Improving Library Accessibility

As librarians, we believe that libraries should be open and welcoming to all. But what about making sure our buildings are fully accessible for those with physical disabilities? Oconomowoc Public Library (OPL) is leading the way in making significant changes to their building, with the help of Bridges Library System’s Special Needs Coordinator Angela Meyers. Below, OPL director Betsy Bleck answers our questions about their new library accessibility improvements. 
What types of changes have been made recently at OPL to address library accessibility?
One change was that we added an ADA-accessible family restroom. I had assumed our restrooms were fully accessible, but I was wrong! The standards for library accessibility were different when the library opened 30 years ago. It was actually not possible for a person in a wheelchair to use our restrooms. We were able to take out half a storage room and turn it into a fully accessible restroom. Thanks to Bridges Library System, we have added two hearing loops in the library, one in the large meeting room and one at the reference desk, for those with hearing impairments. We’ve also added a sensory bin to storytime, so children who need it have some sensory stimulation to help them stay focused and calm.
Library Accessibility: View of large single-stall bathroom with family restroom sign on wall near door

The new ADA-accessible family bathroom

With our building turning 30 years old this year, several areas needed updating recently. In several cases, when we made those updates, we had the perfect opportunity to address accessibility while we were at it. For example, when the parking lot was redesigned, we added a walk from the front sidewalk to the building’s ramp, so that folks in wheelchairs would no longer have to go off the sidewalk and into the drive aisle to reach the ramp. We are now in the process of updating our six study rooms. As part of that update, we will be adding Braille signs at each room’s entrance.
Angela Meyers visited us a few years ago to do a scan of our library accessibility, and found several areas where our shelving was too close together, or where other furniture simply needed to be shifted to improve our accessibility. Our next project is to create a library accessibility map, which will show patrons where to find a magnifying glass, hearing loop, quiet area, accessible restroom, accessible computer catalog, scooter, etc.
We are seeking ways to meet the needs of patrons with unseen disabilities, as well. The library board’s facilities committee has been instrumental in helping the library pursue that goal. This fall, we will work on our website using guidelines provided by Angela Meyers, such as adding ‘alt tags’ to photos, and updating our assistive services page. We try to take advantage of the great services the system offers in the area of accessibility by attending continuing education classes and consulting with Angela.
Why did you feel these changes were necessary?
The library is for everyone. It is the library’s responsibility to look for barriers to access and do what we can to eliminate those barriers.
Have you received any feedback from the public?
We have noticed the new restroom getting a lot of use, especially by parents with more than one child, or parents accompanying their child of the opposite sex to the bathroom. Before, families had to squeeze into the handicap stall, which isn’t easy! The new bathroom just seems to be making life easier for a variety of folks.
What would you say to libraries who want to address library accessibility but don’t know where to start?
If your library is in the Bridges Library System, call Angela! Just kidding…partly. A great place to start is having Angela visit with her tape measure. She might find some quick and inexpensive things you can do to make your library more accessible. She can also help identify needs that might require more budget, as she did with our restroom. Other systems may also have staff members who can do this too.
Also, try not to let potential costs keep you from looking into ways to improve your library’s accessibility. There are plenty of things you can do that are inexpensive. While we have done some ‘big ticket’ projects like the restroom, a lot of our improvements haven’t cost anything beyond staff time, such as shifting shelves, creating the accessibility map, and updating the website.
Finally, if you’re making an update to your building anyway, why not make sure the project improves accessibility while you’re at it? If you have a project coming up, I highly recommend talking to Angela while you’re in the planning stages. (I promise this message is not sponsored by Angela Meyers — I just really think she does a wonderful job, and everybody in Bridges Library System should take advantage of her energy and expertise!)
Library accessibility: flat concrete walkway next to street

The new sidewalk ramp

Library accessibility: curved sidewalk path with library in background

The new sidewalk ramp leading up to the library

Any last thoughts?
At Oconomowoc, we had a lucky confluence of circumstances that facilitated these changes: budget; commitment from staff, City, and library board; and support of Bridges staff. But I think you can help create your own opportunities by applying for grants, communicating with local groups that might want to sponsor a project, or just starting with the easiest and/or least expensive project first. Once we got started, looking for ways to enhance accessibility was kind of addictive!
If your library is interested in addressing library accessibility concerns, start by contacting your library system’s Special Needs Coordinator, looking through regulations and design standards on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) website, or contact the Great Lakes ADA Center with questions.