Basic Tips for Working with Patrons with Disabilities

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Ruth Kitchin Tillman.

Although I’ve been interested in making libraries and archives more accessible to persons with disabilities for a while now, I’ve been spending this summer specifically working on learning more about laws, programs, and first-person perspectives on disability. While it’s a challenge to learn about what’s out there, working with patrons with disabilities doesn’t have to be complex. There are just two things to remember:

1) People with disabilities are people first.

Talk to THEM first. Talk to them just like you would anyone else unless they indicate otherwise (such as people with hearing loss who ask you to speak up or indicate a pad/paper). If they need interpretation or assistance from a person who is with them, that person will volunteer when needed. If the person serves as an interpreter, direct your conversation to the patron, not the interpreter. I recently wrote up about my first experience with a relay (TTY) call. My problem was thinking of it as some complicated interaction, instead of a simple communication between two people.

Don’t talk down to someone with a disability or over them…and I mean, literally over. Consider asking a patron using a wheelchair to join you at a nearby table, if the reference desk requires you to stand over them. Or make sure that your reference and circulation areas have a seated-height level with a computer, to make the interaction even easier for both of you.

If the person has a service animal (most often dogs, which can partner with people who have a variety of disabilities), don’t pay the animal more attention than the person. Yes, even if you’re a dog person. In an article that’s really a must-read for understanding why accessibility is important, Chris Hofstader writes that he “felt like a dog walking bot and not a human” at a conference where more people asked his service dog’s name than his.

And don’t be “that person.” Just like anyone else, a patron with a disability is unlikely to want intrusive questions about their life, although they may choose to share (and, like any patron, possibly overshare) This includes questions about their health or disability—specific medical details, relationship questions, etc. Persons with disabilities get asked a lot of questions people wouldn’t dream of asking persons without. Don’t be one of those people. There are rare exceptions, for example, when a blind friend asks me to describe the videogames I’m playing to him, it was important for me to ask (for the first time) whether or not he’d ever had vision, so I had a better context for description.

2) Don’t assume…

…what persons with disabilities can/can’t do. For example, a patron currently sitting in wheelchair may be able to stand or even walk. There are numerous reasons to use a wheelchair, generally when one has a condition which prevents walking/standing more than briefly. A person who needs a white cane to get around may still have a little vision—this doesn’t make them a “fake.” Disabilities are not either/or. There’s a broad spectrum of ability levels. Don’t police other people’s levels of ability.

…that it’s ok to touch persons with disabilities, or their assistive devices (wheelchairs, canes, etc.). Never touch any person without asking first. Don’t move a wheelchair, ask the person using it or pushing it to do so. Except in an emergency, and only if they actually need it.

…that people will have certain interests or needs based on their disability. A friend of mine with significant vision loss studies obscenity law and burlesque. Her white cane doesn’t make her only want books about inspirational blind people. It also doesn’t mean she needs braille books. It means she has a magnifying lense to help her read books with her semi-functional eye. Let people tell you what they came to find. Work from that.

…that you need to do X for them. Offer, don’t just do. Some of this goes back to not touching—don’t say “ok, we need to head to the 641s” and then just grab a person’s wheelchair and start pushing. If you think they need assistance with something, ask if they do. Then ask how you can best do it, if it’s not apparent.


It is not a person’s job to educate you about their disability/how to best serve them. They may be willing to do so, but it is your job to prepare yourself. Check out Ontario’s excellent guidelines for interacting with people with physical disabilities and click through the links at the bottom to view other kinds of disabilities. And, for goodness’ sake, don’t call anyone “inspirational” or a “role model” unless they do something specific that is. Automatically putting people with disabilities on a pedestal treats them like they are their disability, not people.

Know your own library before you end up trying to figure out what the best route for a wheelchair is from Point A to Point B, etc. Know ways to help people get out of the library in an emergency.

Many of these things may seem ridiculously simple, even patronizing to point out. The problem is that I have quite a few friends with disabilities and I’ve read a great many blogs. I’ve seen a friend with an underdeveloped face talked down to because people don’t realize that her brain was completely unaffected by the syndrome which affected her growth and muscular development. I’ve heard of friends in wheelchairs feeling helpless or furious as they’re “carted off” by well-intentioned but clueless people. Some people have a hard time believing that a blind friend is married. Don’t be those people. Learn. Treat people as people. It’s not hard.

Ruth Kitchin Tillman is in her final semester on the archives track at UMD’s iSchool. Besides accessibility, she’s very interested in EAD and has created a simplified guide to it at When not working with information, she’s probably gaming.

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