Ci5 Education: Fostering an Inclusive Environment for Staff and Customers With Disabilities

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Kimberly Cake, Drew Sieplinga, and Susan Kusel
Kimberly Cake, Drew Sieplinga, and Susan Kusel

At last month’s ABC Children’s Institute in Portland, Oregon, a panel of booksellers presented the education session “Fostering an Inclusive Environment for Staff and Customers With Disabilities.” The panel featured Kimberly Cake of Enchanted Passage in Sutton, Massachusetts; Drew Sieplinga of Wild Rumpus in Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Susan Kusel of [words] Bookstore in Maplewood, New Jersey.

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which was passed by Congress in 1990, prohibits discrimination against those with disabilities in the areas of employment, public services, public accommodations, and telecommunications.

Over the years, Wild Rumpus has made simple changes to make the store more accessible. “It was important to me and to the store to make sure we were serving every part of the population as best as we possibly could,” said Sieplinga.

Wild Rumpus widened its aisles to 36 inches, and when bookshelves are moved to make room for an event, staff members know where to return the shelving because of permanent markers on the floor.

Due to local regulations, Wild Rumpus is not allowed to build a ramp in front of the store, but it did purchase a portable ramp for people with physical disabilities, said Sieplinga, and the store uses clipboards to conduct transactions with people for whom the counter is too high.

“When you make a store accessible, you make it better for everyone,” she said. At Wild Rumpus, parents with strollers can now move around more easily, and all customers are able to see the merchandise better. “If everyone can come into your store and feel welcome, then you have a bigger customer base. You’re not doing it as a charity. There’s a social reason, but it’s also beneficial to the store.”

Simple accommodations can also make a huge difference in whether people with disabilities can work at a bookstore, said Sieplinga. A majority of disabilities are invisible, she pointed out, so bookstore owners must be open to staff being honest about their needs and should think about how other staff can help the store be more accommodating for them.

For events with customers with special needs, such as a sensory story time, which takes place before the store opens, staff members turn off music and cover the cockatiel cage, provide kids with fidget items to help with attention, and use phrases like “stand if you are able.” An important component of the story time, said Sieplinga, is giving the kids a clear agenda and an understanding of what each component of the story time will include.

In December 2016, Kimberly Cake opened Enchanted Passage in a nearly 200-year-old house, a location that has made updates to improve accessibility more complicated. Certain buildings can be grandfathered in depending on state and town ordinances, she said, so booksellers may have to do less than they think to comply with requirements.

Despite Enchanted Passage being grandfathered in, “we did everything that we could to make sure that we were accommodating,” Cake said, including installing a 36-inch-high counter, making sure aisles were wide enough, and adding handicap parking and a ramp at the door. “We always wanted to be as accessible as possible,” she explained.

Cake’s daughter, who is now two years old, was born prematurely and spent much of the start of her life in the hospital. Once home, Cake was unable to take her daughter many places because of the medical equipment she had to transport with the stroller. “It was important to me that that did not happen at our store, that people, whatever they were dealt, were welcomed and comfortable,” she said.

Cake also recently discovered that all but one staff member at Enchanted Passage has a disability. “They’ve all told me how it’s a comfortable and safe place to be and that they feel welcomed,” she said.

Sometimes customers need guidance on how to be sensitive to staff or other customers with special needs, said Cake, who suggested booksellers speak with customers calmly and conversationally despite how they may have reacted to the person with the disability, or allow staff to advocate for themselves.

To help customers who cannot use the traditional checkout counter, staff members at Enchanted Passage use a laptop and a portable credit card machine. For someone who cannot physically navigate Enchanted Passage, staff will sit with them to go through the inventory, then retrieve books to simulate the browsing experience. “Customer service is one of our most important things,” Cake said.

Word of mouth has been the best advertising for Enchanted Passage’s accessibility and special programming, said Cake. One of the most popular events is its regular sensitive story time, which is limited to 15 people (including parents), has no bright lights or music, and features touch-and-feel elements. The event is also open to families with immunosuppressed children, as all of the children’s toys are thoroughly cleaned with eco-friendly baby wipes before the event begins.

A fundamental part of New Jersey’s [words] is its work with people with disabilities, which was inspired by co-owners Jonah and Ellen Zimiles’ son, who has severe autism, said Kusel. In 2015, [words] was presented with the Ruderman Best in Business Award for its work in providing on-the-job training to people with disabilities.

In addition to its vocational program, which has provided training to 90 people since its inception, the store also hosts programming and activities for people with disabilities. The store’s event space is in the basement, so [words] installed a chair lift to ensure everyone can access the room.

“The general idea is to be warm and welcoming to everybody” and to recognize that disabilities may be invisible, said Kusel. Staff should be sure to listen and be helpful, but also to avoid patronizing or stigmatizing anyone.

The session panelists suggested that booksellers looking to carry more books that feature characters with disabilities visit the Schneider Family Book Awards or Disability in Kidlit, for which reviewers must have the disability that is featured in the book. Booksellers can also visit the ABA Education Curriculum to find handouts provided by the panelists on Americans With Disabilities Act resources and the Schneider Family Book Awards.