Facts: Why an ALA Disability Policy? Why now?


ALA's Role

ALA has strong policies regarding other underserved people. Both "Goals for Indian Library and Information Services" (60.3) and "Library and Information Services to Asian Americans" (60.6) contain "musts" directed at libraries. Ten years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we're lagging in the area of library services for people with disabilities. The time for a policy is now. We need to affirm our commitment to library service for all, including people with disabilities, then act accordingly.

What is a disability?

From Public Law 101-336 (ADA Statute): SEC. 3. DEFINITIONS
"Disability.--The term 'disability' means, with respect to an individual-- (A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual; (B) a record of such an impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment."

The Numbers: They're bigger than you might think!

In 2005, 54 million Americans (19%) had disabilities, according to the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) by the US Bureau of the Census. 1 More than half that number (35 million) have severe disabilities.
  • 8 million had hearing problems (14.8% of people with disabilities)
  • 8.1 million had vision problems (14.9%)
  • 1.8 million used wheelchairs (3.4%)
  • 1.1 million were blind (3.4%)
  • 1 million were deaf (1.9%)
  • The National Institutes of Health now estimate that 39 million Americans (15%) have learning disabilities.
  • The number and the percentage of people with disabilities are growing as the Baby Boomers age, at-risk babies are saved and diagnosis improves. 2

The Law: There's more than one!

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, 1990): requires public facilities and public services to be accessible. This includes libraries. Equity of access to information is, or should be, at least as important as ramps, entry doors and bathrooms. The ADA is civil rights legislation.
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973: no person with a disability shall "be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity of a public entity." This too applies to libraries.
  • Section 508, as revised in 1998: Requires federal agencies and certain federally funded services to make all of their communication and technology accessible.
There is a growing body of federal and state legislation and case law on disability issues.

The Polls: Americans overwhelmingly support disability rights

Various Harris Polls have found that:
  • Nine out of every ten people who have heard of the ADA support it.
  • Between 85% and 95% of all adults, whether or not they have heard of the ADA, support the key provisions of the law. 83% of respondents support the argument that "if more people with disabilities had paid employment, it would reduce welfare payments, they would be productive taxpayers and everyone would benefit."
  • Americans believe that without access to information and employment, people with disabilities will continue to be disproportionally underemployed, poor, and disenfranchised

Exploding myths: Some basic truths

  • Many disabilities are invisible, including deafness, hearing problems, heart and breathing problems, and learning disabilities. Learning disabilities are overwhelmingly reading disabilities (80%). Don't count on being able to identify people with disabilities. Aim to serve the largest number of people in the most situations.
  • Many accessibility "fixes" are inexpensive. Wood blocks can raise a table's height so wheelchairs can fit. Software and hardware costs have plummeted. Get the current facts about current solutions.
  • Tools and solutions that are essential for people with disabilities also help others. Think about how everyone uses street curb cuts, including mothers with strollers and kids on skateboards. Imagine what "electronic curb cuts" can do for everyone.
  • Equity of Access, Intellectual Freedom, 21st Century Literacy, Lifelong Learning, and Diversity goals of ALA can't be achieved without effective library service for people with disabilities.
  • The digital divide won't ever really be bridged if we don't include people with disabilities along with everyone else. The cost of ignoring the issue is higher than the cost of seeking solutions.

The library community has no overall statistics on library service for people with disabilities. There are, of course, statistics on the network of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. A few notable libraries of other types also report on such services. Otherwise, anecdotal information is what we have. It suggests that efforts are uneven and library staff want help in this area. At the same time, libraries are turning to ALA in rapidly increasing numbers for help, especially with regard to technology accessibility issues. This is an opportunity for ALA to lead significant improvement of library services in our communities.


1 Brault, Matthew W. 2008. Americans with Disabilities: 2005. U.S. Bureau of the Census. Current Population Reports. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 2008.
2 National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research. Long-Range Plan for Fiscal Years 1999-2003, Final Release. Notice, Federal Register: December 7, 1999 (Volume 64, Number 234),Page 68576. Full text: http://www.ed.gov/offices/OSERS/NIDRR/

Prepared for ALA Midwinter 2001, Washington, DC
by the ADA Assembly, Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies, 12/14/2000