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Physical Disabilities: More Than Just Wheels and Prosthetics

by JJ Pionke


Abstract: People with visible physical disabilities receive more scrutiny from the world around them.  While libraries are welcoming to all people, they need to think carefully about how people with disabilities, particularly physical ones, interact with their environment when (re)developing spaces, services, and programs for accessibility.




Generally, when people visualize disability, they think of veterans with missing limbs or young people in wheelchairs because of birth defects or disease. Often, the next thing people feel is pity. How hard it must be to navigate spaces on crutches, or with a cane, or on wheels. In truth, a person who was born with a disability or develops one at a young age adapts and learns how to move through the world in a way that is efficient and useful to them.  The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires libraries to adhere to minimum accessibility standards. However, those minimum requirements often don’t translate into actual accessibility or equitable access. Equitable access means that people with disabilities can navigate spaces and use services with no additional assistance. Libraries pride themselves in assisting people with their information needs. However, they can be a frustrating place for people with physical disabilities. 


Physical Spaces


Although libraries are required to comply with ADA, many of their physical spaces do not promote equitable access. For instance, most libraries have rectangular tables with chairs surrounding them for people to read, study, work on projects, etc.  Usually, the short end of the table doesn’t have a chair there and most often, a person in a wheelchair is expected to wheel up to the short end.  But what if the person in the wheelchair wanted to work in the middle of the long side of the table?  To wheel up to the middle of the table, they would have to push several chairs out of their way or have someone else move them. A more equitable solution would be to have at least one table that had no chairs on one long side so that a person in a wheelchair can wheel up to the space without having to do anything additional to use the space. 


Spend some time walking through your spaces and thinking about how those spaces can or cannot be navigated by people who move differently. By looking at these spaces with a fresh perspective, you can rearrange things to make them more inclusive. One way to gain this perspective is to do an observational study or behavior map.  How do people navigate your spaces?  Where do they go and how do they get there?   Andy Priestner, a library user experience expert from the United Kingdom, has excellent examples of behavior mapping (2014) and other user experience testing projects that you can use in your library (2016).




Libraries put together amazing programs and services for patrons all of the time.  However, things like display choices can make accessibility difficult for patrons with physical disabilities.  Consider your library’s exhibits and displays. If the placards that discuss the topic or the materials are in 12 point font and lying flat on the surface of the display area, then those materials are not accessible by anyone who needs a larger font because of impaired sight. It also isn’t useable for someone who can’t lean forward to read the placards.  Carefully consider your audience when designing services, exhibits, and programs.  Be aware of who is being included and excluded and why.  If the exclusion of a patron group is an oversight then the program/service is not accessible and is potentially discriminatory. 


If the exclusion is done because the service or program is targeted toward a specific group of people, that’s a different story.  One example of this type of program is film viewings that are deliberately assembled to be inclusive of people with Autism by having the lights on, the sound low, and encouraging movement for self-regulation as needed rather than insisting on the audience remaining quiet and sitting still while watching the film in the dark.




When people are lost or struggling, they generally appreciate assistance.  However, an able-bodied person’s view of struggle and that of a person with a physical disability can be very different.  In large part, this is because a person with a physical disability moves their body much differently than a person who doesn’t.  A key component in rehabilitation programs for people with disabilities is empowering the person to use their bodies to the fullest extent possible in ways that work for them.  While a person with a physical disability may appear to be struggling, do not assume that this is the case. 


In addition, keep in mind that someone with a physical disability might have been on the receiving end of such offers of assistance all day.  Having a visible disability, and many physical disabilities are often visible, can be tiring because of the extra attention from other people that the disability garners.  Give the person with a physical disability some space.  They know that there are library employees willing to help them.




Most library employees that I have talked to have told me that they are happy to assist patrons with getting books off top shelves, rearranging furniture for better access, and so forth.  However, it’s important to codify what the library and its employees are willing and not willing to do.   It’s also important to make that policy readily available to the public. By assuming that all patrons know to ask for assistance, libraries are creating an access barrier.  The phenomena of not wanting to “bother” a librarian at the reference desk is well documented.  Stating explicitly the kinds of assistance that library staff are and are not willing to provide is not only good policy, it is good outreach.




Educating staff about accessibility and disability issues and concerns is a great first step in making libraries more welcoming to people with physical disabilities.  Online educational tools like Project ENABLE help libraries transform their spaces and service to be more equitable for all. Librarians have good intentions when it comes to accessibility for their patrons with physical disabilities. Those intentions need to be put into action through better education, thoughtful policies, and well-thought-out programs, services, and spaces so that all people, regardless of ability, can use what the library has to offer. 




Priestner, Andy. (2014). Ethnography for Impact. (see slide 14).


Priestner, Andy and Borg, Matt Eds. (2016). UXLib: User Experience in Libraries: Applying Ethnography and Human-Centered Design. New York: Routledge.


Project ENABLE. (2018).


Copyright 2018 by JJ Pionke.


About the author: JJ Pionke is the Applied Health Sciences Librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  His research focuses on disability in the library.