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Neurodiversity and Accessibility

Published onMar 30, 2023
Neurodiversity and Accessibility

When it comes to accessibility, it is important not to overlook the needs of the neurodiverse. All too often, “accessibility” focuses on those with physical disabilities, but the disability community is wide and vast and includes many others with invisible needs. 

The general public often does not understand neurodiversity. This creates a barrier to change because you can’t make a positive impact when people don’t recognize a need for it. I recently did a presentation on the subject of neurodiversity for members of the Sno-Isle Libraries EDI (Equity, Diversity & Inclusion) Allies Affinity Group. In my research for the presentation, I struggled to find information about the positive attributes of people with different types of neurodivergence. I found that people seem to believe that meeting accessibility needs for the neurodivergent population requires extra work and special accommodations or that those who require assistance in this area deserve pity. 

“Neurodiversity” is a term coined by autistic sociologist Judy Singer in 1998.1 It represents the limitless variation in neurocognitive functioning within human beings. The basic idea of neurodiversity, put simply, is that there is no one “Normal” or “Right” type of brain or person. All types of people, both neurotypical and neurodivergent, have the right to be who they are and live in a world that meets their needs. 

The idea of a world where all types of people can live and flourish is sadly more of an ideal than a reality. We still live in a society that views the provision of accommodations for people with disabilities as something extra, something special, and something inconvenient and expensive. 

As a neurodiverse woman, I can say with certainty that my needs are not special, but different. And accessibility efforts directed to serving the needs of the neurodiverse would allow people like me to flourish. Living my normal life requires so much extra work, time, and energy that I would like to use for other things, but I can’t. My needs are not being met in the larger world, and that includes in libraries.    

People love to talk about changes, but all too often it never goes beyond talk. I have been asked before what needs to be changed in the library in order to be accessible for our patrons, but it's not an easy question to answer and I do not have all the answers. Different types of neurodivergent people need different things. Ideally, some of these ideas could be implemented in your own library. 

One suggestion is to use dyslexic-friendly fonts for everything at the library, such as sans serif, monospaced and roman font styles.2 Staff members should know how to help change the font settings in e-books, which should be set up to be read in one of these dyslexic-friendly fonts. It’s a small thing, but it can make a huge difference for some people.

Another suggestion is to provide a variety of sensory programs, rather than just sensory storytime. Having sensory storytime is wonderful, but does not fit the needs of everyone. The name “storytime” invokes an image of children needing to sit calmly and quietly, which does not suit many neurodivergent children. Caregivers of these children, seeing the advertisement for a “storytime,” might be concerned that their child would cause problems and decide not to attend. Consequently, libraries may see a low turnout for their sensory storytimes and assume their community does not have a need for them. I suggest libraries expand their programs to include the current storytimes and add other types of sensory programs to reach more people. 

One important aspect of accessibility for neurodivergent people is the issue of noise. Noise can cause distress for some neurodivergent adults and children; it can be overwhelming or distracting. I am lucky to work in a library with a built-in white noise maker. A turn of a dial and the gentle sound of white noise fills the library, covering some of the upsetting background noise.  Libraries might also consider having a sensory room: a quiet little room with a dimmable light, blank walls, and a comfy seat, providing a special place for anyone to go when they are experiencing sensory overwhelm. Such a room tells the neurodivergent community that they are welcomed and accepted. 

Libraries can also try using animals to reach neurodivergent children. Sometimes a dog can do what a person cannot. Two examples I’ve seen in the Sno-Isle Libraries system are Oak Harbor Library’s “Reading with Rover” and Mukilteo Library’s “Tails and Tales.”3 Both programs provide children with the opportunity to read with a therapy dog. This type of program is truly neurodiverse and designed to reach all types of children.

These ideas are just the tip of the iceberg. So much more is needed to reach the entirety of the neurodivergent community, let alone the entire disability community. The only thing I can say with absolute certainty is that what is being done now is not enough. As library staff, we have miles and miles to go to reach the start line.

The neurodivergent are all around you. Not just your library customers but also your coworkers. During discussions of accessibility, please remember that the accessibility needs of your customers and coworkers are more than physical, and libraries are not always set up to accommodate their needs. What steps can you take to make your library more accessible both for those with physical disabilities and for the neurodivergent with invisible disabilities?

Headshot of Amy Potter, a smiling woman with blonde hair tucked back into a ponytail. She is wearing a peach shirt and black blazer. She is outside in the sun with a stone background.
Amy Potter (she/her) works at the Mukilteo Library, a branch of the Sno-Isle Libraries. She is a member of the planning team that runs the Sno-Isle Libraries’ EDI (Equity, Diversity & Inclusion) Allies Affinity Group. When not working at the library, she can usually be found reading, gardening, cooking or spoiling her cat. She is deeply addicted to manga, and is always thrilled to give recommendations when asked—and when not asked.
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