Creating Inclusive Library Environments

Plans for serving patrons with disabilities

March 1, 2017

New library employees have much to learn. And when it comes to the topic of disabilities awareness, even a short conversation with a newly hired staffer can ensure that it is not lost in the training shuffle.

Providing information regularly to employees will help create a responsive organizational culture and a reiterative process that helps veteran staffers onboard new staff members with accurate information. Details about serving people with disabilities should become an ongoing part of this training.

Disability awareness training

Professional organizations are an excellent place to start for staff training information. The American Library Association’s Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies describes ways to get staff members to review their perceptions and beliefs about people with disabilities and encourage libraries to reflect on current strategies. Many similar professional organizations in the fields of librarianship, education, labor, and health also provide free online and printed materials to support these efforts.

The need for common courtesy must be made explicit during training. Listening techniques, conscious word choice, and sensitivity to one’s actions and reactions are important discussion topics. These strategies can be taught via didactic activities that help participants list steps they can take to reach target inclusiveness behaviors or via scenarios in which options are discussed and then chosen. Training activities can be modified easily based on the age range of your staff or inspired by current events, news items, legal cases, or Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations. Other activities can include fill-in-the-blank exercises for groups, scenarios with questions, or true/false items about disabilities topics—which will likely require good decision-making skills in potentially gray areas.

Accessibility features of iPads, MacBooks, Microsoft Windows workstations, and other technologies can become content for training. Librarians constantly receive questions about consumer electronics because a service gap often exists between the creators and users of technology hardware. Even sophisticated computer users can benefit from periodic training and reminders, and this can provide train-the-trainer opportunities for both staff and patrons.

Article databases and books can be used as shared staff readings. Psychology articles about how to deal with difficult behaviors, or communication articles about how to talk without demeaning others unintentionally are common items to discuss. Similarly, literature can shed light on tendencies or bad habits in a way that does not point fingers at those in the wrong but rather focuses on better solutions from experts.

This is an excerpt from Creating Inclusive Library Environments: A Planning Guide for Serving Patrons with Disabilities by Michelle Kowalsky and John Woodruff (ALA Editions, 2017).

Inclusive staff training

Training others about sensitive topics such as disabilities is challenging in many ways. Library leaders and presentation speakers must establish effective training scenarios that will ensure that professional development goes smoothly for all involved.

Time should be set aside for directed reflection on personal biases and feelings about disabilities. Staffers will need to reflect on attitudinal barriers, sometimes with help from a trusted peer or outside expert. Because daily reactions are often based on long-held attitudes and perceptions, it will take some time for them to change. Yet awareness of bias in one’s own reactions is an important first step.

The Center for Accessible Living in Louisville, Kentucky, uses a list of attitudes to prompt these kinds of reflective analyses. Its materials explain commonly held yet problematic themes, such as inferiority, stereotypes, fear, and denial. Keep in mind that defensive behaviors will naturally occur when sensitive issues arise in group discussions. This is not a weakness of your training program but may instead signal that progress is being made. During group discussions, many errors in choices of language or examples will inevitably occur if everyone is being honest and open. Facilitators should help attendees set ground rules for conversations and enable individuals to speak up to help the group self-correct when conversations get off track.

Health and safety issues and procedures must be explicitly discussed in relation to patrons as well as library staffers. This includes providing information on maintaining physical and mental health, which also relates to daily behaviors. Consider connecting with other organizations in the community that provide these services and inviting them to present on areas of their expertise.

Tracking attendance is especially important for training sequences. Explain that attendance is mandatory, and provide catch-up sessions, if needed. Attrition is usually a sign of discomfort, so ensuring that all employees are trained in an effective and efficient manner that speaks to their own needs is not only important but essential to guarantee compliance.

Employee handbooks should be updated to reflect current training information, procedures, and service standards. It’s necessary to encode training messages into daily routines, procedures, and policies to reinforce the values of the organization and ensure that all employees are informed of and accountable for best practices. When researching possible topics and resources for workshop content, identify new resources and check current resources for accuracy. Content related to definitions of disability, the ADA, communication, and accommodations is always important, but it will probably be described in different ways over time to comply with new laws and current attitudes.

Involving people with disabilities in training

People with disabilities will expect library staff to have the same expectations of them as they do for other patrons. It is important to ask individuals with disabilities for feedback on specific ways to meet these universal expectations. Staffers must also understand the parameters for serving users with more complex needs, including when to step in and assist and when to firmly say no. Involving people with disabilities to codevelop and carry out training will help establish a sufficiently broad overview.

Regular library users with disabilities can provide their opinions on what should be covered in staff training. Some recurring issues may be identified, such as complaints about time spent standing in line or carrying items or not being able to find an available seat in a reading area or computer station. Simple issues can be modified immediately after a focus-group session. More complex solutions can be brought to management or developed in teams.

