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I found the UK Library Association very helpful, talked to other authorities and read lots of papers, not least those put out by the (then) government, but perhaps the most important element was talking to some disabled people about the Act.
Putting it all together, I concluded that the DDA went some way towards anti-discrimination legislation, but fell short of a sort of bill of rights. Recent proposals by the new(ish) government centered around a Disability Rights Commission indicate that stronger legislation to implement the DDA is on its way.
Now, as a Library Services Manager for Worcestershire I have to implement my own recommendations!
So I shall tell you briefly about the Act and the timetable, then what it means and covers and therefore implications to a public library service.
The Act is now in force in the UK. For the first time in my country, disabled people have the right of access to goods, facilities and services and the law provides the right for disabled people not to be discriminated against in employment.
The struggle for such legislation was a long and hard one and although some disabled people say it still doesn't go far enough a lot of progress is being made, but yes, there is much more to do.
We have to remember that dealing with disability discrimination is substantially different from dealing with race and sex discrimination as the effect of the disability varies from person to person and so the required response needs to be flexible. And discrimination often stems from ignorance and making assumptions - for example a disabled person wouldn't benefit or you couldn't cope with serving them.
The various measures of the Act will be implemented over time, up to 2005, but it is now unlawful to refuse to serve a disabled person or offer a lower standard of service or offer the service in a less agreeable manner or less favorable terms that would be offered to other members of the public.
It is also now unlawful to discriminate against a disabled person in the field of employment and employees have a duty to provide any necessary adjustments for disabled employees and applicants.
The next part of the Act is to ensure that service providers take reasonable steps to change any policy, practice or procedure, which makes it unreasonably difficult for disabled people to user the service. (There are other aspects of the Act covering education, transport etc but I'm not covering those).
So what practical examples so far - it is obvious what is meant by refusal to serve in the example of - "You are blind, you don't watch videos", or a lower standard of service in, "Don't sit by the window" in a restaurant, demonstrating a less agreeable manner, or less favorable terms such as a travel agent asking for a higher deposit. I'm concentrating on what service providers have to think about for the public and I'm conscious some of you may well have been doing it much more for a long time!
To ensure our staff don't get it wrong, a large investment is in training. I organised it by a roadshow approach and disabled people talked to the staff enabling those who work with the public to hear what it's like to be hearing impaired, see through sight impaired eyes, walk through a library behind a wheelchair user and talk with people with learning difficulties.
The training of course was for all staff, at all levels. It reminded staff to look directly at people who lip read and go home and shave off that big beard! To try and learn a few letters of signing. We learnt how opening a packet of crisps can sound to a hearing aid wearer and how a mobile phone can interfere with hearing aids.
We brainstormed the subject and out came some excellent ideas and some we already do, some are now done, some are so easy to do and others not so but we program them to when we build a new library or alter one; if we need a new door we don't just replace it, we widen the gap enough for wheelchairs which are getting bigger. Yes, it's money, for example automatic doors, but plan ahead.
Colour is important, on signs and guiding, needing to be bright and contrasting, inlarge print and at eye level. Don't leave obstacles for example trolleys in the way for people to fall over or to narrow the access, don't tower over people, don't talk to the carer, and have buttons on lifts which are reachable from a wheelchair.
Before talking more I should have said how the Act defines disability - a person has a disability if he or she has a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day to day activities. Impairment affects mobility, manual dexterity, physical co-ordination, ability to lift and carry, speech, hearing, sight, memory and ability to concentrate, learn, understand or the perception of risk of danger. Long term is 12 months or recurring. There are also specific conditions such as severe disfigurement and progressive conditions when they result in an adverse effect on normal day to day activities.
Policies, practices and procedures can make it unreasonably difficult for disabled people to use the service, so examine the byelaws. For example signing to join can be difficult for arthritis sufferers. An example of policy is that forms should be large print, in other languages, or date stamps or bar codes often having small numbers. Examples of procedure might include paying for a reservation in advance which may be difficult if you need to make a phone request or collection of a book being difficult when it could be sent as an alternative. Other things spring to mind here such as screen facilities - having a large print OPAC, keyboard or screen and keyboard rests. Even the use of jargon - you can no doubt think of others.
It is here we need to talk to disabled users (and non users) … ask what they need from a library service and how they fare using (or not using) the service. Keep asking and keep sharing the information.
Some people think the Act will mean huge changes and therefore cost. It needn't; with a lot of small changes improvements can be made and the major ones, which must come later, such as access to poorly designed buildings, will have to be planned, budgeted and tackled.
The next part of the Act, to come into effect by 2000, covers auxiliary aids or services to enable the disabled person to make use of the service and reasonable steps to provide it must be taken - many are already in existence for example induction loops, print magnifiers, talking photocopiers, easy grip pens, flashing fire alarms, stair lifts, task lighting, tactile signs, pads, paper and pens, trolleys like in supermarkets for resting on/putting books into for walking, information about services in large print, audio, Braille, picture signing, book rests and lots more. Auxiliary service for example from libraries, day care collections. Other examples in other services are help with lockers in swimming pools. Again - not huge money or work is involved for example audio about services - have, or at least be receptive to being asked and respond by doing it and soon.
To comply with the last part of the Act will take longer - by 2005 - to remove or alter physical barriers that prevent disabled people gaining access or provide the service in a different way.
This panicked a lot of people and shows that planning is vital.
Access audits, surveys of buildings and services start from outside the building - look at how people get to the library, parking, bus stops, pavements, kerbs, ramps, hazards, bollards. Then inside the library, doors, stairs, handrails, table heights etc etc.
There should be on going consultation and staff training.
You need to consider how you offer other services for example mobiles, poetry readings, art exhibitions, book sales. If you have no alternative, think about providing services in alternative ways - for example if reference libraries are upstairs, you can fetch the book, but this is not good for public who might wish to browse, nor staff in terms of time, nor costs - you may as well have a lift eventually.
In the UK there are 6.2 million disabled adults (1 in 10), 360,000 disabled children, 1 million blind and partially sighted, 8 million deaf/hard of hearing and some fall into more than one category. Disabled customers don't want to be seen as being different, so our provision needs to be inclusive and unobtrusive, allowing for maximum independence and spontaneity - they don't want to have to phone up a day in advance to say, "I want to visit the library", nor do they want to come through the bins to the back door and wheel over a rickety bit of wood balanced over a step.
We continue to take advice - it is so easy to disadvantage one group whilst trying to help another, for example a wheelchair ramp is not easy for a partially sighted person to walk up.
We need to recognise that customers have different needs which require different methods of delivery. Many improvements can be made simply through understanding the needs of disabled people and being confident in dealing with disabled users.
The Act includes the concept of reasonableness and any improvements are good - an honest, helpful approach I recently saw in Worcester's Debenham's store a sign saying that current building works meant that some areas of the store were difficult for some customers, and please contact staff.
As time goes on technology and design will enable improvements to be made.
There is much literature on sizes, building regulations and standards. There is some money too - Lottery, Rotary, Lions. Don't forget to publicise what you do or are doing - disabled people don't use libraries as much as they would wish, and if you do improve what you offer, let them know - through talking newspapers, letters to sheltered housing, visits, focus groups, press coverage etc.
It is in everyone's interests that disabled people use our services, that they are happy with them and that they return and bring their friends.