Volume II Number 4, December 1995

Enhancing Library Service for Patrons With Disabilities

Marilyn Graubart
University of Missouri-Kansas City

The University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) is one of four campuses of the University of Missouri (UM). As an urban university, it is committed to serving the needs of urban society. It provides undergraduate, professional, and graduate schools, and the university's catalog states UMKC's dedication to public service related to community needs and resources. The University Library's vision statement calls for service supporting the information resources needs of UMKC and the community. In the past two years, the library has pursued fulfillment of this mission by offering improved service to students, staff, and community users with disabilities.

In the past several years, the library has increased its use of automated reference resources. This includes a university- wide online catalog to the UM libraries' book and journal collections, numerous CD-ROM and online periodical indexes to materials located in libraries all over the world, and multi- media reference publications such as encyclopedias and dictionaries. Students attending UMKC pay a computer fee based on the number of credit hours for which each student is registered. These funds are monitored by a campus Computer Student Fee Committee. The Libraries have been awarded funds to provide access to electronic information resources for students by this committee. Two adaptive technology workstations with software and peripheral equipment to be used by students with vision disabilities also were provided to the campus main library, the Miller Nichols Library, by this committee. Currently, one workstation is for patrons with no vision and the other one is for patrons with limited vision. In addition to the computers which allow access to the library's CD-ROM network and online catalog, there is a scanner, a speech synthesizer, a braille printer, and a regular printer.

In the spring of 1993, two librarians in the Miller Nichols Library Reference Department received a "diversity grant" for $10,000 from the campus to offer additional library services to UMKC patrons with special needs. This included international students, persons with disabilities, and racial and ethnic minority students. The grant had three objectives: (1) to improve the ability of students to conduct library research independently by expanding the library instruction program to better serve the needs of persons with physical disabilities, international students, and racial and ethnic minorities; (2) to improve library services by increasing the sensitivity and understanding of the library staff toward persons with physical disabilities, international students, and racial and ethnic minorities; and (3) to improve access to information and to enhance the library's collection to better serve persons with physical disabilities. This article will concentrate on the grant activities concerning persons with physical disabilities.

Phase I: Staff Sensitivity Training

The staff sensitivity training program began in the Fall of 1994 with the presentation of workshops for all full time staff of the Miller Nichols Library. UMKC's Counseling Center staff conducted the workshops. The two reference librarians directing the diversity grant had an initial meeting with the director and assistant director of the Counseling Center in July, 1994, and discussed three factors: (1) the goals they wished to accomplish through training; (2) the primary areas in the library where staff and patrons had personal contact; and (3) the number of sessions and the number of people who would take part in the training. Additional goals, besides increasing sensitivity and awareness among library personnel towards differences and similarities of people from a variety of cultures and with varying levels of ability, were to create an image that the library is a helpful place sensitive to these differences, and to provide full time staff with the skills which would enable them to impart what was learned during training to part time staff (including student assistants) not included in the training.

The Counseling Center staff agreed with the two librarians that active participation by the attendees promoted greater interest than lectures, and were eager to conduct a program in which the participants were fully involved. It was decided to hold two half-day sessions of three hours each. A memo was sent to all full-time employees (55 people) explaining the program, listing the dates, and inviting them to register. Supervisors strongly encouraged or required their employees to attend. By mid-August, everyone had signed up to attend sessions to be held in mid and late October. Staff arranged for the sessions to be held in a conference room in the Library and to serve light refreshments. The Counseling Center sent out a preliminary questionnaire to library employees (to be returned anonymously) asking them what issues or situations regarding diversity they would like to see addressed in the training program and what they expected to gain from attendance. About half of the staff returned the questionnaire.

Each session, attended by fifteen to twenty library employees, was conducted by the Counseling Center's director, associate director, and three counseling center student interns. The emphasis of the first session was on gaining sensitivity, and the emphasis of the second was on acquiring skills. One of the activities the first day consisted of a label exercise, "treat me as if..." in which everyone had to determine what role was assigned by a label each wore on his or her back. One person might be labeled blind, another hearing impaired, another with limited English language, another an African-American male, etc. The group mingled to receive feedback from others who related to them because of their labels. They paired up to find out who they were, and discussed with the entire group their reactions to the exercise. In a "Stand-Up-Sit-Down" exercise, everyone who fit into a certain category (e.g., divorced, of a certain age, belonging to a particular religious group) had to stand up, and their colleagues often were surprised at what categories others fit. Attendees frequently divided into small groups of three or four to discuss various issues brought up in the general sessions. A video on managing diversity was shown.