Round-table meetings or online group discussions can let patrons offer feedback about using the library through the lens of their disabilities. They should be encouraged to report situations that prompted them to feel embarrassed or guilty when interacting with others or disappointed or angry when people have patronized them or were insensitive to their needs. Details are often more helpful than generalizations. Time spent interacting with users in this way is always valuable and usually inspiring. Sharing information that helps meet everyone’s needs can be a cathartic and fulfilling experience that demonstrates the values of your library.

Evaluating orientation and training

The competency of staffers and the consistency of their behavior will be an important measure of the quality of services that your library provides to people with disabilities. Therefore, the most important way to evaluate your staff training is by how it translates into appropriate performance on the job. Deborah Wilcox Johnson from Johnson and Johnson Consulting explains that three areas of change can be assessed after professional development training: knowledge, attitude, and behavior.

Often, simply an increase in awareness about disabilities issues can increase a learner’s background knowledge. If knowing is the first step in doing, then the opposite is also true—if you do not know, then you either cannot or will not act upon this knowledge. Learning which things are important, or knowing what things might happen, is a key to awareness and understanding of the contexts in which we live and work.

Changes in attitudes are difficult to measure. Nevertheless, individual perceptions drive behaviors directly, so positive changes in attitude should naturally invoke positive changes in behaviors. An open, kind, and friendly attitude toward people with disabilities should provoke open, kind, and friendly behaviors.

Because reactions are often based on long-held attitudes and perceptions, it will take some time for them to change.

Behaviors on the job can be observed directly or assessed by peers, supervisors, and the patrons themselves. When behaviors are not easy to see firsthand, interviews, focus groups, and self-assessments may help. Multiple sources of data about staff behaviors will usually confirm both strong and weak examples of user–staff interactions.

Another evaluation model is rating the quality of staff learning by how well training was applied in a real-life setting. One way to implement this would be to evaluate the staff as a team, either by shift, day, or department. Create a mechanism whereby a compliment comes to a staff member and is shared in real time with all those who had a hand in creating that positive user experience. This process should also help to minimize feelings that individuals are being formally evaluated or reprimanded. Instead, it would send kudos throughout the organization for a job well done. Supervisors can privately address individual issues or problems with a staff member’s knowledge, attitude, or behavior. Well-organized operations are usually the result of meaningful teamwork, which should be recognized early and often.

Planning ongoing professional development

An annually updated list of best practices culled from the literature or peer organizations will be useful to refresh a training program. Yet the basic framework and philosophy of service should remain the same, as long as it has been built on accurate information from reputable sources and is still compatible with the library’s mission. Changing previous procedures should ensure sustainability and easy implementation. Changes may sound great until they confuse people upon implementation. Running new ideas past coworkers early in the planning process may save time later. In addition, connecting with counterparts at similar libraries may streamline the planning process.

Your library likely has many print and electronic resources that support strategic planning. Look for materials related to values, vision, and mission planning; SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis; goal setting; developing an action plan; and measuring outcomes. Any of these areas can become targeted professional development suggestions when discussing plans for upcoming training.

In addition to asking staff members for training ideas, ask your library’s frequent users for ideas. Patrons could probably comment easily on potential changes to policies or services, as well as everything from new furniture or equipment to adjustments in staff behaviors. Their influence and feedback may include viewpoints you may not have previously identified.

Whether users feel empowered by a seat at the decision-making table or via a casual consultation for input during a visit, they will notice that their opinions were solicited in advance of action. And this is exactly the type of involvement that creates library advocates and library champions.

The timing of training or process reviews need not always result in arbitrary improvements. Once many accommodations become standard practices, the speed of organizational growth may slow down, but this should not be a cause for alarm. A plateau period that is well within the best practices of the profession may be a sign that everyone’s needs are being met. If expectations remain high and staff member performance rises to meet those high expectations, change should not be undertaken simply for change’s sake. Remember: Maintaining good customer service takes daily effort, no matter how well your organization performed yesterday. Expectations communicated to library staff will be successful when they become part of daily conversation and operations as well as part of formal training.


Annie Lewis (left), librarian at Multnomah County (Oreg.) Library, listens as Nancy Herrera, librarian at Contra Costa County (Calif.) Library, makes her presentation at the 2016 ALA Leadership Institute in Itasca, Illinois. The institute—developed and led by former ALA President Maureen Sullivan (2012–2013)—offers midcareer librarians the opportunity to take part in a four-day immersive leadership development program.

Leading to the Future

Leadership Institute participants envision what libraries might become

Emerging Leaders 2017

Meet the new class