Liveblog: Creating Radical, Accessible Spaces

These notes were taken live at the University of Michigan School of Information on October 23, 2015.

Jane Berliss-Vincent: Assistive Technology Manager at the University of Michigan, author of Making the Library Accessible for All.
Terry Soave: Manager of Outreach & Neighborhood Services at the Washtenaw Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled and Ann Arbor District Library.
Carolyn Grawi: Executive Director of the Center for Independent Living.
Paul Barrow: Public Services Librarian at MLibrary.
Joyce Simowski: Information Services/Outreach Librarian at Canton Public Library.
Melanie Yergeau (Moderator): Assistant Professor at University of Michigan Department of English Language and Literature, with a focus on Disability Studies.

Melanie begins by introducing the panelists. Paul works on facilities and front desk issues. His first job was working for a man with Cerebral Palsy and the lessons he learned have stayed with him. Joyce works with older adults. Jane, a UMSI alum, wears many hats, including makeing sure the University of Michigan public computers have accessible technology, and collaborating on web accessibility. Terry builds partnerships with community organizations in order to reach populations that aren't typically engaging with library services. Carolyn works with individuals having many types of disabilities at the Center for Independent Living, and has more than one disability herself.

Paul has increasingly observed that individuals with disabilities are not identifying publicly and asks how to help them. Carolyn suggests making it clear on materials that it's ok to ask for accommodations. Some accommodations can be expensive, but if you know ahead of time which ones are needed, you can avoid unnecessary expenses. Terry stresses that you have to know your community because it's impossible to accommodate everyone all of the time. You can put up a sign, but if someone can't read it, what do you do next? Terry adds that it's very challenging to understand the things that you take for granted when working with someone who has a disability. Terry tries to make it easier to do that.

Jane tells a story about going to AADL with Jack Bernard, Associate General Counsel at UMich. They went around to different desks and asked whether the library had accommodations for disabilities. Everyone was respectful and knew how to access resources. Carolyn adds that when those resources are easily available to the disabled community, they are beneficial to everyone.

Jane describes how universities are accommodating a wider range of disabilities: learning disabilities, etc., when a couple decades ago, the university worked mostly with sight disabilities.

Audience question: Is anyone providing healthcare accessibility?

Jane: receiving healthcare often involves filling out inaccessible forms with small print, which may not be available in languages other than English. Carolyn just met with a group of medical students learning about compassionate care. There's definitely involvement, but she wishes there was more. A lot of what already exists would benefit from being more standardized. Medical students have to meet with community services, but not every student can meet with every service. It's key for those students to share their that information with each other. She adds that it's important to include the person with the disability: "Nothing about us without us."

Melanie asks whether anyone is collaborating with disability organizations. She gives the example of autism. In autism awareness month, groups like libraries can create well-meaning but ill-advised displays and programs, like advertising organizations that promote misinformation, offering programs that exclude the autistic individuals. Jane talks about the importance of a back and forth dialog. You can't know what people want unless you et them involved and ask them. Carolyn: the Ann Arbor CIL works closely with many organizations. One example was working with the AADL to make the front entrance more accessible. Collaboration isn't always simple, but it's beneficial. Carolyn gives another example, of working with fourth graders in public schools. Why fourth graders? They are at an age where they are open to learning, like to share what they learn with each other, and speak up about the things that they need themselves. A student who had taken one of the workshops once ran into the workshop leader at a theme park and told them what they thought the park was doing right and wrong.

Audience question: How to you ensure that the population you're serving is aware of your services? Terry has outreach staff, works with doctors offices to put information in waiting rooms, and also provides institutional accounts to other institutions that may be working with elligible individuals. By far most people learn about services by word of mouth. Places a sticker for a large-print service inside all of the library's large print books. People like to help, and making connections is an easy way to help. Carolyn: now you can access a lot of materials digitally, so you don't need to come in physically. That can be good for individuals with disabilities but can make it difficult to provide them with information.

Joyce tries to determine and respond to the needs of the community. Carolyn: we all try to follow the ADA and provide "reasonable accomodations." Jane brings up small, light-up magnifiers. They're useful and inexpensive and can be used to provide information to people who need them.

Audience question: how do you deal with the challenge of helping disabled individuals be courteous to those with other disabilities. Jane: sometimes you have "dueling disabilities" like someone who turns a monitor off because the light is a problem, but someone else might not be able to figure out how to turn it back on. It's a challenge. Paul thinks libraries are special because they are a center for conversation. Paul gives the example of moving power outlets from the wall to the table to prevent creating tripping hazards with power cords. Just having a conversation is very powerful. Humans are reactive by nature, so let's react by having a productive conversation. Carolyn agrees that libraries are one of the best places for different types of people to get together.

Audience question: Has background in rural libraries. If you have limited resources, what are the core principles you encourage a library or other public organization to pursue. Jane: listen to your patrons. Finding out what people need may be easier in a small group. Carolyn: maximize your open space. It's useful to more people. Joyce: partnerships can help, like having meals on wheels deliver books. It can be hard to do these collaborations unless they're mutually beneficial, so the collaborations have to be found on a case-by-case basis. Terry: different organizations have different types of funding, which affects which types of collaborations are easier. Paul: libraries used to brag about collections, but they're all the same now. Instead, focus on services. Jane: libraries are not just book collections anymore. In rural areas, they may be points of access for the Internet or job searching.

Audience question: The term "universal design" gets thrown around a lot. What are small changes that make things better for everyone? What is a radical accessible space, and where have you seen one? Jane: Interested by the convergence between "bring your own device" and accessibility. Now universities are moving towards "bring your own everything." Many of the features being used on mobile devices are taken from assistive technology: autocomplete, zoom. The first typewriter-like device was developed by Pellegrino Turri to write letters to his blind friend, Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano. Carolyn: we try to describe attachments. Having inclusive seating helps: making different types of seating (front, back, etc.) accessible. It's important to be open to feedback and take it as constructive even if it seems critical. Paul wishes that physical spaces were more configurable.

Audience question: The state is putting accessibility as a low priority. What can we do to make it a higher priority? The CIL has ongoing discussions with the state legislature, but sometimes difficult to make progress because of a lack of bipartisan interest.

Closing comments. Jane: think holistically. A towel dispenser may be ADA-compliant, but it doesn't help if you place it where someone in a wheelchair can't reach it. Joyce sees advancements in technology as making a big difference. Be observant of what people need. Carolyn: be patient and tolerant if someone asks for something you don't know or isn't understanding something. Paul: be radical, do what's right, not what people did before.