Open to the community?

Dearest readers,

I hope this post finds you well and well rested after the weekend. I've had this title sat in my drafts for the last month now as I keep getting other more pressing ideas to write about. My best friend works in a library and from what I understand, some libraries are looking into what they can do to have their spaces more accessible, not just in terms of ramps and physical adjustments but also other things which are not automatically thought of as an 'accessibility issue'. I also know my local group of libraries are also looking at a similar thing. With all the cuts that libraries are under and continuing to face it is admirable that they are not resting on their laurels and are continuing to find ways to improve access to services and a love of reading and books to the community. I've not always enjoyed reading, but I did always used to enjoy visiting my local library when I was much younger to get books out and even now I enjoy visiting to use the local history books and occasionally go to the archives (although my library card ran out a while back, I borrow my parents!) The DK fact books and photo-history books on World War Two are two types of book I really used to enjoy.

Interestingly enough when I was at the autism and ageing conference nearly two weeks ago now, there was also a mention of libraries there: part of the 'forgotten generation', adults aged 50-69, ranked having local libraries as more 'autism friendly' or accessible was on their 'wish list' after diagnosis. I highly doubt it is only that age bracket that wish for more accessible public spaces - I know that I find certain architectural materials in buildings, like the new restaurants they build in warehouse style, very echoey and challenging to sit in for a long time and I have peers who struggle with our new university library having very harsh lighting and a very open plan set up. What sort of public space is good in terms of accessibility, that is truly accessible to all?

I firstly would like to point out I find it really hard when libraries move things around, as I have such a visual memory. A bit like in my bedroom, I remember visually and photographically where things are and am pretty useless with verbal instructions like 'it's 2 shelves up on the left to your right'. I'm much better with written instructions in all honesty or photographical instructions, showing me where things are. It is much easier for my brain to follow. I remember when our local library decided to upgrade and move its children's area to the main adult area to create a technology hub. This really threw me off. The picture in my head didn't match what was in front of me - I'm not much of a browser really in terms of getting lost. I like to go in, get what I need and leave. It's a bit like a supermarket when they move everything around - it wastes my time as I'm not actually going to walk out with any more produce, just more annoyance and less energy. It's almost like a visual map is needed when there is any kind of movement of books etc.

The other thing I found when I was younger is I would never go to the desk on my own. Only until very recently could I not go and ask for help in my own university library, as I could not formulate what I wanted to ask into a sentence without having someone at my side. Me, being the ever highly independent person I want to be, refuse to accept help unless I basically have to. Self-service kiosks at our university library have been fantastic - no worries about what desk to go to (as there are many staff points) or what to ask for. Just take it to the scanner and follow the instructions. It'd be great if there were more opportunities like this in community libraries - it might take away some of the anxiety and encourage more people in.

For me, the big whopper for accessibility is the energy and the sensory impact that public spaces and buildings might have on me. This includes things like the lighting, noise (like the echoes I was talking about earlier), layout (like the comment about our university library), colours used and potential crowding or presence of other people. In terms of autism, every autistic person has their own tolerances and sensitivities, a bit like a switch board in a music studio, but there are general things that can be done and should be done all the time. Libraries have the advantage that they not only can be social hubs but can provide hide aways and escape from the busy hustle and bustle of life. If the environment is sensory- or energy-wise draining, the latter can sadly be lost for some people, including autistic people. It's much harder to escape into a good book if the flickering of the lights or echoes are distracting you. There are not just specific times that autistic people or in fact anyone who might find these things challenging visit the library; all have different preferences and unlike supermarkets and cinemas who have a profit to turn as their main goal, the library's goal is to serve the community. Therefore having a constant accessible environment is of a higher priority to the community is serves but also the principles of the library serving the community. Having those who are autistic, neurodiverse and with other disabilities as part of the accessibility process will help ensure any stone does not remain unturned as there may be things not everyone will notice. Obviously this is a dream and idealistic situation, however we can listen to voices of those we know and respect and aspire towards such an accessible space in action and thought.

I think a final thing to say is as humanity is so diverse and rich, there will always be needs to be met. Taking a thorough approach like some community libraries seem to be doing, I find this very encouraging. We are all part of society and all are to be valued, therefore a community space with the routine of the activities on offer, the people available and an means of bringing together people from a great many walks of live has a great chance of becoming more autism friendly, with the right people and ideas at the helm.



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