Serving the Underserved

This semester, I have enrolled in an online course called “Information Services for Specific Populations.”  This week, my instructor introduced people with disabilities as a population that is often underserved in libraries.  She asked us whether we think libraries and librarians are prepared to serve persons with cognitive or learning challenges in particular, and asked that we post our responses on an online discussion board.  The assignment really got me thinking, so I figured this would be a good post to share.

Photo c/o Morguefile
Photo c/o Morguefile


Given my experiences and the materials we have covered thus far in this course, I think that libraries and librarians are prepared to serve persons with cognitive or learning challenges – in theory.

Following a review of Barbara T. Mates’ “Information Power to All Patrons” and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s web page discussing the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), I can recognize that libraries have, as a whole, prepared to serve populations of the physically disabled, as well as people with visual and auditory impairments.  Work stations are built to be compatible with physical assistive equipment (for example, wheelchairs), books are available in braille and large print and may be ordered through interlibrary loan, and read-aloud software is readily available on the Web.

That stated, Mates identifies three groups in particular that I believe fall into the scope of this post that are not, in my opinion, readily addressed in most libraries: people with learning disabilities, cognitive impairments, and autism spectrum disorders.

In the ALA’s “Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights,” the point is made that “A person’s right to use the library should not be denied or abridged because of disabilities.”  The document outlines a number of ways that libraries can prepare to serve persons with disabilities.  These action steps are broadly defined and do, in fact, address people with learning/cognitive disabilities and autism, but the implementation of these steps in libraries does not include those populations in my experience.

The ALA’s “Interpretation” document suggests the following practical steps for libraries to achieve its goal of inclusion:

  • Format accessibility of materials
  • Maintain confidentiality of personally identifiable information (PID)
  • Professional development and/or sensitivity training
  • Design library facilities, policies, services, and resources meet the needs of all users

In some regards, these are addressed well in libraries.  For example, the issue of maintaining PID confidentiality is upheld in libraries everywhere as privacy is (generally) a fundamental value within the profession.  Accessibility and design immediately lend themselves to aiding the physically disabled and people with visual and/or auditory impairments.  There are, however, tools available commercially to aid people with learning/cognitive disabilities and autism (outlined extensively in Mates), but I have yet to see any of them in the libraries in which I have worked.  Finally, there is the issue of professional development for librarians and library staff to help them identify and address the needs of people with disabilities in general.  In my opinion, we are sorely lacking in that regard.  Having worked in different libraries, all of which were open to the public, none offered adequate development to staff to address these needs.

I think that the redeeming part of my concern is that the mission of librarians is to make information available to patrons from all walks of life, which we do quite eagerly.   Libraries do not purposely overlook people with learning/cognitive disabilities and autism, so this is an easily addressed issue.


So, I suppose now is the point for me to introduce my obligatory end-of-post question to you, my readers.  How are your information centers addressing this population?  Alternatively, if they aren’t, how would you (ideally) like to fix it?


3 thoughts on “Serving the Underserved

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