The doors to public buildings are often heavy. What if you could not open the library door by yourself? Sometimes the service desk is quite high. What if it was too high for you to see the things placed on it? Many were touched by The Punk Syndrome, the hit documentary about a disabled punk band, but could a book lending machine do the same?
The library is meant for everyone. It is a social space that enables people to actively participate in society and communication. In the library, you are welcome to come as you are and do interesting things for free.
In order to be all this for everyone, the library has to be accessible. The disabled too must be ensured smooth and effortless access to the library. This is an opportunity for the new Central Library to pave the way and set an example for other new and renovated constructions.
WHEN PUBLIC SPACE DOES NOT WORK
Eero Heinonen, accessibility planner of the Finnish Association of People with Physical Disabilities, knows everything about the library of dreams. “As an activity centre, the library enables better social participation, including for the disabled. The library offers good facilities for studying and different hobbies.”
For the disabled, however, a public space is not always an unproblematic place. “I have noticed that often signposts are poorly located and buttons are too high. Doors may open in a difficult direction and, if there is a ramp, it may be too steep. Toilets are cramped. Sometimes there may be a window at the end of a hallway that creates backlighting glare. Large glass surfaces are not adequately marked. A floor-to-ceiling mirror may also interfere with the perception of the space.”
Pirjo Tujula is the City of Helsinki’s project manager responsible for accessibility, and she has also identified problem areas. “The parking spaces for people with reduced mobility are often poorly located, signposts may be unclear or completely missing, and the front door may be difficult to open. The service desk may be difficult to find or too high, and there may not be an induction loop to accommodate persons with impaired hearing.”
Chief Architect Erja Väyrynen of the Ministry of the Environment is a member of the Advisory board of the ESKE Accessibility Centre, and she emphasises the significance of the entrance. “The role of the entrance in the functionality of the entire building is too often forgotten. Even first-time visitors must be able to immediately identify the main entrance. The entrance must be inviting, as if it were pulling the visitor in accessibly – this makes the visitor feel like a welcome guest.”
CENTRAL LIBRARY SETTING AN EXAMPLE
Planning Officer Sami Virtanen of the Federation of Hard of Hearing discusses the situation for persons with impaired hearing. “As I see it, the most important things for library patrons with impaired hearing are appropriate listening conditions and smooth interaction with library personnel. This benefits from friendly and considerate face-to-face customer service. In meeting rooms, echo should be minimised and noise should be reduced by using soft materials.”
Virtanen hopes the Central Library will set a national example concerning accessibility solutions. “The library will be used for decades, and its role as a pioneer in space planning and in the modifiability of spaces is a great opportunity.”
General Secretary Pirkko Mahlamäki of the Finnish Disability Forum points out how well the new building of the university library is designed. “It has roomy toilets for the disabled, and the service features other accessibility innovations as well. For example, one lending machine is placed on a low desk that is within reach even from a wheelchair.”
Mahlamäki hopes that the voices of the disabled will be heard before the Central Library is built. “This year, the theme of the Association of People with Physical Disabilities is ‘Easy Mobility’. In this respect, it would be good to organise events in advance to discuss the easy accessibility of the library. The current home library service alone only meets some of the needs.”
CHALLENGES IN THE TÖÖLÖNLAHTI AREA
“I am confident the location planned for the Central Library is good. There might be problems with parking and traffic”, says Eero Heinonen. “A central location may involve challenges with the number and location of the parking spaces for people with reduced mobility as well as pick-up and drop-off traffic: there must be enough room for stopping safely and accessibly but reasonably close to the entrance.”
According to Sami Virtanen, the Töölönlahti area is an escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. “The accessibility of outside areas should be considered as well. For persons with impaired hearing, it is easier to have a conversation in a park setting. I hope that the library yard will support easy mobility.”
Virtanen has a proposition for while we are waiting for the construction of the library. “The city could build a pavilion like the one in at the Design Museum during the World Design Capital year. It offered a good venue for city events and for more casual meetings. This ‘Second Pavilion’ could be located near the library and accommodate the different seasons. It could host all kinds of events while we are waiting.”
ACTIVITIES AND ACTION!
The representatives of different organisations for the disabled hope to see a great deal of activity in the Central Library. “Discussions, natural interaction between different people, activity workshops”, suggests Sami Virtanen. “Public service announcements on hearing impairment could reach people who have not previously faced different aspects of disability. We could set a kind of design challenge for planning and simulating issues caused by hearing impairment and challenge people to find solutions together.”
“The library could offer stimulating workspaces: different rooms for relaxing as well as for brainstorming. The stimulation could utilise projection technology for displaying different situations and photos on the wall.”
Pirkko Mahlamäki is hoping to see close collaboration between different organisers. “The Finnish Disability Forum will gladly plan events for the library. Study groups, peer support meetings, book clubs and member meetings would be great for the facility. The Support Centre for Disabled Immigrants could also show what it does.
“It would also be great to supplement the collection with more material on the disabled and their lives, and organisation magazines. And of course lots of art and culture too!”