Irondequoit Public Library wanted to be more inclusive. So it went all-in, from equipment to training
The first thing Stephanie Woodward notices just inside the entrance to Irondequoit Public Library is several rolling walkers.
"Seeing accessibility devices at the door immediately tells me that they have thought of access in some way and that changes my perception coming in," said Woodward, a disability rights advocate and attorney. She has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair.
When library leadership decided to make the space more accessible, they asked Woodward to tour the building and make recommendations. It was during the COVID-19 pandemic when library hours were reduced and they were looking for ways to improve people's experiences once they fully reopened.
Over the last couple of years, library director Greg Benoit and his staff consulted with Rochester Accessible Adventures, a nonprofit that empowers organizations to be fully inclusive for people with and without disabilities.
"I've just been thrilled with Irondequoit's commitment," said Anita O'Brien, RAA's executive director. "It's been extraordinary."
Probably the biggest commitment is the library's decision to enroll all staff members in an online inclusion ambassador training course.
Benoit said this is where the real work lies.
“Every single person, from the director to the teenagers who put the books back on the shelves to the person who might only work eight hours a month, we wanted everyone to be aware that there’s quite a bit that we can do to create a unique experience for people who have a need for that," he said.
The training program, developed by the Inclusive Recreation Resource Center in Cortland, is narrated by a young woman with a disability. The program showed library staff members how to understand their role in helping visitors feel welcomed and accommodated.
Woodward said she's been to libraries that don't have this welcoming spirit. She can tell by the staff's reaction when she asks if a change can be made to accommodate someone with a mobility challenge. Some, she said, smile and welcome her ideas.
"That's very different from someone who deadpans you and says, 'OK ...' And that's often what I'm met with," she explained.
In addition to the staff training, the library has made physical changes to make it easier for people with physical disabilities to navigate the space. The building is only 8 years old and complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act, but that only sets a minimum standard that doesn't always translate into a comfortable user experience.
Benoit said he knew they could do better.
In the library's computer lab, they added adjustable height tables that can be raised or lowered with the press of a button.
They also realized traditional stand-up catalog computers weren't accessible to children or people who use wheelchairs, so they purchased gooseneck iPad stands, which can be easily adjusted to various heights.
"So now I can go to the book library and find books that I want rather than having that awkward moment of having to go tell someone at the desk, 'I know you have all these things I should be able to use, but I can't,'" Woodward said.
In the teen library, upholstered chairs and tables were rearranged, and the aisles were made wider to create space for wheelchair users.
Training plays a role here, too. Matt Krueger, the library's assistant director and inclusion coordinator, said the staff is constantly reminding themselves that they sometimes unconsciously create physical barriers.
"Like, somebody moved a chair so it's blocking this way, or somebody left something somewhere and it's making it no longer accessible," Krueger said.
Krueger said a big part of his job as the inclusion coordinator is to be proactive by responding to library users.
That's how he learned that the library's collection needed more materials created by and for people with disabilities.
"Once we actually started looking and made the effort, they're everywhere," he said. "We just had to kind of change our mindset, and now it's just a regular part of what we buy."
For instance, a parent whose child was deaf pointed out that most of the books that teach reading were phonics-based. Krueger was able to find other materials specifically designed for reading without phonics.
Community support has helped make some of this possible. The Lions Club provided funding for large-print books for children, as well as Braille books with built-in speakers.
To date, the library has spent $13,964 on accessibility and inclusion-related training and physical improvements to the library. This included $10,125 for consultation and training fees paid to RAA. That portion of the costs was covered by state aid.
Other libraries might have to convince their boards and local government leaders to find grants or other funding sources if they want to follow the Irondequoit Public Library's lead. Benoit said some of his colleagues are taking an interest. Some, he said, are working on gaps in their collections and becoming more aware of the physical barriers that their facilities present to people with disabilities.
He said he meets with fellow library leaders monthly and shares updates so others can learn from his staff's trial and error.
Woodward is thrilled that awareness is spreading.
“This is a very different mindset than when I was growing up," she said. "I’m very excited for all the young people who can access libraries and know this is a normal experience.”