West Hartford Public Library's FAIR @ Your Library 2010
Few organizations close their doors for an entire day to focus their energies internally. While libraries need not fear the loss of sales revenues, the possibility of alienating patrons by pulling a surprise closing looms large for directors and managers.
Yet that’s exactly what the West Hartford Libraries did in late October, 2010. Why? Because they knew that the benefits of focusing on staff development far outweigh any possible risk.
Staff development reached 51 staff of the Noah Webster Main Library, the Faxon Branch and the Bishop’s Corner Branch.
While the afternoon was dedicated to a LibX demonstration, a gadget zoo, and a session on counting reference statistics (the latter described by one staffer as “truly gripping”), the morning was devoted to orienting staff to an ongoing LSTA project that serves persons with disabilities. The project, FAIR (Facilitating Access to Information and Resources) is the upshot of an LSTA grant that librarians Judy Eisenberg and Martha Church wrote in the Spring of 2009 and which was awarded $17,000 in LSTA funds.
The West Hartford Libraries are already ADA compliant and are pretty progressive in their commitment to serving the approximately 6,500 persons with sensory and physical disabilities in the community. But Eisenberg and Church also knew that if the library acquired a few adaptive technology tools and some software, they could further facilitate the use of the facility and the information-rich resources it offers.
Years of experience, however, also told them that all the equipment and technology in the world would sit forgotten and useless in a dark corner unless the front-line staff knew how to use it and felt comfortable enough with it to show the folks how to use it. This staff training wasn’t an afterthought tacked onto an adaptive technology grant; training was written into the grant long before the librarians decided what equipment to get.
So Church and Eisenberg contracted with Hartford’s NEAT Center at Oak Hill to do a morning-long session. Assistive Technology Professionals Jennifer Baker and Don Hoerman presented a PowerPoint that introduced the library staff to what NEAT does, the two led a ninety-minute immersion into the world of adaptive technology.
This hands-on session featured motorized wheelchairs, different kinds of pointing devices usable with feet and heads, speech-recognition software, and walking with canes (or is that a light saber?) while wearing vision-distorting eyewear. A little blind football and one-handed shirt buttoning rounded out the activities.
Far from being a play session with cool toys, however, most staff found this an unpleasant experience that pushed them out of their usual routines and comfort zones. The session was marked by physical awkwardness and discomfort levels that drew cries of frustration. Why? What was the point of turning a staff get-together into a group of aggravated staff?
Even as staff asked that question of themselves, the reason became obvious: to consider the question, “What if I had to use this equipment in this building to find information? To get a book? To use the bathroom?”
Listening to an abstract lecture about sensitivity to those with physical and/or sensory disabilities can’t engender the empathy that real-life experiences do. When fully capable people get the chance to experience what it’s like to need to use specialized equipment, our perceptions – and our attitudes – change. We develop what Hoerman, Manager of NEAT’s Equipment Restoration Center, calls an “accessible attitude.” When an agency can do that, it can move from point A to point B in terms of helping all patrons, and that’s what this training day was all about.
The NEAT Center at Oak Hill, located on the corner of Holcomb and Coventry Streets, can use your help in restoring used equipment on the first Saturday of every month.