Libraries’ commitment to equality of service means there is something for every customer here.

Brianna Austin
Feb 8 · 6 min read

Whether it’s the books on their shelves, the classes on the calendar, or support for utilizing any of their services, libraries want everyone — and they mean everyone — to be able to partake equally of all they have to offer. For some adult customers, a special need or disability has the potential to make engaging with the library a little challenging. Thanks to some innovative solutions, however, there are many amazing services for folks with special needs to help them make the most of their local libraries and get involved in their communities. Read on to check them out!

Materials

Large Print and Altered Text

For people who enjoying reading but have a vision impairment, the library has a whole special collection of works printed with extra-large text to make seeing the words much less challenging.

If you’re looking for a bigger variety, however, ebooks might be your perfect solution. With a smartphone, tablet, or computer, you can find and download a huge variety of books from the library’s digital collection online. The programs that power the ebooks have many useful settings to customize the reading experience such as dyslexic-friendly font, high contrast mode, font size, or even the color and background color of your text. There are options to accommodate just about any reader!

Audio Books

If physical books aren’t your style, audiobooks are an amazing way to experience your favorite writings. Libraries have books on CD available for checkout, but much more popular with each passing year are audio ebooks, or digital audiobooks. Online, you can browse the large collections of beautifully narrated stories to download onto your device and take with you on the go. Many audiobook connoisseurs cite Jim Dale reading Harry Potter as the most masterful audiobook experience available to mere humans.

The websites housing the ebook collections are compatible with screen readers, making it easy for people with vision impairment to find the perfect story. If you can only find a text ebook version of your favorite book, many of these books are compatible with native screen readers as well — almost any book can be made into an audiobook!

The Library of Congress and several states offer Talking Book Libraries which specialize in materials for blind or vision-impaired patrons, such as audiobooks and Braille manuscripts. Through interlibrary loan, you can get your hands on a huge array of resources, especially since some of these libraries have volunteer narrators who will create a recording of a whole book, just because you requested it!

Video Streaming

Netflix, watch your back, because libraries now offer free video-streaming! Sites like Kanopy and Overdrive are hosted through the library and have movies, work out videos, and TV shows and all offer accessibility features. You can choose to enable closed captions, subtitles, or transcripts. If a title has no closed captions available, click the link to request they be added. Kanopy is compatible with screen reader technologies on desktop browsers as well as iOS and Android devices, and can also be navigated using the tab key.

Tools

There is a huge array of amazing software and devices that allow people with visual, auditory, or physical challenges to utilize printed materials and computers just as effortlessly as people without disabilities.

Braille Printers

Several libraries own a Braille printer. These machines print text documents in Braille format (sometimes in conjunction with voice recognition software) so that people who can read Braille can print and read the materials of their choice.

Screen and Text Readers

A screen reader is a software that interprets the text on a screen in conjunction with a speech synthesizer in order to read aloud to a person with vision impairment. Using this, people can browse websites, listen to ebooks, or do just about anything on the internet that a seeing person can do. Alternatively, other programs can read typewritten text aloud such as physical books or newspapers. These readings can be stored on the computer or printed out in Braille. How cool is that?

Magnifying Devices

People with low vision can use these devices to magnify physical objects such as books, magazines, or photos as well as icons or text for navigating computers. You can even choose the color profile of what you’re looking at — black and white, high-contrast, or negative viewing mode.

Physical Access Workstation Equipment

Special workstation offering trackball mice, large print keyboards, and headphones and microphones, as well as adjustable tables, make accomplishing basic tasks much easier for customers with physical disabilities.

Dictation Voice Recognition Software

For a hands-free computer experience, use this software with a headset to speak directly to the computer and eliminate the need to type!

Video Phone

If ASL speakers need to make a call, they can check out a video phone camera to use in conjunction with an ADA workstation. Easy-peasy!

Services

Aside from specialized technology, libraries have identified several unique challenges faced by their customers and found creative solutions for them.

Homebound Services

This service allows homebound library customers to request materials and then have them delivered directly to their home. These often have longer checkout periods and will be picked up by library folks at the appointed time. People need books, the library will get them their books!

Bookmobile

Sometimes also called Reading Rockets or another catchy name, these minibusses full of books make regular stops around town and check out their contents to community members. Popular stops include retirement homes, apartment housing where residents lack transportation or schools.

One-on-One Media Help

If customers need help learning how to use any accessible library tools or could use a helping hand to access email or learn a new platform like eBay or Google Drive, most libraries offer one-on-one reservations with a staff member who can walk them through technological questions.

Sign Language Interpreters

If there is an amazing author visit or local comedian night at the library coming up, customers who are deaf or hearing impaired need only to request a library sign language interpreter (with a couple days prior notice) to accompany them to the event. Whether it’s one or several customers, the library is happy to provide this service.

Programs

As we all know, libraries aren’t just about books anymore. Libraries are a place where you can get to know your community through a cooking class, a genealogy club, breaking a sweat in a taekwondo event, and more. These events are open to each and every person, and there are often options to make them more accessible for those with special needs — such as the aforementioned ASL translators.

However, sometimes it’s more comfortable to be surrounded by people who share similar circumstances. For that reason, libraries offer events specifically for people with certain special needs.

For example, the San Francisco Public Library hosts a weekly AAC Conversation Group. Those who use Alternative and Augmentative Communication devices can get together and chat about scheduled themes or whatever else they want to discuss while feeling at ease around people who understand their situation.

The Evanston Public Library also hosts a weekly event called Read-ability Book Group for adults with cognitive disabilities. The group reads a portion of a chosen book together and takes extra time to discuss or take breaks for questions and clarification. Participants, volunteers, and family members comment that this event allows people with disabilities to engage with others intellectually at whatever level they feel comfortable with and has led to deepened community connections as well as the opportunity to lead fuller lives.

Come One, Come All!

If you’re reading this with a screen reader, in Braille, on a magnifying device, or know someone who uses those, don’t waste any time in reaching out to your nearest library to see what services they have available to you. You might be surprised that it’s more than you suspected! (As a pro tip for anyone for whom talking by phone is not an option, many libraries have a chat service on their websites.) So feel free to start learning more about what’s available to you to get you involved and busy through your local library. We’re excited to have you here!

EveryLibrary

Stories about libraries and librarians around America. We cover the breadth of experiences that people have through their libraries, and showcase the amazing people who work there.

Brianna Austin

Written by

Librarian and traveler. Have a question about books or life on the road? — I’m on it.

EveryLibrary

Stories about libraries and librarians around America. We cover the breadth of experiences that people have through their libraries, and showcase the amazing people who work there.

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