During the second session, the group discussed values and communication styles of people from different societies and cultures, participated in exercises which tested their own communication skills, and brainstormed in small groups about how to make the library a welcome place for its diverse population-- patrons and staff. A panel of students representative of this population (international students, students with physical disabilities, gay and lesbian students, minority students) spoke to the group about their expectations and needs related to the library, and the audience asked them many questions. Evaluation forms were filled out at the end of the second session.

In order to locate students to participate in the panels, the two librarians worked with the Office of International Student Affairs, recruited international students who work in the library, contacted the Gay and Lesbian Student Organization on campus, and talked with the person on campus responsible for working with students with physical disabilities. Between four and seven students participated in each panel, and there was a different panel at each session. Two of the three sessions had students with physical disabilities on the panel, and one panel had both a blind student and a student who used a wheel chair.

There were numerous handouts, and at the end of the last session, participants, working in small brainstorming groups, wrote down and handed in their suggestions for continued diversity development in the library. Everyone filled out a personal commitment form which was not handed in but was kept by the individuals.

Forty seven evaluation forms were filled out. Attendees were asked to rate on a scale of seven (excellent) to one (poor) such qualities as the organization of the workshop, the effectiveness of the facilitators, the quality of the materials and activities, the value of the workshop to their own personal and professional development, and their overall evaluation of each session. They were asked to write a sentence or two about stronger and weaker features, about opportunities for enhancing the effectiveness of the training, and their general comments.

A majority of respondents rated every question seven or six. The highest ratings were received for the organization of the workshops (85% rated it seven or six). The next highest rating was for the overall evaluation of session two (72% sevens or sixes). Only three aspects of the workshops received any evaluations lower than three. Two people rated the materials and activities three or one; one person rated the value of the workshop three; and two people rated the overall quality of the first session three or two.

There were numerous written and oral comments about the student panels, and many of them centered on the students with disabilities. Respondents especially liked the interaction between the participants and the panelists. They pointed out that listening to and speaking with the panelists definitely increased their sensitivity and promoted insights for interacting with people with disabilities. For example, several people commented on a blind student remarking that people sometimes raised their voices or did not identify themselves when speaking to him. This student pointed out that he also noticed when people seemed to be scurrying away to avoid him when he approached. Several respondents also stated that they heard a similar reaction from a student who used a wheelchair who said that he noticed when people seemed to try to avoid him or ignored him. Many also remarked that they were interested to learn that this same student did not mind talking about his disability. He told them he enjoys speaking to children who are not self conscious about asking him questions. When a member of the audience asked him about handicapped access, he expressed strong negative feelings to the use of the term "handicapped." All of the panelists, including international students, gay and lesbian students, members of ethnic minorities as well as students with disabilities, stressed that the attitude of those interacting with them was often more important than their actual words.

In general, people liked the interactive aspect of the workshops. There was appreciation for the small group discussions that "surfaced from interesting and well thought out activities." One person remarked on the "hit the nail on the head" approach to every issue discussed. Another commented that the sessions were geared toward "making us look at ourselves and how we stereotype others." Participants found the speakers very clear and easy to understand. Nearly everyone liked the opportunity to learn more about colleagues, for example in the stand-up-sit-down exercise. They even appreciated the occasion to learn more about their own biases. A few people did not like the role playing and felt some of the exercises reinforced differences rather than teaching respect for them. One participant worried that what the group was exposed to would not be retained or practiced after the workshops ended.

Many people expressed thanks and appreciation for the chance to take part in the diversity training workshops. At the same time, attendees wished there had been more time for discussion of what could be done to enhance awareness of diversity, which some saw for the first time as not just concerned with race and culture. One wrote, "As a largely white, middle class group, we need to understand how our assumptions can obstruct communication." Staff appreciated the personal stories, both from the facilitators and from the panelists.

The two grant directors were very pleased with the staff's reaction to the workshops. They learned that the group seemed to be genuinely interested in diversity, that skills can be learned, and that knowledge is helpful in dispelling discomfort. Their belief that participatory/active learning promotes interest proved to be correct. Further, they believe that sensitivity towards diversity is stronger in the library now than it was before, but that it must be followed up by further activities, many of which were suggested by the participants. These include periodic workshops and the setting up of a diversity committee in the library.

Phase II: Library Instruction Program

The two reference librarians directing the grant conducted special library instruction sessions for international students, students with hearing impairments, and students with visual impairments during the spring, 1995 semester. The librarians prepared new general guides to the Miller Nichols Library and new guides on how to find books and periodicals. The guides were translated into the five languages of the majority of UMKC's international students and also were printed in large type-font and in Braille. Packets were prepared for each group, with each packet containing the appropriate language version of the guides, a library glossary, a guide to using interlibrary loan, and evaluation forms to be filled out at the end of the sessions. Additional items included in the packets for students with visual impairments were the large print or Braille guides, quick reference sheets on using the adaptive workstations, on using the key pad to invoke the speech synthesizer screen reader, and on printing in large fonts.

