More than an arm’s reach

I remember the first time my mother and I went to a library. It was the children’s library in Växjö. That was my first real contact with the world beyond my family and play group. For that reason it gave me an irrepressible feeling of freedom and independence to enter that library and be able to pick books myself, without needing much help from my mother.

Not reaching the books on the library shelves is sometimes a problem for people with a physical impairment. Photo: CC0The fact of the matter was that the children’s library in Växjö, which is in southern Sweden, was fully and totally adapted for people with physical disabilities, even though it was a public library for children and young people. I have since understood that this was pretty unusual in the mid-1970s.

Designed for standing adults 

Later on, as I became a little more grown up, my years meant I could switch to the adult library. This was also quite well adapted for wheelchair users. But things did get a bit more difficult because of a situation as simple and everyday as the book lending and returns counter being designed for standing adults.

This has often caused me, as well as other wheelchair users and short people, a certain amount of inconvenience and irritation. Some libraries, including the National Library in Stockholm, have now realised this, and introduced height adjustable counters.

When I went to Stockholm and its public library, I had to enter through a special door around the side of the building. Then as now, this felt a bit strange to me, but I fully respect the circumstance that there is no other way to make it work in the existing library building.

Hard to reach

One thing that would be quite easy to fix, though – and that would make people who are allergic to smoke very happy – would be to move the ashtrays farther away from the entrance doors. There are some floors in some libraries that I can’t get to since they are mezzanines built onto the floor I do have access to.

I do understand, however, that it is not always possible to redesign and make ad ditions, since we are sometimes dealing with historic buildings. Still, the National Library of Sweden in particular has been very accommodating to our points of view. When I began going to the National Library, for example, there were only disabled toilets on the floors below the main entrance floor. Now they have installed one on the floor that most visitors use.

Another thing that always needs to be discussed regarding wheelchair-accessible libraries is the height of the bookshelves. I know this is an enormously difficult challenge and there is currently, to my knowledge, no solution to allow a seated person – or a short one, for that matter – to see and reach the topmost shelves. Perhaps a system of moving shelves would work.

Accessibility more than practical terms

Of course it is not just we wheelchair users who can have problems with accessibility. There are many functional disabilities, and all the people who have them naturally want to be able to visit a library.

People with impaired hearing want to be able to communicate with the library staff; it would be good, therefore, if there was a portable audio induction loop that could be accessed when it was needed – as well as information that the loop was available.

Visually impaired people would be helped by a clearly marked, raised or ribbed area of floor (known as a ‘tactile path’) from the entrance to the information desk at least, so that they could make their way there using their cane.

But accessibility is not just about making your way around the library, in physical and practical terms. It is much more. For instance, you may need a screen with serious magnification when using the library’s computers, or – as I have seen in a couple of libraries – a magnifying glass with a built-in lamp if you want to read a book and your eyesight is impaired.

Listen to each other 

It is very easy in an article like this to adopt a problem-oriented approach to accessible premises and systems. It must be pointed out, though, that progress has been made and continues to be made in this area.

If we listen to each other, and if the opinions of people living with a disability are taken seriously, we can achieve an accessible society – with the libraries as pioneers, just as my beloved children’s library in Växjö once was.

M.Sc. Bus. Econ.
Stefan Reitersjö has suffered from cerebral palsy since birth, making him wheelchair-bound. He has a degree in business and economics and is a canine historian, which means he uses public libraries for work.