Academic Movers Q&A: Robin Davis on Sensory Maps and Accessibility Improvements

Robin Davis, associate head of user experience at North Carolina State University Libraries, was named a 2022 Library Journal Mover & Shaker for her innovative work to make libraries accessible for all, including the development of sensory maps. LJ recently reached out to learn more about what she’s been doing since then.

Robin Davis head shotRobin Davis, associate head of user experience at North Carolina State University (NCSU) Libraries, was named a 2022 Library Journal Mover & Shaker for her innovative work to make libraries accessible for all, including the development of sensory maps. LJ recently reached out to learn more about what she’s been doing since then.

LJ : What level of need is there for accessibility at NCSU Libraries?

Robin Davis: The Disability Resource Office is a really fantastic campus partner. It compiles statistics every semester for students who are registered with the office. The statistics help us see the demographics of our student population—seeing the number of students in the register with a learning disability or autism spectrum disorder, knowing that those are students we need to ensure that we’re providing accessible spaces, services, and materials for.

But we know that’s probably telling only half the story. It takes a lot of effort to register and get all that documentation together to qualify for some of the accommodations they offer. Some students never end up registering, or some don’t even know that they have a learning disability, so they’re not registered.

What needs do the sensory maps fill?

The maps were a project that started two years ago with a former library fellow named Katharine Frazier, who was inspired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s sensory maps. These are maps that mark out places where there’s low or natural lighting instead of harsh overhead or fluorescent lights; places that are not crowded, for people who are sensitive to crowds; and places that tend to be quiet or have adjustable white noise. In our study rooms, we have a little dial to increase white noise, which can really help students who are trying to study. We designed these maps to be useful for students with autism, but we also know those features are useful for every student. Who isn’t looking for a quiet or uncrowded study space, or doesn’t want to find naturally lit spaces so they can read next to a window or be in a warmly lit space that feels cozy?

What has the response been from students?

We’ve had a great reaction, great feedback. We’ve had the maps for about a year, and they’re printed as well as available as a PDF on our website. They fly off the shelves. We constantly have to refill the printed map holders. We can tell from the web traffic that they’re getting a lot of notice there too. They’ve been linked to from things like the NCSU subreddit, where students are posting in the middle of finals because they’re desperate for a quiet study space or have audio sensitivities. So students are connecting each other to these maps too.

How did you go about developing the sensory maps?

I’m really proud of this project, especially because it took a lot of work to get there. We had to do several building walkthroughs, mark the spaces. We hired a graphic design student to design the maps, and they’re beautiful. We worked with the External Relations Department to make sure the handout was readable, especially during the printing process, making sure the paper and ink were well chosen to be legible.

How were they funded?

[Accessibility projects are] largely built into the library’s budget. But we also have the Good Ideas grants program which funds, from $1,000 to $25,000, a great idea from a library staff member. Accessibility is such a high priority in the libraries that we don’t have to ask for this extra grant money, but the director of libraries has told us to please ask for the resources you need, which is wonderful.

What other initiatives have you been working on, or are looking to for the future?

We’re reconsidering our outreach to students with disabilities whose feedback we want. Previously, when we’ve reached out to a member of a disability activist group on campus, we offered them what we usually offer our user research participants, which is a $20 meal voucher from GrubHub. It’s a great incentive for doing user research. But in talking with the head of my department, Josh Boyer, we realized these are students who expertise we want. We were asking them to have a potentially vulnerable conversation with us about their needs, especially in library spaces. We need to compensate them for their expertise. So we looked at what our usual consulting fees might be when we’re talking to someone for their expertise, and we settled on a $75 Visa card.

What do you learn when interviewing students with disabilities?

Each time we talk with these students, they’re opening our eyes to their experiences. For example, we talked with a wheelchair user who’s also a library employee, so she’s very familiar with the library. We asked her what would be useful to have on the website as far as the maps go. Would it be useful for us to have things like maps of the bathrooms, the ADA-accessible graduate study areas, and have the maps in those areas? She told us yes, that would be helpful. But she might not think to look at the map before she goes somewhere—then she might get to the place and find the doorways aren’t wide enough for her motorized wheelchair. There should also be maps in those spaces for people who need to redirect. It’s one thing for us to stand on the outside and try to think: Someone with a motorized wheelchair, what are their needs? We need an elevator, that’s obvious.

What would you recommend to others interested in improving accessibility in their libraries?

One of my top missions is to speak to students and staff about accessibility—understanding accessibility needs or assistive technology needs. It can be hard to do that because you’re asking people to have vulnerable conversations with you. Partnering with a campus organization like a disability resource office or a disability activist group for students is a good way to connect to people who have the kind of expertise and feedback that you’ll want. Rather than assuming what the user needs are, actually talking to the people with the expertise is not just a great first step, but something you should do over and over again, because needs might change over time, or your spaces might change over time.

Access to other accessibility experts is important too. I don’t consider myself an expert. My knowledge of accessibility is mostly grounded in web and digital accessibility. I look to my colleagues to understand more about things like closed captioning, [accessible] event programming, teaching, and e-resources. What’s gotten me here is just enthusiasm and prioritizing the well-being of our students.

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