Equity of access – not just for information

Attending the IFLA World Library and Information Congress, in Wroclaw Poland, in August 2017, provided us with a wealth of international best-practice and learning. One of the more interesting sessions we attended discussed the need to provide equitable access to libraries and information for those impaired by a disability.  This presentation, by speakers from Sweden, Norway and USA, discussed issues faced by people who specifically attend conferences.  However, the same issues could be faced by people attending presentations, events or activities in your library.

How often do we consider the accessibility of our library programs when planning an event?  Do we think about where all those prams will be parked for Baby Rhyme Time or Storytime?  Do we consider the impact that these bulky objects may have on other library users such as people with impaired vision or those in wheelchairs?  Perhaps the scariest thing is: do we consider contingency planning in the event of an emergency?  How are we going to get all those people safely out of the library, in a timely and orderly fashion?  Is there a visual alarm to alert people with hearing loss, who additionally may even have impaired vision?

It’s a sobering thought that 40-50% of the world’s population may have some sort of disability at some time in their lives, according to Chris Corrigan (Library of Congress, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, USA) and Mike Marlin (California Braille and Talking Book Library, USA).  This may not apply so much to education or corporate libraries but it could certainly apply to public libraries, depending on their location.

Australia is a fortunate country in that most libraries now provide some type of mobility access but in older libraries this may still be an issue.  There are some older school libraries that still have steps that need to be covered by a portable ramp to allow for the access of wheelchairs.  Toilet facilities may be locked and the intended user may need to source the key from the information desk – an unfortunate diversion if the user is in a hurry!  Worse still, the facilities may be of an older design requiring the user to navigate narrow spaces and spring-loaded doors.  Hand dryers and soap or paper towel dispensers may be too high for the user to reach.  When was the last time you conducted an audit of your facilities from the perspective of the disabled user?  It’s an enlightening exercise to try using your facilities from the comfort of a wheelchair, or with a pram and a screaming baby, by yourself.

So, what do we consider to be a disability?  The Merriam-Westers dictionary defines disabled as “(of a person) having a physical or mental condition that limits their movements, senses, or activities.” (English Oxford Living Dictionaries, 2017).  Most people think of impairments to sight, hearing or mobility as covering the general scope of disabilities.  However, did you ever consider allergies or mental health as a disability?  Let’s have a look at why these could be considered a disability.

When we say ‘allergies’ the first thing most people think of is hay fever, or breaking out in hives from something that has been ingested or touched.  Aerosols and scents can be just as big a problem for some people.  There are people who can’t be in the vicinity of things like mangos, peanuts, onions, garlic or even perfumes without having a severe, even anaphylactic, reaction.  Allergies are a physical disability that can affect a person’s senses.  Some people develop severe migraines after smelling perfumes.  We need to consider this if catering for inhouse events or activities, as more and more people are developing these types of allergies.

Mental health can also be seen to be disabling.  Mental conditions can affect a person’s ability to take part in activities but these conditions may not always be immediately evident.  More and more people are suffering from anxiety and this may cause them to feel claustrophobic.  Some people may become anxious if they are in the middle of a crowd and can’t see an immediate way out.  They may need to sit or stand close to a doorway so that they can feel they have an escape route if their anxiety starts to build.  Simply being in close proximity to another human being may be a deep cause for concern, as they may feel that their private space is being invaded.  Try not to squash too many people into the presentation area or activity space and have more than one exit, if possible, to allow for the free flow of air and movement of people.  No one likes to be stumbling over another person to get to a seat, so spacing the rows out a little will make everyone feel much more comfortable.

These types of disabilities may seem trivial to some but to the person who suffers with these conditions, they can be extremely distressing, even life-threatening.  Libraries should be places where people can feel welcome; places of comfort; even places of refuge from the outside world.  Let’s be welcoming to all, because most disabilities can go undetected and we want the community to feel that the library is their “3rd Space”.

Share this with your friends and colleagues.