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Making Public Libraries Accessible to People with Disabilities

Posted by Rahul Cherian at Jan 24, 2013 11:00 AM |
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The Centre for Internet & Society was one of the 20 disability rights groups that wrote to the Ministry of Culture on January 23, 2013 seeking remedial action on the barriers faced by persons with disabilities in accessing public libraries in India.
Making Public Libraries Accessible to People with Disabilities

In this picture a girl is seen operating a computer.

Hon’ble Ministers of Culture, HRD, Social Welfare
Secretaries of the above Ministries/Departments
January 23, 2013

Dear Sir/Madam

Sub: Making Public Libraries Accessible for Persons with Disabilities

We, the organizations representing persons with disabilities listed at the end of this document would like to bring to your attention for your urgent remedial action on the barriers faced by persons with disabilities in accessing public libraries in the country.

As you are aware, India has approximately 150 million persons with disabilities[1]who have the inalienable fundamental right to life as enshrined in the Constitution including the right to seek knowledge and education. Public libraries play a critical role in creating an enabling environment for citizens to gain knowledge, information and education. This is particularly true in the case of persons with disabilities who have limited access to purchase books through mainstream shops due to various barriers including lack of physical access to shops, lack of availability of books in accessible formats like Braille, etc. India has signed and ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and therefore India is required to "to take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices that constitute discrimination against persons with disabilities[2], "to develop, promulgate and  monitor the implementation of minimum standards and guidelines for  the accessibility of facilities and services open or provided to the public[3]” and take all appropriate measures to ensure that persons with disabilities enjoy access to libraries[4]

The recent copyright amendments enabling libraries to convert their collections into accessible formats free of cost for the benefit of persons with disabilities coupled with technological developments in the form of cost effective screen reading software have created an unprecedented opportunity to make libraries accessible to persons with visual impairment and dyslexia. Additionally increased clarity on standards for physical access also now enables libraries to be made physically accessible without expensive modifications to enable wheelchair users and those with limited mobility access the libraries.

We understand that the Ministry of Culture has constituted a high powered committee as part of the National Mission on Libraries to look into revamping the library system in the country. We urge that the issue relating to making public libraries accessible to persons with disabilities is taken up by the government on a fast track basis, a separate budget is allocated for this exercise and libraries are made accessible on a priority basis. Please find attached a brief note on the steps to be taken to make libraries accessible to persons with disabilities.

We recommend that regional consultations are conducted through which additional data can be gathered on regional/language/types of communication/availability of power and related issues. We also urge you take steps to extend library services to rural areas across the country. We are happy to assist the government in this initiative. Do let us know how we can contribute to this effort.

Thank you and best regards,

  1. Inclusive Planet Centre for Disability Law and Policy (
    Rahul Cherian
    +91 98403 57991
    [email protected]
  2. AccessAbility (
    Shivani Gupta+91 93102 45743
    [email protected]
  3. Xavier’s Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged (
    Sam Taraporevala
    +91 99670 28769
    [email protected]
  4. Saksham Charitable Trust (
    Dipendra Manocha
    +91 98180 94781
    [email protected]
  5. National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled
    Murali Alathur
    +91 98687 68543
    [email protected]
  6. National Institute of Speech and Hearing (
    Samuel Mathew
    +91 99615 68443
    [email protected]
  7. Centre for Internet and Society (
    Nirmita Narasimhan
    +91 98458 68078
    [email protected]
  8. Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy (
    Jeeja Ghosh
    +91 94330 45340
    [email protected]
  9. National Centre for Autism (
    Merry Barua
    +91 98102 25923
    [email protected]
  10. Ability Foundation (
    Janaki Pillai
    [email protected]
  11. Nilesh Singit, Disability Rights Activist
    +9199205 58867
    [email protected]
  12. Andhjan Kalyan Trust (
    Praful Vyas
    +9194282 61878
    [email protected]
  13. AccessIndia
    Harish Kotian
    [email protected]
  14. Blind Graduates Forum of India
    Harish Kotian
    [email protected]
  15. Tamilnadu Handicapped Federation Charitable Trust
    T.M.N Deepak
    +91 98406 46953
    [email protected]
  16. Human Rights Law Network AP Unit
    M.A. Shakeel
    [email protected]
  17. Global Ability in Disability
    Sai Padma
    +91 9052627070
    [email protected]
  18. Mitra Jyothi
    Madhu Singhal
    [email protected]
  19. Vaishnavi Jayakumar, Human Rights Activist
    [email protected]
  20. Swadhikaar
    Pavan Muntha
    [email protected]
  21. Samarthyam (
    Anjlee Agarwal
    +91 98105 58321
    [email protected]

