In “3 Strategies for a First-Time School Librarian“, I cautioned new School Librarians to not make changes before they understood their school culture and how students and classes used the library environment. However, there is one area that new and veteran School Librarians need to examine and change immediately if it does not meet guidelines, and that is the accessibility of the School Library for those with disabilities.
A BRIEF LOOK AT ACCESSIBILITY LEGISLATION
In 1968, the federal government passed the Architectural Barriers Act, mandating that facilities built with federal funds, such as courthouses, libraries, and schools, be accessible to persons with disabilities. From that first measure up through 1996—with updates through 2008—a total of 10 different acts have been passed to address persons with disabilities:
- Architectural Barriers Act of 1968
- Rehabilitation Act of 1973
- Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975
- Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act of 1980
- Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984
- Air Carrier Access Act of 1986
- Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988
- Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
- National Voter Registration Act of 1993
- Telecommunications Act of 1996
Two of these Acts are of particular importance to our School Libraries:
- Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1975/1990/1997/2004 mandating a free and appropriate education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE).
- Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990/2008, “a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public.”
LRE AND ADA ACCESSIBILITY GUIDELINES
Public schools must provide a least restrictive learning environment for disabled students. The physical structures of our school libraries have been built or updated to align with ADA Guidelines, but the interior arrangement of our bookcases, tables & chairs, computers, and other furniture or decorative items may inhibit free access for those with wheelchairs or other assistive devices.
When I arrived at my middle school library, I noticed major accessibility problems that needed to be eliminated for our 2 students in wheelchairs. You may also need to eliminate barriers in these areas of your school library:
- entry/exit doorways
- approach to tables, computers, and other seating
- aisles between bookcases
- moving from one aisle into another
- reaching books on shelves
- the circulation counter.
The 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design provided by the Department of Justice are very detailed about how much room is required for various wheelchair accessible areas, including illustrations that I’ve inserted below. (click to enlarge)
404.2.4 Maneuvering Clearances. Minimum maneuvering clearances at doors and gates shall comply with 404.2.4. Maneuvering clearances shall extend the full width of the doorway and the required latch side or hinge side clearance.
Clearance around doors must be 48-60 inches, depending on which way our library doors open. That means we wouldn’t want to put displays, tables, or even signage too close to our entrance/exit doorways.
403.5.1 Clear Width. Except as provided in 403.5.2 and 403.5.3, the clear width of walking surfaces shall be 36 inches minimum.
In my school library, the areas between tables were too narrow when students were seated, but because there was ample wheelchair access to and around the end tables on either side of the library, I did not consider this a barrier to be eliminated. Be sure, when your library tables are fully seated, that a wheelchair can still maneuver to other areas of the library.
Approach to Tables, Computers, and Other Seating
802.1.3 Depth. Where a wheelchair space can be entered from the front or rear, the wheelchair space shall be 48 inches deep minimum. … public schools must provide learning environments with counters and workspaces accommodating students seated in wheelchairs.
In my school library the table area was quite wide with computer stations at one side. There was easily 48 inches from the computer counter to the chairs at the adjoining table, so the computer stations were accessible to wheelchairs, as were the 2 tables on that side of the library. In our magazine area I arranged chairs so there was open access to the magazines and for a wheelchair to pull up to the conversation area.
A recent blog post on We Are Teachers, How to Create Inclusive Classroom Spaces for Students With Physical Disabilities, had this recommendation:
2. Make the Whole Classroom Accessible
Mobility does not simply involve access between the student’s desk and the door to the classroom. … Therefore, ensure students with disabilities are able to move around the whole classroom so that they can participate in all workstation and group-work activities. In particular, aim to ensure all pathways, desks, and computer workstations are accessible for students with physical disabilities.
Aisles Between Bookcases
225.2.2 Self-Service Shelving. Self-service shelves shall be located on an accessible route complying with 402. Self-service shelves include, but are not limited to, library, store, or post office shelves.
My initial situation was 8 lines of paired bookcases angled out from a curved back wall. The aisles were unevenly spread across the space, with some quite wide, but others so narrow that 2 students couldn’t enter at the same time, let alone a wheelchair.
Wheelchairs need to have “full maneuverability radius” between bookcases. The minimum width for a wheelchair is 36 inches, but since other students would be in the aisles, I wanted to allow 48 inches, which is the minimum width for a wheelchair and an ambulatory person. Since my aisles would abut a wall, I also needed to allow a minimum turning radius of 60 inches.
Moving from One Aisle into Another
403.5.2 Clear Width at Turn. Where the accessible route makes a 180 degree turn around an element which is less than 48 inches wide, clear width shall be 42 inches minimum approaching the turn, 48 inches minimum at the turn and 42 inches minimum leaving the turn.
In my school library the shelving area jutted far into the table area, so there was a very narrow walkway between the ends of bookcases and the tables, allowing little room to maneuver from aisle to aisle, especially for our wheelchair students.
The space between the ends of bookcases and any other solid object needs to allow for a wheelchair to emerge from the aisle, turn & traverse to the next aisle, then turn again and enter. So, I needed to allow at least 4 feet from the end of bookcases to other furniture so a wheelchair could move from one aisle to another.
Reaching Books on Shelves
308.2 Forward Reach.
308.2.1 Unobstructed. Where a forward reach is unobstructed, the high forward reach shall be 48 inches maximum and the low forward reach shall be 15 inches minimum above the finish floor or ground.
