into the building is ADA compliant. However, the back of the building is often harder to actually access. In practice, this is not only an inaccessible entrance but also creates a second, and lesser, class of library users and employees: people with mobility disabilities have to enter the library through the back and everyone else can go through the front door. Accessibility is about creating access equity for all people, regardless of their ability status, age, etc.



A key question that often comes up is, if we are going to go beyond ADA compliance for our libraries, how do we accomplish that? That’s a great question. The answer, in part, is: Ask people with disabilities! The experience of disability, even for those with the same condition, varies from person to person based on an entire list of factors: what the condition is, when they were diagnosed, how severe is the condition, are there other conditions that also play a role in that person’s life, how have people reacted to the condition in the past, what experiences has the person with a disability had, etc. Accessibility will look different for everyone.

For libraries, this may seem overwhelming. If people with disabilities all have different experiences of their disabilities and different accommodation needs, wouldn’t the library just become a huge polyglot mess of assistive technologies that no one can navigate? Well, no. Most people with disabilities need very few actual accommodations and most of those are fairly common assistive technologies like screen readers, magnifiers, fidget toys, and other low-cost options.

The most important thing a library can do, especially when creating or redeveloping a facility, service, or program, is to ask patrons with disabilities about their experiences using what is already available and what they would like to have, or to have improved upon. More often than not, patrons with disabilities will tell you that having a greater number of available options will suffice in making the facility/service/program more accessible to them. This also applies to library employees with disabilities. Libraries are generally patron focused to the point where we forget about the needs of the people who work there. Just as patrons with disabilities come to the library, so, too, do employees with disabilities work in the library. Gathering input from employees with disabilities is as important as getting patron with disabilities’ feedback.

The library has two groups of people with disabilities: patrons and employees. How does the library determine what is developed or remodeled first? Start with a top-down assessment of the library for accessibility: assess policies, spaces, programs, and services.

Ask patrons and employees with disabilities where their largest frustration or pain points are. Their answers may surprise you—from replacing doorknobs with door handles so getting into study rooms and bathrooms is easier, to having a different lighting option available in a study room or work space. These are relatively small, fast, easy, and inexpensive fixes. If larger fixes or remodeling is going to be done, there are other considerations to take into account.

While there are several accessibility theories to consider when developing or remodeling a facility, space, service, or program, such as Universal Design for Learning, accessible design, and Universal Design for facilities and spaces, one of the best things a library can do is to conduct both user studies and interviews during the development phase of a project and then assess the outcomes of the project focusing on users with disabilities. Let’s take a look at two case studies to illustrate the importance of both kinds of input.



Years before the pandemic, the Main Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I work, decided that at least one of the meeting rooms would be remodeled as an accessible study room to be used by patrons. To that end, the library sent out a survey to students who were registered with Disability Resources & Educational Services (DRES) to determine what students with disabilities would like to see in an accessible study room. The library also held focused conversations with DRES case workers about what they saw a need for in an accessible study room based on their interactions with students with disabilities, and where the students’ frustration points were. Once the room was remodeled, we added a computer workstation with not only the standard disability software that all public use computers get, but also more specialized software like Dragon Naturally Speaking, to accommodate a broader range of patrons with disabilities. We also made sure to add a variety of seating to accommodate different body types, such as chairs with and without arms, with and without wheels. The room is bookable, quiet, and private. Quiet and privacy were both highly rated as desirable by students who took the survey.

The study room was ready for launch in early 2020 and we had developed marketing materials and an assessment for users, complete with Institutional Review Board approval. Then the pandemic shutdown happened the week we were going to launch. The accessible study room sat unused for a year while we all worked and learned from home and the library’s doors were closed to everyone but maintenance workers. However, once we started to open the library back up after vaccinations were rolled out, we proceeded with marketing and assessment as patrons with disabilities returned to campus. Reception to the accessible study room has been positive and usage has steadily climbed as learning life at the university returns to something similar to pre-pandemic standards. Getting feedback during the planning phase and then assessing the room after it launched definitely influenced decisions that were made about furniture and software, as well as future changes to the room.

