COVID has forced us to think again about service provision: can it offer longer term lessons for how we serve persons with disabilities?

Tomorrow, the 14th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities starts, in New York and online.

It will have, as an overarching theme, ‘building back better: COVID-19 response and recovery; meeting the needs, realizing the rights, and addressing the socio-economic impacts on persons with disabilities’.

There’s clearly a lot in there, but there is already more than enough space to see how access to information – as a need, as a right, and as a driver of development – fits in.

At least two of the sub-themes offer an even clearer connection. ‘Living independently, being involved in the community’ ties strongly to the possibility for all to find and use information to take decisions for themselves, as well as to engage in community life, in all of its dimensions.

Similarly, ‘right to education; challenges with inclusive education and accessibility during COVID-19’ is again, to a large extent, about ensuring that everyone has the possibility to access knowledge and skills.

With a mission to serve everyone, there is already a strong community of practice in the library field focused on services to persons with disabilities. Within IFLA, sections on libraries serving persons with print disabilities, and serving persons with special needs, bring this expertise and enthusiasm together.

A key impact of the crisis, however, has been that many more library and information workers have found themselves needing to think about how to reach out to community members who are unable to come to the library in person or for whom ‘traditional’ service offers do not necessarily work.

This is because, thanks to the restrictions and precautions taken to counter the pandemic, almost all library services have had to be offered differently. Every library now, arguably, has to take into account principles of design thinking in order to meet needs.

In response, we have seen an explosion in digital offers, both collections and services. Libraries have shifted budgets towards buying eBook licences, sometimes benefitting from additional government support.

Activities such as storytimes or learning have gone online. New works, games and tools have been devised, websites have been updated, and there are new and easier-to-use consultation services, deliveries to users at home, and proactive contacts from librarians to community members.

There are many examples on our COVID-19 and libraries page, which details experiences from the first months of the pandemic.

This has allowed libraries, at least to some extent, to maintain services to communities, and indeed to reach new users. As the story of the pandemic is told in future, we will of course, hopefully, also see persons with disabilities having benefitted from better access to information.

Of course, this is not to forget the costs of decisions – however necessary – to curtail services which benefit people with disabilities and others, or the additional challenges that they have faced, over and above those facing the wider population.

 

Clearly, the transition to a new way of doing things has not been without challenges – such services often require additional resources and training to work effectively. In providing them, reducing health risks for staff and users is vital. Similarly, acquiring and giving access to digital works – often providing greater possibilities for access for persons with disabilities – often runs up against issues of cost and restrictive terms and conditions.

Yet with sustained support, and a focus on improved regulations (not least the implementation of the Marrakesh Treaty and its extension to cover people with other disabilities), we can hope that there will be the possibility to sustain elements of pandemic-time services which will benefit persons with disabilities into the future.

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