BackTalk: Library Services for All

By Barbara H. Will

At the Alameda County Library, a boy with low vision for the first time is able to see the computer keyboard and play a learning game because the library had installed a large-type keyboard and a magnifier-adjustable computer screen. In Plumas County Library, when a blind woman 'heard' the Internet, she exclaims, 'Now I understand!' At Long Beach Public Library, a man paralyzed from the neck down operates a newly purchased computer with his eyes. Because of the service, he is now enrolled in distance learning classes at Long Beach City College. Previously he had thought that education and work were closed to him forever owing to his accident.

These are a just few examples of what the California State Library helped to achieve when it launched in 2002 a two-year initiative to assist public libraries in delivering the best possible services for people with disabilities. Under the program, the 27 participating public libraries received a year of intensive training for three-person teams (front-line librarian, library administrator, and community partner). That stage was followed by a grant to implement the projects developed over the year. The results have been remarkable not just for people with disabilities but for the libraries as well.

Empowering people

Roughly one in every five Americans has a disability, either a condition or disease that limits their ability to perform major life activities such as communicating, hearing, eating, walking, or working. Those numbers increase with age. By age 64, 37 percent of individuals have a slight or severe disability; by age 75, the percentage rises to 64 percent. As the baby boomer generation ages, the implications are clear: a substantial number of people will need one or more accommodations to use the library building and/or library resources.

Can the successes in California happen at your library? Yes, and in fact they should. All people have a right to public library services delivered in a manner that accommodates their needs. All libraries should commit to providing staff training opportunities and to adapting their services, policies, equipment, and resources to ensure that people with disabilities will benefit from the wealth of resources available through America's libraries. The benefits will be substantial for the individuals using the services and will also enhance the library's standing in the community.

Satisfaction statewide

In California, the statewide initiative worked for everyone. Key elements of success included training (what's available, what people need, and how to address those needs) and widespread community involvement (community partners and advisory groups). Community support, including funding, then materialized.

In many communities, the work done by the librarians and their community counterparts during the program period resulted in increased financial aid, donations, and partnerships that expanded or continued services for people with disabilities. Some cities even increased the library's ongoing budget to encompass the new services. Several other libraries received outside grants for program expansion. Many libraries received special earmarked funds or the actual equipment to expand their programs. In the city of South San Francisco, for example, the city council heard from its citizens about the very positive impact a new electronic door opener made at the Central Library and allocated funds to install one at the branch library. In Torrance, television coverage of the public library's new services led to private contributions.

In a postprogram survey, satisfaction ratings jumped in those libraries that participated in the California program vs. a control group of those that did not participate. Overall, 61 percent of respondents in the participating libraries said they were aware of the library's services for people with disabilities vs. just 37 percent of respondents in the control libraries. Overall service ratings for participating libraries also improved. Postsurvey ratings for ease of using the library, accessibility of books and materials, services for people with disabilities, staff attitudes while assisting people with disabilities, and library services overall were all between good and outstanding. The presurvey ratings, in contrast, ranged between adequate and good.

This result is noteworthy because project librarians had originally seen staff resistance as one of their biggest obstacles. Staff resistance, however, did not materialize. Support and confidence did. For many, the disability awareness training was an eye-opener, and staff enthusiasm was especially sparked by seeing the effect of the services on the people they served.

Author Information
Barbara H. Will is Library Programs Consultant, California State Library

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