Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Serving patrons with disabilities

I returned to work yesterday after a harrowing journey back from a marketing educators conference in San Diego. The trip provided material that will be the subject of 2 upcoming blog posts: 1. What makes good customer service? (Hint: My return trip is an example of how NOT to please customers!) and 2. How marketing can make students better researchers (I co-wrote an award-winning paper with a VCU Marketing professor on a topic related library marketing, which I presented at the conference. I'll discuss what the paper's about and what our next steps will be).

As usual after a long trip without Internet access, I returned to volumes of interesting marketing news and information, which I'll be working to get up shortly. In the meantime, I'm grateful to Matt Navitsky who contacted me today on behalf of the National Library Service, or NLS. I'm grateful because Matt highlighted an important segment of patrons that I've neglected so far on this blog -- patrons with disabilities -- and informed me of tools to help reach out to this diverse group with its own specialized needs.

The NLS offers library services for those who are blind or otherwise physically handicapped through its network of regional and sub-regional libraries. Specifically, it delivers braille and audio books along with playback equipment to patrons free of charge via its Talking Book Program. Most impressive to me is that the NLS offers talking book clubs where patrons can get together with other patrons physically, by phone, or online, and they're geared to all age groups from kids to centenarians! These clubs give patrons an important lifeline to others in their communities and help them to form new friendships. You can check out the NLS' press release for more details.

I admit that though I work with patrons with disabilities, I was unaware of what the NLS has to offer. This example reminded me to think about ways in which we can engage this audience with our materials and services. In my role, I've brought in speakers who work primarily with people with disabilities to educate our staff on the perspectives of patrons who have varying physical limitations and how we can make the library more inviting. There are a few of key things I've learned about disabilities services that have influenced my work. First, by making the library more accessible to people with disabilities, the library space tends to become more accessible for everyone. For example, adjustable-height tables can accommodate wheelchairs, but they can also accommodate patrons of varying heights. Second, we all have limitations of some kind or another and it's important to remember those experiences as we approach service and space design. If you've ever sprained an ankle and had to be on crutches, you have some idea of what it's like to have to navigate flights of stairs and carry armloads of books, or wait for someone assist you. It can be frustrating! Imagine having to deal with that frustration on a regular basis and consider how we can reduce some of those aggravations in our libraries. Finally, just as with any other segment of patrons, it's necessary to seek out and understand the points of view of those with disabilities in order to best serve them. Last year, a member of my undergraduate advisory group used a wheelchair and it was very enlightening to hear from her what it's like to get around the library. Her perspective was completely different from mine and it helped me see the library in a new light, which I could not have imagined on my own. If you need help getting an outside, professional view, consider contacting local agencies such as departments for the blind and vision impaired. When I did so, a representative offered to come to the library to identify problem areas we may have free of charge.

My role and experience in this area is somewhat limited, so I would appreciate knowing what you've done to reach out to patrons with disabilities with library facilities, equipment, and services, as well as any other insights you may have.

Update: Alice Hagemeyer, Founder and President of FOLDA (Friends of Libraries for Deaf Action) posted a note to some listservs about a PBS documentary airing tonight (3/21) called Through Deaf Eyes (9pm EST). The filmmakers intended to portray the variety of stories and issues in the deaf community, including the role of technology in social change. Please post your comments about the film if you watch it!


Anonymous said...


I agree that by making our libraries more accessible to people with disabilities, we make them more accessible to all our patrons. I'd also like to add that this isn't limited to physical accessibility, but also to online access. Here's one site describing Accessible Website Design, http://www.umich.edu/~webacces/home.html
and there are many more like it online!


Jill said...

Hi, Bob,

Thanks so much for the terrific link. It's very useful. You bring up a good point about online access - thanks!