With inputs from:

  1. Stephen M. Shore, Ed.D.
    Assistant Professor of Special Education, Adelphi University
    International consultant, presenter, and author
    Person on the autism spectrum
  2. Tania Meinyczuk
    Director, Autistic Strategies Network
    Autistic Consultant
    South Africa
  3. Shellique Carby
    South Africa
  4. Fazli Azeem
    South Asian Self-Advocate for the Autism Spectrum
    Fulbright Scholar @ MassArt Boston, USA

  5. Michael Vestergaard Drejer
    IT Consultant

Making Public Libraries Inclusive For Persons With Disabilities – An Overview

Problem Statement

It is estimated that India has approximately 150 million persons with disabilities[5] (“PWDs”). Depending on their disability, PWDs have varying degrees of problems in accessing libraries and the material available at libraries. PWDs cannot access the premises of libraries since the buildings themselves are not accessible. People who are blind or have low vision cannot access reading material in libraries since the reading materials are not in formats that are accessible. It is estimated that less than 0.5% of books are available in formats that are accessible by people who are blind or have low vision. It is therefore critical that libraries in India are made inclusive so as to become accessible by PWDs.

Suggestions For Improvement

Given below are suggestions to make the public library system inclusive to PWDs based on internationally recognized best practices:

  1. Accessibility
    Structural modifications must be made to the library to ensure that PWDs can use the library building easily and safely, without any barriers or obstructions. Some of the modifications required include accessible parking, clear paths of travel to and throughout the facility, entrances with adequate, clear openings or automatic doors, handrails, ramps and elevators, accessible tables and public service desks, and accessible public conveniences such as toilets, and drinking fountains. Other reasonable modifications may include visible alarms in toilets and general usage areas and signs that have Braille and easily visible character size, font, contrast and finish.
    For further information see Annexure 1 and
  2. Accessible Formats and Library as a Distribution Centre
    People, who are blind, have low vision, dyslexia and other print disabilities cannot access reading materials in printed formats. They require reading material in “accessible formats” such as Braille, large print, audio recordings and electronic formats including digital talking books. In addition, people with some disabilities may find it difficult to come to the library. Under the recently amended Copyright Act libraries can convert books into the accessible formats specified above free of cost and without requiring permission from publishers and can distribute them in physical form and in electronic form including over the Internet to persons with disabilities.

    Libraries now have the unprecedented opportunity to create an extensive collection of reading material in the accessible formats mentioned above in English and all Indian languages and make them available at the library in the form of physical copies, on CDs and other media, as well as over the Internet.  The catalog of the collection must be in accessible formats. For digitization of books State Level Focal Points to be created for this purpose possibly at State level libraries.  For further information on the standards to be adhered to when the library undertakes digitization see Annexure 2. State Level Focal Points will get production done through outsourcing or with some inhouse facilities for production of digital content. A National Level Focal point with full time staff will be required for standardization and networking between the State Level Focal Points and maintaining the central server as mentioned below. The central server will have a database containing digital copies of works in accessible formats created by the State Focal Points and other organizations that undertake the conversion of material into accessible formats such as the National Federation of the Blind[6], All India Confederation of the Blind[7], Daisy Forum of India[8] and the Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy.[9] Requests for books in accessible formats can be sent to these organizations as well. The central server will also be connected to the Braille presses. Each public library at the district level will act as a distribution point for accessible formats and will be connected to the central server so that requests for books at each of the libraries can be sourced from the database on the central server. This is advantageous as the list of books available at each library will be constantly updated once they are added to the database. In addition, persons with disabilities must be able to download books in accessible formats from the database without coming to the library.

    The website of each library must contain the catalog of material available in accessible formats and the services provided for persons with disabilities. The website of the libraries and the centralized database must adhere to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 as outlined by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) so that persons with print disabilities can access the websites and the database. Each library must take orders for accessible books from library users over the internet and over the telephone and source the books from other libraries. Libraries must work together to enable interlibrary exchange of books in accessible formats including hard copy Braille books.

