7 Days to Human Rights Day: Libraries and Freedom from Discrimination

In the first of seven daily blogs in the run up to Human Rights Day, and to mark the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, today’s post looks at Article 7: Freedom from Discrimination.


Article 7 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights includes the statement that: ‘All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination’.

While discrimination comes in many forms, it is undeniable that people with disabilities are particularly exposed to it. Thanks either to active prejudice, or a failure to take account of their needs, they often experience less access to opportunities to learn and gain skills, and in turn greater levels of poverty and unemployment.

Libraries have a duty to all of their users. In a number of countries, library laws and policies underline that users with special needs deserve specific support.

This makes sense. Those facing greater difficulties to integrate into society may have greater need for information, for example to identify opportunities or support, or find guidance for dealing with health issues. They of course, also, have equal rights to education (Article 26), free expression (Article 19), and participation in the cultural life of the community (Article 27), all rights that libraries help realise.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, of which 3 December is the anniversary, underlines these points, as a presentation from this year’s World Library and Information Congress stresses.

In order to deliver this, libraries are not only looking to ensure that their existing services are accessible, but in many cases are designing specialised programmes to reach out to users with disabilities. Such programmes, while ‘positively’ discriminating in favour of people with disabilities, can make an important contribution to ensuring ‘equity’ – i.e. that everyone enjoys the same outcomes.

This blog is necessarily short. A survey of libraries carried out last year by IFLA’s Section on Libraries Serving People with Special Needs (LSN) offers a wider view. And we know that there is still more taking place beyond this.


Library Services and Universal Design

The idea of Universal Design refers to the idea that spaces – and services – should be designed to make life easier for everyone.

Indeed, this was the subject of a session at the latest World Library and Information Congress, underlining the links between this and human rights, and the guidelines produced at both the national and global level to make a reality of it.

There are many examples of universal design in practice in libraries. At the Russian State Library for Young Adults, for example, there have not only been efforts to adapt buildings, but also to ensure that users with special needs can access them at will, just as any other user might.

In Catalonia, a project on universal design has seen innovative technologies used both to support physical accessibility, provide materials, and offer relevant training to staff. With a number of libraries based in historic buildings, this work is not simple.

In Latin America also, discussions around the Marrakesh Treaty have led to training initiatives aimed at raising awareness of disability issues and available tools to respond.

Of course, access to books remains a key reason for people to come to the library. IFLA sections have played a major role in helping to establish standards for accessible books and other media. Partners have emerged focusing on accessible format books for library users, and there are welcome steps in Australia, for example, to ensure that all books published are accessible from the start.

Finally, and within library associations themselves, there are welcome steps to ensure the accessibility of conferences, notably in the United States, Norway and Sweden.


Going Further

Clearly work to adapt library spaces, services and collections to make them accessible to all is necessary. It is a key principle of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that everyone should be able to benefit from this.

But there is also an argument for specific efforts to ensure that everyone benefits from services. It may not be enough to ensure that everyone can access a building, when they may find it difficult even to leave their homes. As with others, users with special needs may well need books and materials that reflect their needs and experiences.

Such steps can be important in providing equity – fair outcomes, rather than just fair opportunities. Given that all have a right to education, access to information and participation in cultural life, ensuring that people with disabilities can also realise their rights has to be an objective.

Libraries around the world are therefore also looking to develop tailored services, to reach out to those with special needs, rather than wait for them to come through the doors. The opportunities provided by digital technologies can be particularly powerful in this respect, as experience from Kenya indicates.

Such activities can often involve partnerships, as a number of examples from the United States indicate. Here, library spaces and services combined well with external groups to allow for projects such as Autism-friendly book discussions, sensory-friendly Saturdays. The creation of targeted book-clubs also featured in the Catalonian initiative mentioned above.

In Guangdong Province, China, accessibility principles were introduced for library buildings some time ago. But after 2000, there was a new focus on efforts to offer ‘extended’ services, with more visits to the homes of people with special needs and dedicated clubs.

Finally, the Marrakesh Treaty allows for people with print disabilities and the libraries that serve them to bypass some of the copyright laws that lead to the ‘book famine’ – the chronic shortage of books in formats for people with print disabilities. Such laws are not (yet) in place for other library users, and so represent an effort to go further in order to help people with print disabilities achieve equity.



Clearly libraries are working to deliver their obligation under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights not to discriminate, in particular against people with disabilities. Clearly this is an ongoing process, as a study of Nigerian University Libraries underlines. IFLA’s Library Services to People with Special Needs Section is working hard to provide guidelines, and support training and other efforts to move forwards, with a summary of their work presented at the World Library and Information Congress.

There are also steps that others can take to help in this respect. Effective ratification of the Marrakesh Treaty, with no unnecessary or harmful costs or restrictions on libraries and users is crucial. IFLA encourages all countries to ratify and implement the Treaty, and to extend coverage (where possible) to people with other disabilities, so that all should benefit.

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