Our school library bookcases were, what I consider, the perfect height for middle school students: 5 feet with room for 4 shelves. I did have to slightly lower the shelves so the top shelf could be easily reached by our wheelchair students. I realized how advantageous this decision was when I began to need a scooter chair to move around, and shelving books on that top shelf was not difficult at all!
Because we had an ample number of cases, I decided to not use the bottom shelves for books, which would be too low for students in wheelchairs. Instead I lined the bottom shelves in fiction and part of Dewey with our extra slanted shelves, providing a face-out display area for new or featured books. This brought the top of a book up to the 15″ minimum.
The above mentioned article on We Are Teachers also included the recommendation to “3. Make All Materials Accessible.” Especially for an elementary school library, that might mean using bins for books instead of lining them up on shelves.
Access to the Circulation Counter
904 Check-Out Aisles and Sales and Service Counters
…variant-height circulation desks,
904.4.1 Parallel Approach. A portion of the counter surface that is 36 inches long minimum and 36 inches high maximum above the finish floor shall be provided. A clear floor or ground space complying with 305 shall be positioned for a parallel approach adjacent to the 36 inch minimum length of counter.
Our circulation counter had the required lower counter, but because the computer monitor and keyboard were there, it prevented a person in a wheelchair being easily visible and able to reach the actual checkout scanner.
To solve this problem, we ordered a wireless scanner and a wireless keypad so our wheelchair-bound students could check out library materials more easily. Other students also appreciated this. Often I find that differentiation for one group of students benefits everyone. It has helped me to always look for the simplest and most accommodating means to teach in and manage the school library.
BECOMING AWARE OF ACCESSIBLE DESIGN
To solve the accessibility problems in my school library, I carefully measured the shelving area and drew a new plan to ensure federally-mandated wheelchair accessibility. I decided to eliminate the gaps along the back wall & between bookcase pairs, since they served no positive purpose and there would be ample maneuverability within the new aisle spaces.
I put strips of masking tape on the carpet to mark new bookcase locations, and spent the next month moving them. The results were better than expected:
- The aisles were more evenly spaced and had plenty of room, with 4 feet at the front of each aisle and 5-6 feet across the back wall.
- Students in wheelchairs could easily enter the aisles, maneuver within the aisles, reach books, and move from one aisle to another, even with other students browsing the area.
- The continuous line of bookcases prevented the previous problem of “hide & seek” and we gained 6 feet of space in the table area, allowing for wider walkways along the bookcase ends and across the back & front table walkways.
For those wanting to examine your own school library, the ADA Library Accessibility Checklist from Project Enable can help you assess for barriers within your facility.
A School Library Research article about accessibility, “School Librarians as Ambassadors of Inclusive Information Access for Students with Disabilities” advocates “a space that is physically accessible, information that is intellectually accessible, specialized instruction that meets the needs of each individual student.”
Intellectual access should also be inclusive and multimodal or multi-encoded, providing a multisensory experience. Signage, normally encoded in one mode (print), should be encoded in two modes (e.g., large print, and color picture or symbol) or three modes (e.g., large print, and color picture or symbol, and Braille or other texture) to be accessible to a larger group of students. In terms of navigating the school library by means of signs and posters, multimodal or multi-encoded intellectual access is more inclusive to the special needs of students with disabilities (Farmer 2009).
When I arrived at my 2-year-old school library, there was no signage at all. I created a variety of signage that includes images, so students can more easily locate the books they need, especially in the Dewey area. This is another example of adjustments for accessibility that benefits all students.
You can find my Fiction & Dewey signage products in No Sweat Library, my TeachersPayTeachers store.
For better intellectual access I also changed the location of 2 main sections of the library collection :
- Reference was on the opposite side of the library from the computers, so using those books during projects would be inconvenient, and with Fiction next to the computers, students browsing for a book would distract students working at computers. Switching these 2 areas made a huge difference in accessing both, even though I substantially reduced the reference section in later years.
- Many students were confused by the similarity of alpha spine labels on Fiction and Biography books—which were on opposite sides of an aisle, so I moved Biography to shelves between the 2 numbered areas, Reference and Dewey. This helped not only with locating the materials, but no longer did my shelving volunteers get the FIC and BIO books mixed together!
One excellent resource that helps school librarians increase intellectual access for students with disabilities is the American Library Association’s Schneider Family Book Award, which honors “an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.” There is a list of winners back to its inception in 2004, as well as a 9-page bibliography of books published between 2000 and 2008 about ‘the disability experience’. (From this site I learned 1 out of 7 Americans have a disability!)
|2019 Winners & Honors for Teen, Middle School, and Young Children|
A “WHEELCHAIR TOUR” OF THE SCHOOL LIBRARY
I hope we all take a fresh look at our school library facility with an eye to its accessibility for students with disabilities, especially wheelchair access. I was fortunate to already have 2 students in wheelchairs to open my eyes, and in later years we gained 4 other students who used hearing, visual, or ambulatory assistance.
May I suggest you head to the nurse’s office, borrow their wheelchair, and put on a pair of sunglasses to simulate impaired vision. Begin by opening your library door and entering. Tour the entire space, browse for and choose books, and try a book checkout; make sure everything is completely accessible. I think you will be surprised at what you’ve taken for granted!