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One for All and All for…well…All: Baby Steps Toward Universal Design

April 7, 2016

I have already spoken to the need for increased special needs service considerations in my earlier post “Accessibility in college libraries…we can do more…it’s easy…I promise” where I offered a few best practices and easily (and freely) attainable Assistive Technology/Accessibility aids to add to your resource toolkits. However, I thought it pertinent to follow those thoughts with a somewhat wider look at access from an organizational perspective.

Late in 2015 the Association of Research Libraries published Research Library Issues vol. 286 which took a closer look at diversity in libraries. Once facet of that issue, penned by Darlene Nichols and Anna Ercoli Schnitzer from the Univ. of Michigan Libraries, focused on developing research libraries which serve patrons and staff of all abilities. This brief article shares that movements toward inclusion or Universal Design are gaining momentum not only in practice, but also in legislation, and those who take a bit of time to consider how they may reshape or add to their service offerings are far better positioned to leverage the advantages.

While few of us have the professional clout to significantly restructure larger organizational elements to better align with ADA standards, there are a host of smaller initiatives we can undertake which are well within the scope of our profession and can offer demonstrable improvements to accessing our collections and services. My original post outlined a number of simple tech options to enhance your services, but what about how those services are shared? How can you ensure that visitors to your resource collection are really able to easily find and employ them? When considering access, your scope must extend beyond wheelchair ramps and screen reading software…you need to look at your resource base holistically. From inception to completion—both electronic and physical. Below is some food and links for thought:


A few great spots to brush up on your grasp of those benchmarks are ARL’s Web Accessibility Toolkit, and WWW3’s Web Accessibility Initiative. Both of these sites will outline where you need to be so that you can take steps to ensure that your website copy, subject guides, whitepapers, or any electronic information or resources are crafted in a manner which meets accessibility guidelines. This could take the form of anything from developing high contrast overlay for your web site to providing text-based materials in alternative formats (DAISY, ePub, PDF etc).
A touch more ambitious , but nonetheless VERY cool, are those who’ve gone farther down the customization road and worked with organizations such Boopsie to develop standard and ease of access apps for the Android/iOS marketplace to allow for users on mobile platforms a custom and uniquely arranged content and collection discovery experience. This growing movement increases ease of access for all by leveraging the streamlined visual literacy approaches and increases focus on key points of action, as well as the individual customizations or enhancements that the mobile device owner would have added in, such as screen zooming tools, text to speech elements, or peripheral braille displays.


In-Person service accessibility is, of course, key to most organizational approaches to ADA compliance. But the fact that it has been addressed at some point shouldn’t allow us to rest on our laurels. When’s the last time you considered how far back on the counter your pamphlets or resource guides sit? Is your signage sufficiently prominent, bold, and offers audio or braille interface for those with special needs? Are your OPAC/public PC monitors adjustable in height and angle for those unable to position themselves? The Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies, IMLS, and many more offer simple guidelines and benchmarks to follow, and RESNA’s Catalyst Project can plug you into your own state’s (often free) Assistive Technology resources.


Finally, this post would be incomplete without a direct nod toward the most important element of making your services and resources truly universal in design…staff training. Without and informed and caring staff to implement, none of the prescribed tools or approaches will have the desired effect. The last thing you want is the conversation on how to best serve ALL patrons, including those with special needs) to begin when that first special needs patron comes in. Be proactive and look to the tools mentioned in this post as a guideline. Staff training in this area doesn’t need to be a separate, mandatory, hard sell. The resources and best practices are readily available and easy to digest. Even if this element merely takes the form of honest conversations behind staff doors, it is critical to consider and prepare to serve ALL patrons—and technology and an active online community make it ever easier to stay plugged in to the best ways to continue doing so.

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