Embracing Universal Accessibility (UA) can increase diversity in public libraries

This post, a kind of primer on Universal Accessibility (UA), is the first of what I expect will be
many posts related to how public libraries and individuals who use those libraries
can benefit from the incorporation of UA considerations in library services and decisions.

As public librarians, we strive to provide equal access to knowledge, information and library services for all people, transcending all boundaries and categories of age, gender, national origin, ethnicity, faith, geographic location and other types of diversity. Until recently, issues such as cost, training and required space have made it difficult, at best, for public libraries to serve individuals with disabilities beyond the “reasonable accommodation” required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Now, though, Universal Design is making it possible and practical for libraries to provide access to knowledge, information and library services even more inclusively.

The term Universal Design (UD) refers to the development of products and environments that are as useful as possible to everyone, without adaptation or specialized design. Such products and environments can benefit people of all ages, abilities, social classes and backgrounds. The most frequently used example of universal design relates to development of sidewalk ramps. The plan was to enable people in wheelchairs to access sidewalks, but the design extended that access to other individuals as well, including anyone using roller-blades, skate boards, baby strollers, wheeled luggage or carts, etc.

A related term, frequently mentioned in conjunction with UD, is that of Assistive Technology (AT). Although many people think of AT as applying only to technology designed for people with disabilities, the fact is that all of us use AT regularly, to enable communication, storage and retrieval, transportation or environmental comfort. Cell phones, the Internet, automatic doors, vehicles, telephones and refrigerators are among the many examples of AT in all of our lives.

Combining AT and UD results in what is known as Universal Accessibility (UA). Commonly used in the fields of disability, education, healthcare, technology and telecommunications, UA means all people having equal access, in a productive and useful way, to a service or product from which they can benefit. It involves repurposing a product or service in different ways in order to make it accessible to as many people as possible without losing its meaning, intent or usefulness.

Public library personnel who consider UA when evaluating or planning services, facilities and purchases can provide services to a clientele that is more diverse than ever.


dona is a consultant for public libraries. She blogs at ElephantInTheLibrary.com

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