    All existing books published in India must be digitized over a period 7 years and all new books must be digitized within 60 days of their first publication in India. Special efforts must be made to provide accessible formats in Indian languages as these are extremely limited. An advisory committee consisting of specialist representatives from disability organizations, among others, may be constituted to oversee the implementation of this project. The expert committee will be associated with both the National Level Focal Points and the State Level Focal Points.
  3. Assistive Aids and Equipment
    PWDs require certain assistive aids and equipment to be able to fully utilize the services of the library and the information available therein. Some forms of accessible formats specified above can only be accessed using assistive aids. Libraries must provide the assistive aids/equipment specified in Annexure 3.
  4. Training and sensitization
    Adequate training and sensitization must be given to library staff to ensure that they are able to interact with PWDs. This training can be in the nature of a short refresher course and the training and sensitization programs must be evolved in consultation with the disability sector and must be conducted with the assistance of experts in the disability space.
  5. Specialized personnel and services
    The library should have a dedicated person to interact with persons with disabilities. This person should have a background in disability, highly motivated, familiar with sign language and also be responsible for providing specific assistance required by persons with disabilities such as guiding them to print out books in Braille, procuring books from the online database etc. The library should offer specialized services to PWDs including a telephonic help line and home delivery of books ordered online or over the phone and reading service at designated times at the library. It is pertinent to note that literature for the blind has no postal fees. Each library must have a specific section on disability related reading material. It is also essential to cooperate with other libraries around the world to share learning.

Annexure 1[10]


a. Outside the library

  • The main gate of the entrance of the library must be made accessible in accordance with applicable accessibility standards. If the main entrance cannot be made accessible, a secondary accessible entrance should be provided.
  • At least covered three parking spaces marked with the international symbol of Accessibility (wheelchair symbol) close to the library entrance must be provided.
  • Clear and easy to read signposting must be provided.
  • Unobstructed and well lit access paths from the main gate to the entrance of the library must be provided. All steps must be replaced/complimented with ramps having less than 5% gradient, with railings on both sides.
  • Smooth and non-slip surface must be used throughout.

b. Getting into the library

  • A person using any kinds of support such as wheelchair, crutches or walker,  cane, or guide dog, should be able to enter through the door and pass through security check points, if any, without encountering obstacles.
  • All mobility aids and assistive devices including wheelchairs, walkers, communicators among others must be able to pass through security checkpoints, if any.
  • Applicable accessibility standards must be adhered to.
  • Sufficient space must be provided in front of the door to allow a wheelchair to turn around.
  • Entrance door should be wide enough to allow a wheelchair to enter.
  • Non-automatic doors should be operable using one hand.
  • Glass doors, if any, must be highlighted with contrast colour band at eye level to prevent persons with low vision banging into these.
  • Stairs and steps edges must be marked with a contrasting color band.
  • Pictogram signs must be provided for services and amenities such as toilets, elevators, stairways.
  • Elevators, if any, must be well lit with buttons and signs in Braille and synthetic speech.
  • Elevator buttons reachable from a wheelchair.
  • At least 5 wheelchairs (preferably motorized) or mobility scooters must be made available for use by persons with physical disabilities

c. Inside the library

  • All parts of the library should be accessible.
  • The catalogs must be available in accessible formats.
  • Clear and easy-to-read signs with pictograms must be provided.
  • Service desks should be located close to the entrance.
  • A certain number of tables and computer workstations should be adapted for persons in wheelchairs.
  • Shelves must ideally be reachable from a wheelchair
  • Chairs with sturdy armrests must be provided
  • Unobstructed aisles between bookcases must be provided and wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs and one person not on a wheelchair.
  • Visible and audible fire alarms must be provided.
  • Non-fluorescent lighting. In case fluorescent lighting is used there must be an area free of visual clutter and sharp light contrasts, with plain walls and cubicles.
  • Printers must be kept in areas away from reading areas to reduce sound in the reading areas.
  • Suitable sound insulation to be used to minimize sound in the reading areas.
  • Stack area should have clear aisle space for wheelchair and bi-lateral crutch users (3ft. min.). Where book stacking is in shelves and areas beyond reach of persons with disabilities using mobility aids, human assistance should be available to access books.
  • Plants inside the space can help with air filtering, which can make a huge difference to the level of comfort.

d. Toilets

The library should have at least one toilet for PWDs, equipped with the following:

  • Clear signs with pictogram indicating the location of the toilets
  • Door wide enough for a wheelchair to enter and sufficient space for a wheelchair to turn around
  • Room enough for a wheelchair to pull up next to the toilet seat
  • Toilet with handles and flushing lever reachable for persons in wheelchairs
  • Alarm button reachable for persons in a wheelchairs
  • Washbasin, mirror at the appropriate height

e. Information Desk and Circulation desk

  • The desks must be of adjustable height to enable persons in wheelchair to be able access the desk
  • Chairs must be provided at the desk
  • Induction loop system for hearing impaired persons

