The US Census Bureau reported in 2019 that 40.7 million Americans—or about 12% of the population—have some sort of disability. Libraries work hard to meet the needs of patrons and staff with disabilities and make our facilities accessible to all, but there’s one space that’s too often left out of these conversations: the makerspace.
Acknowledging that gap, our research team set out to explore the accessibility of public library makerspaces. We did this through focus groups with disability advocates and stakeholders, with grant support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Every makerspace is different, we learned, but there were some common themes in our discussions with participants. We found that makerspaces are typically not designed with accessibility in mind, even though many librarians we spoke with believe accessibility should be a critical feature of these spaces. There isn’t a simple checklist or starter pack for designing makerspaces to be accessible from the beginning; instead, librarians typically go back and alter the spaces to make them more accessible, which can be challenging and time-consuming. We also found that patrons with disabilities aren’t always comfortable asking for help or aren’t aware that making such a request is an option.
A common barrier to accessibility is having furniture that is not adaptable; table heights must be adjustable or offer multiple height choices for users. And one of the biggest things we heard was that even if the makerspace itself is accessible, it’s all for naught if the building it is housed within is not. Some older library facilities are challenging to navigate, and makerspaces are often tucked away in the back of the building.
Libraries of any budget can make their spaces more accessible. It does not need to be a big-budget renovation (though, of course, there are some amazing things that can be done with a larger budget). We advocate first and foremost for speaking with members of the population you serve. Every community has different needs, and it is important to listen to input from your community members. Try to hold those conversations with patrons with disabilities themselves rather than only with caregivers or family members. Learning directly from those with disabilities will increase your ability to truly meet the needs of this population.
In our research we spoke with a diverse group of library patrons and library workers who live with disabilities about their experiences in public library makerspaces. They had several recommendations on how to improve accessibility. For patrons with mobility limitations, tables and chairs that are easily movable and convenient to raise or lower would allow greater self-sufficiency and better use of the space. For several neurodivergent patrons, the noises, lights, and crowded environment of the makerspace made it difficult for them to enjoy their experience; possible solutions include changing the lighting arrangements, allowing time for patrons with disabilities to have a more relaxed environment (even capping the number of patrons using the facility), and making accommodations for those who are sensitive to noise.
There are many ways to learn more about your library’s disabled community. Comment cards are one small way to gather information. For individuals comfortable speaking publicly, consider gathering volunteers for a working group or focus group. Any opportunity to speak with these patrons is a chance to learn more about their needs.
Disability is something that can happen to anyone, and it must be part of the conversation around equity, diversity, and inclusion.
We need to ensure all patrons can explore their hobbies and passions in a space that is not only accessible but also comfortable and welcoming. These considerations are critical if we wish to call library services truly inclusive.