March 16, 2018

Inclusion Starts with Awareness | Backtalk

Great strides have been made in bringing physical accessibility to buildings and public spaces, including libraries, since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in 1990. However, even after 25 years, much work still needs to be done in the area of providing persons with disabilities full access to these same spaces and resources, including digital counterparts.

Felt but not seen

In planning to create inclusive library environments, it is important to understand the challenges of identifying users with disabilities as they enter the library.

Not all users’ disabilities may be as visible as those of a person who is sitting in a wheelchair, blind and walking with a cane, or accompanied by a service animal. People with hidden or invisible disabilities may be entering your library every day—in other words, a person’s particular challenges may not be identifiable by their appearance alone.

Today, it is highly likely that individuals in need of accommodations owing to their disability would not be known to library staff. Just as numbers of individuals with physical disabilities and visual impairments in schools continue to increase, many colleges have seen a significant increase in the number of students, faculty, and staff with invisible disabilities.

Don’t count on assumptions

Not all disabilities that have similar visible signifiers are actually similar, either. For example, one can’t assume that a person entering the library with a service animal has a visual impairment. Service animals may be used by individuals with psychiatric disabilities such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression. Such individuals may require a service animal to perform the specific task of grounding their experience in the here-and-now, due to the nature of their disability. An individual with a medical condition such as type 1 diabetes may have a service animal to remind the person they need to take their insulin.

Views held about people with disabilities, even by the most well-meaning advocates, are always susceptible to bias. Only conscientious attention to detail in all aspects of library service will help reduce the number of service mistakes that result from faulty ­assumptions.

A profusion of challenges

What types of issues require an inclusive attitude from library staff? Although not exhaustive, the list may feature hearing impairment, dyslexia, learning disabilities, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), audio processing disorder, autism spectrum disorder, multiple sclerosis, cancer, cystic fibrosis, type 2 diabetes, severe food allergies, general anxiety disorder, traumatic brain injury, postconcussion syndrome, PTSD, arthritis, bipolar disorder, and many more.

Proactive planning

Issues related to disabilities probably come up at your library every day—whether you know about them or not. Users with disabilities may only come to your attention if they request assistance owing to an obstacle they encounter in accessing library resources or technology. In seeking assistance, users also may not disclose to you that they have a ­disability.

As a result, librarians can’t effectively meet the needs of users with disabilities by waiting to address them on a case- by-case basis. Library staff must become aware of the many needs of users and ensure that equitable access is not only easily available to those who need accommodations but also standard operating procedure. Best practices and strategies in the design of physical and digital accessibility for all users must be employed in order to provide full access to library materials and events.

Libraries that prioritize ongoing staff training, refinements of accessible services and policies, and inclusion as tenets of organizational culture will naturally experience improvements in the user ­experience.

A welcome for everyone

Inclusiveness also relates to the ways in which our perceptions, behaviors, and social environments embrace all users, regardless of their specific abilities or disabilities. One compelling way that libraries can do this is by creating spaces and programs that raise awareness and help everyone engage, learn, and ­participate.

Issues related to disabilities impact libraries of all types, including academic, public, school, and special. We all must prioritize helping library staff, educators, and other individuals in our communities to become advocates for those with disabilities. Libraries are places of community interaction, good will, and democratic access to information on every topic imaginable. Therefore, libraries must learn to focus on the people they are able to serve, and the many details each of those people brings to the library experience.

Michelle Kowalsky is Learning Design Librarian at Campbell Library and John Woodruff is Director of the Academic Success Center and Disability Resources, Rowan University, NJ. We welcome opinion pieces for BackTalk. Please send them to

This article was published in Library Journal's November 15, 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.