Annexure 2

Standards for material converted into digital formats by libraries

  • Master Digital Documents of converted material must be maintained in DAISY XML format.
  • All Master Digital Documents in Indic Languages must be encoded in Unicode [UTF8/16] and formatted using a royalty-free Open Type Font.
  • All Master Digital Documents must be tagged according to DAISY standards to capture semantic information for parts, units, chapter headings, subsections, pagination, ordered and un-ordered list, tables, images along with their alternative text, math equations, title, author, footnote, end-note, text box, abbreviation, acronym, etc.
  • Metadata information about the publication as prescribed in the DAISY Standards must be added to all Master Digital Documents.
  • Distribution of digital copies of the Master Digital Documents through web sites or otherwise must be done in epub format.
  • If other standards are used for different target populations those standards must be compliant with the National Open Standards Policy and the Interoperability Framework for E-Governance in India.
  • DAISY audio format for Indic languages.

Annexure 3

Assistance Aids/Equipment

For assisting persons with Visual Impairment or blindness or autism spectrum disorders:

Persons with vision impairments or blindness or autism spectrum disorders would benefit from software and hardware for enlarging displays on the monitor or reading material through a speech synthesizer.

Some of the most common assistive aids/equipment are:

For magnification

  • Screen-magnification software. This program allows people with low vision to access computer information by enlarging the screen display or tailoring the display to accommodate their disability.
  • Large magnification devices such as closed-circuit television magnifiers (CCTV).  This system employs a video camera lens to enlarge text from three to thirty times normal text size
  • Handheld magnifiers

For Screen reading

  • Screen reader software programs enables individuals who are blind or visually impaired to access the information on a computer screen through voice output. Some examples are NVDA (an open source software) or Dolphin or Jaws (proprietary software). Screen reading software with Indian language support must be provided.
  • Scanning and reading software helps those with low or no vision. Scans printed text and verbalizes the text via synthetic speech using optical character recognition technology.
Computer Operation

At least one computer must face outward and not against the wall since people with autism spectrum disorders find it disturbing to have people walking behind them.

For Braille support -

  • Braille Translating Software - To produce correctly formatted and coded Braille one needs a Braille Translation Software. A document prepared by a word processing program is loaded into the translation software. The final document may be printed in Braille by a Braille embosser.
  • Braille Embosser - Braille embossers print Braille output from a computer by punching dots onto paper and enable users to make hard copies of documents.
  • Refreshable Braille displays and DAISY players.

All multimedia content to have audio descriptions

For Assisting people with Hearing Impairment or Deafness

Users with deafness or have hearing impairments do not have problems using the computer except problems will arise from programs and websites that have audio cues.

  • Sound Sentry This option directs the operating system to display a visual signal when a sound is generated by a Windows application. Sound sentry in built into Windows and Apple operating systems.
  • All multimedia content to have captions

For Assisting people with Learning Disabilities

Specialized software programs and hardware for people who have learning differences will display print as well as provide auditory reading of the text simultaneously.

For Assisting people with Physical Disabilities

Persons with physical disabilities may need assistance in using the computer apart from having physical accessibility. The following items increase computer usability and safety:

  • Special input devices such as trackballs, joysticks, switches, touch pads, and augmented keyboards (micro keyboards or oversize keyboards with enlarged keys)
  • A computer camera/tracker allows users to manipulate the cursor through head movement.
  • Software utilities that replaces the functionality of a standard keyboard with a full-featured, onscreen keyboard.
  • Speech to text software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking
  • Motorized wheelchairs to be used by physically impaired users especially motorized chairs whose seat can raise so that users can reach books on higher shelves on the rack.
  • Availability of reachers to access books that may be placed too low or too high on the book rack.
  • Page turners

Useful Links

[1]. The World Health Organization estimates that 15% of the population is disabled.
[2]. Article 4.1 (b) of the UNCRPD
[3]. Article 9.2 (a) of the UNCRPD
[4]. Article 30. 1 (c) of the UNCRPD
[5]. The World Health Organization estimates that 15% of every population is disabled.
[6]. For more information see
[7]. For more information see
[8]. For more information see
[9]. For more information see
[10]. Based on checklist prepared by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions available at These should be over above the guidelines prescribed here

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