As stated above, the goal of the library instruction was to teach those who attended how to improve their ability to conduct library research independently. Once more, this article will concentrate on the programs for students with physical disabilities. The sessions were purposely set for a time during the semester when students would be beginning their research for term papers and class projects. All of the sessions were widely publicized. An advertisement in the university newspaper was headed, "Attention Students With Sight or Hearing Impairments," and continued, "Getting ready to write a term paper? Is it time to work on your class project?", and followed with a brief explanation of the program, times and places for the sessions, (one for hearing impaired, two for sight impaired) and where to come or a phone number to call to sign up for the sessions. Large print posters advertising the program were hung in strategic locations on campus. The librarians sent flyers to the campus office responsible for students with disabilities, and the person in charge of the office personally called several students. An article about the program was placed in UMKC Inside, a campus news publication distributed to staff and faculty, and a notice about the special library sessions was placed on the campus gopher.

The sessions for the students with sight impairments were conducted at the adaptive technology workstations. The librarians did not expect a large attendance at these sessions, but scheduled two in order to ensure that adequate attention would be given to each participant and to allow ample hands-on practice for everyone who attended. A blind student had been using the library heavily during the semester and had become very familiar with the equipment. Neither he nor a low vision student who is also a frequent library user were able to attend the sight-impairment sessions. Unfortunately, no other sight impaired students attended either, but nearly the entire reference staff of the library came to one or the other of these two sessions. The librarian instructor demonstrated each workstation separately. For the workstation intended to be used by blind students, she showed the attendees how to scan, read, and save a document, how to print a document in Braille, how to get into their campus e-mail accounts and the university's OPAC and online periodical indexes. She also demonstrated how to gain access to WordPerfect, the word processing application available on the workstation, and how to use the key pad to invoke the voice synthesizer screen reader. For the second workstation, intended primarily for students with low vision, she demonstrated how to manipulate the screen in order to read information in large print, how to use some of the reference sources such as a general encyclopedia, and how to print in large type fonts. Several participants took the opportunity to try out some of the applications taught. In their evaluations, staff stated they felt much more comfortable about helping others to use the equipment after the meeting. This was an important, but unexpected, accomplishment of these sessions.

A sign language interpreter was hired to sign the librarian's presentation at the session for hearing impaired students. One student with hearing impairments and seven members of the reference staff attended the session. The librarian- instructor discussed the information included in the "Guide to the Library" handout, including how to locate and check out materials and how to utilize interlibrary loan and other services. She showed the group how to design a research strategy, focus on a topic, choose terms and concepts, and gather information by looking at specialized reference sources, and search for books and articles using various paper and automated indexes. The hearing-impaired student was given the opportunity to try out some of the tools herself. The interpreter and librarian worked well together, the student asked several questions of the interpreter, and the staff benefitted from watching the interaction among the three. Again, evaluations were favorable.

To fulfill the third objective of the diversity grant, enhancing the library's collection to better serve persons with physical disabilities, the library purchased several large print reference books which could be used by people with limited vision such as encyclopedias, dictionaries, a thesaurus, and a health manual. Those published in a CD-ROM format were placed on the large print workstation.


For the coming academic year, the library is continuing the funding commitment to enhance the library instruction program for students with disabilities. A proposal was funded by the Student Computing Fee Committee to upgrade the equipment for use by those with visual impairments. The demonstrations showed that the current equipment is somewhat awkward to use, and it is hoped that the new equipment and software will be more user friendly. The library will continue to focus its efforts primarily on providing equipment for students with visual impairments, but also plans to provide some adaptive equipment which will make it easier for patrons with motor impairments to use the workstations. The School of Education has a lab, accessible to all students, with assistive technology equipment geared to help those with motor disabilities and is the primary source for such equipment on campus. The Reference Department visited this lab recently to meet the staff and familiarize themselves with the resources available there. This will allow library staff to make knowledgeable referrals to library patrons who might need the resources of this lab.

The Miller Nichols Library will continue to concentrate its efforts on helping patrons with disabilities take advantage of the library resources available to all library users. Instead of just the two librarians who received the grant conducting library instruction for patrons with disabilities, the entire reference staff will join in the training. The sessions will be held during the Fall, 1995 semester when many students are new to the university, and it is hoped that with early publicity, these sessions will be better attended than were the ones in the spring. At the same time, the entire reference staff looks forward with renewed confidence to working one-on-one with students with disabilities.

Graubert, M. (1995). Enhancing library service for patrons with disabilities. Information Technology and Disabilities E-Journal, 2(4).