Working With Patrons With Disabilities: How Do I Get Started?

By Lorelei Rutledge

The ALA Library Services for People with Disabilities Policy states that "Libraries play a catalytic role in the lives of people with disabilities by facilitating their full participation in society. Libraries should use strategies based upon the principles of universal design to ensure that library policy, resources and services meet the needs of all people" (ALA, 2006, para. 3). However, even with a full commitment to this goal, it can be difficult for librarians to know how to educate themselves on this underserved group, or how to create and promote training programs to support their colleagues in providing excellent service to people with disabilities. When I started my current job, I was eager to get involved in working with the team of librarians who worked students with disabilities, but uncertain about where to start. This article describes some of the ways I learned to serve our student population with disabilities at the University of Utah Marriott Library.


Although the name "students with disabilities" makes it sound like I am talking about a cohesive group, students with disabilities have lots of variation. People with visible physical disabilities may have different needs than students with hidden physical or behavioral disabilities. So, the first thing to remember is that no kind of outreach or accommodation works for everyone. When planning training or outreach activities, make sure you think about the multiplicity of people with a disability you may be serving.


Academic librarians sometimes face serious barriers to being genuinely helpful to our patrons with disabilities. For example, we may not be familiar with the tools available in our libraries, or where we can find that software. Accessible software like JAWS might only be available on a few computers. Many libraries don't have policies that describe the services they provide for patrons with disabilities, leaving librarians to wonder what they can offer to patrons with disabilities. In many cases, they aren't as lucky as I was to have a team with a basic understanding of the services and software that their libraries offer. In these cases, it can take some serious sleuthing to find out what tools are available, but don't give up. Ask your administration about policies for patrons with disabilities, what other services are available on campus, and what accessible tools or software are available.


Another barrier we may face is our own security about how to work with students with disabilities. As a person with a disability, I felt lucky to know something about living with a disability, but I also knew I had a lot more to learn. In my case, I started reading and learning all I could about the best strategies for working with patrons with disabilities, which made me feel more comfortable. I also took time to practice setting up our accessible software so that I could get it working quickly when a patron needed to use it. As I learned more, I also realized that I needed to check my assumptions, making sure that I didn't assume that my experiences of using the library would match the experiences of the patrons with disabilities with whom I worked.

After educating myself, I began the actual work of building connections and engaging with patrons with disabilities. Here are some ideas that may work for you.


Not all librarians interested in serving patrons with disabilities will have a lot of extra time to pursue extended outreach activities. If you fall into this category, start small:

  • Find out for yourself what tools or services are offered for students with disabilities. Does your library have accessible software, like JAWS or Kurzweil? Does your library have sit-to-stand tables or spaces where students with mobility devices can easily navigate? Does your library offer a pull service for students who have difficult navigating the desk?
  • Learn about free accessibility tools available via Windows or Microsoft. Pay a visit to your campus Center for Disability Services or Disability Coordinator. Sometimes, knowing the name of someone to ask can help you smooth the way for your students.
  • If you have a Student Advisory Board for the library or something similar, consider trying to get students with disabilities involved. They can provide valuable perspectives on how the library can better meet their needs.


If your library administration is supportive, there are longer-term ways to build training programs for other library staff to work successfully with patrons with disabilities. For instance:

  • Take advantage of training opportunities presented through organizations like ALA ASCLA (The Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies) that can offer advice, support, and education about working with patrons with disabilities. I was able to take the online class called "Improving Library Services to People with Disabilities" and found it very helpful.
  • Have a training opportunity for colleagues to learn about how to set up software like Kurzweil for students. If you can, have a representative from your Center for Disability services or a similar body to discuss best practices for working with students with different types of disabilities.
  • If this isn't feasible, consider writing a guide or creating an online guide describing how to set up and use any software available so library staff can consult it as needed.


If you have time and resources to build a stronger program, I would recommend starting on some of these long-term projects:

  • Include information and training on best practices for working with patrons with disabilities for all of the librarians and staff who work in public services. Prepare documentation so that they can remember how to start JAWS or Kurzweil.
  • Create a team designed to address your library's services for patrons with disabilities. If possible, include students, faculty, and staff who can give feedback, both formally and informally, about library services, since this can help you get a better understanding of barriers to service for patrons with disabilities. For instance, one of our students told us that he and other students in wheelchairs would be unlikely to visit our second floor to use sit-to-stand desks, even if that is our major study space, when our primary entrances are on the first and third floors. As a result, we were able to put more sit-to-stand desks on the third floor.
  • Build a relationship with your Center for Disability Services and ask them to work with you to share library information on their website and vice versa. We promote library information, for instance, on the University of Utah's Center for Disability Services page.
  • Build the role of disability services liaison into job descriptions. Although all of us do lots of important work that isn't written into our job descriptions, having it written down and included in job descriptions can be a great way to ensure that outreach to students with disabilities becomes institutionalized.

There are lots of other strategies for educating yourself and your colleagues about how to work with patrons with disabilities. Keep in mind that the students that you work with will likely tell you what they need. The biggest key for me to learn how to be helpful to students with disabilities was to avoid being too intimidated to start. It may take you some time to feel confident about what kinds of accessible tools are available and how to use them, but once you do, you will have the skills you need to do outreach to students who may not get a lot of help learning how to use library resources.

Lorelei is a Research and Information Services Librarian at the University of Utah. She is interested in online reference, outreach to underserved groups, and data-based decision making in libraries.

Works Cited

"Library Services for People with Disabilities Policy." The Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies. American Library Association, December 4, 2006. Web. 23 Sept. 2014.