Getting input and feedback from patrons with disabilities is a critical step in creating/remodeling/rejuvenating facilities/services/programs, largely because what the library thinks patrons with disabilities need and what patrons with disabilities actually want and need are often two different things. For example, we were surprised that quiet and privacy were more important than stocking the room with assistive technologies. In retrospect, it should not have been a surprising finding, because people with disabilities have usually figured out what assistive technologies, or ways of moving through the world, work best for them. For patrons with visible disabilities, always being visible as having a disability is exhausting, so the desire for quiet and privacy makes sense.



Getting input from patrons with disabilities on digital initiatives is also important, as for many people with disabilities, being able to use digital technologies has revolutionized the ability to communicate and move through the world.

An excellent example of a digital initiative that incorporated people with disabilities’ feedback is the Virginia Deaf Culture Digital Library. Launched in late 2021, and then formally launched with a marketing campaign in early 2022, it has proved to be a successful digital library for the Deaf community in Virginia.

The project leader, Babak Zarin, access librarian at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library, made getting feedback a priority. Research and development for the creation of the digital library began in 2020, just as the pandemic was starting. Zarin says, “COVID greatly impacted our ability to interview individuals—we couldn’t really meet any of them!... This meant that while we could do research, and prioritized resources made from/by Deaf individuals, it did hamper some research/steps that [in more ideal scenarios] Deaf individuals would have been more involved with.” While the pandemic hampered efforts to do true usability testing, that did not deter Zarin from moving forward with the project and being thoughtful about how the digital library was developed.



There is a lot of mistrust and caution within the disability community about working with people who don’t have disabilities who want to create something for people with disabilities. Many people without disabilities have very good intentions, but without the input of people with disabilities, the products of those good intentions are often unusable at best and harmful at worst. While COVID prevented user studies for both the accessible study room and the digital library, both projects used feedback from people with disabilities to improve outcomes.

In the case of the digital library, Zarin states, “While we assured people that we drew from Deaf resources, we also had to explain that we really, REALLY did not intend to speak for the Deaf community, but rather viewed [the digital library] as more of a “warehouse” model where we provided information the community would make available. Feedback then came in for basically every aspect of the site, from icons they’d prefer to see removed to sections they wanted expanded and resources they wanted shared—and then we implemented them!”

Not only did Zarin get feedback from the community, he acted on it, which built more trust within that community toward the library and the project. More important is that for the digital library to continue to thrive, there needs to be continued input from the population it is intended for, Virginia’s Deaf community. Zarin discusses this: “Additionally, the feedback is what directly inspired the idea of forming a steering committee; we did not want people from outside the community trying to define community culture. We also viewed it as a way of helping with buy-in, since the community could say they played an active role in it.” While COVID might have prevented robust user studies during the development phase, the continued incorporation of feedback from users with disabilities and the incorporation of a steering committee based in the Deaf community in Virginia are excellent and thoughtful examples of working with a community of people with disabilities to create something truly useful and needed.

In both of these examples, their success was directly related to getting input from patrons with disabilities both in the beginning of the planning process and after the accessible study room and digital library were launched. Because of input from people with disabilities, both of these projects are actively used but and are also actively growing, with continued refinements to enhance the user experience and fit their needs better. For a library to be truly accessible, it needs to both thoughtfully consider the facilities/spaces/services/programs that are created, and to incorporate the voice of the end user, in this case patrons with disabilities, into the development, creation, and assessment processes. It is only when patrons with disabilities are included in these processes that libraries develop not only a better understanding of the needs of that patron population, but also better relationships with its members, and therefore become more accessible. 

JJ Pionke is the applied health sciences librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is an accessibility advocate and a 2020 LJ Mover & Shaker.

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