Sarah Matthews is a former bookshop manager who shares her experience of accessibility in bookshops with us.
Sarah, please tell us about your career in the book world. Was accessibility something you were particularly concerned with back then?
I worked for a bookshop chain for five years in the early 2000s and was a manager for part of that time. Looking back, we received lots of training, but the focus was on health and safety rather than accessibility and inclusion. In one shop I managed I had a colleague who had a hidden disability and therefore I became more aware of how a chronic health condition can affect someone’s everyday life. I’m not sure I had enough support in that role and was pretty much working with my own natural empathy to guide me. I think that understanding and awareness of a wide range of disabilities should be much more openly discussed in the workplace as it would really benefit everybody.
How has your awareness of accessibility in bookshops changed since then? What areas do you think bookshops struggle with the most?
Since becoming disabled several years ago, my relationship to books has changed completely. I am now totally blind and read using audio or braille. I tend to visit bookshops now if I want to get a book for my eight-year-old son or as gifts for family and friends. I live with chronic pain in my feet so my mobility is not great, which means I use a wheelchair for shopping. When I go out now, everything has to be thought through and planned carefully, and I only go to a few bookshops that I particularly like, either because of easy access or because of great customer service. I am definitely loyal to a few places now due to those factors.
I think about access in a different way now, and it frustrates me when access is only available via a ramp on request or has not been considered at all. One of my favourite bookshops is Waterstones Piccadilly because it is close to Green Park station which is one of the few central London stations that is wheelchair accessible. Unfortunately, when I last visited the shop using my wheelchair, I needed to ask a member of staff to let me in using the back entrance as the lift for the steps at the front entrance was broken. That was unlucky and the staff were helpful, though I was left sitting in the rain for five minutes. Once inside, the shop layout is well thought through and easy to navigate.
At the other end of the scale is my local bookshop, Moon Lane Books, which is very small. It is a children’s bookshop and, whilst it is less spacious, I enjoy visiting as they are so knowledgeable and have a great selection of books for my son. I also really respect them as a company as they are working to raise equality of representation in children’s books. During the pandemic, they have been delivering books to people in the local area which has been really appreciated.
Have you got any ideas or advice on how to improve accessibility in bookshops?
I think that as a wheelchair user it is important that bookshops make it clear on their website whether they have steps at the door or for different levels of the shop. Most disabled people I know will check online when planning to visit a company for the first time. I don’t expect that all buildings will be completely accessible to me, but I would like to know in advance what adjustments are in place. One thing that bookshops are very good at is providing lots of seating and a relaxed atmosphere which helps those with limited mobility and people that need a quiet space when shopping becomes overwhelming.
The most important thing bookshops can do is speak with their customers and be actively aware of any requirements needed. Communication is key. When planning events, I would also say that adding a line when it is advertised which says, ‘If you need any assistance to attend this event, please contact us on…’ It helps to make disabled people feel included. During lockdown, I have also enjoyed several online events which are generally much more accessible for disabled people. I would be more than happy to pay a fee to see these events continue online.
When it comes to blindness there are some misconceptions that need to be discussed more openly. I have no light perception at all, but I am firmly in the minority when it comes to blind and partially sighted people. It is estimated that of the two million people in the UK registered Severely Sight Impaired [SSI] or Sight Impaired [SI], less than ten per cent have no useful vision. Many partially sighted people are able to read print using magnification or other assistive technologies. They may have ‘tunnel vision’ or some remaining peripheral vision that allows them to read a text but need a long cane to help them navigate the world and signal to others that they may need more space, so it is more common than you might think that blind and partially sighted people visit bookshops. The RNIB have some great advice on their website on how to guide a blind or partially sighted person.
There is a new app called Welcome which bookshops might consider using. A disabled person creates a profile on the app which details their access requirements and when they want to visit a shop that uses the scheme, they tell them through the app when they are going to visit. This allows the business to be prepared and offer the best customer service for that person.
Another initiative which bookshops might like to check out is the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Lanyard scheme whereby disabled customers can choose to wear an easily identifiable lanyard if they feel they might need extra help, support or a little more time. Not only does this help customers but it can serve as a way of training staff about hidden disabilities.
Can you tell us what makes the shopping experience easier for you?
For me personally, entering the bookshop in a wheelchair needs to be stress-free and I really appreciate staff who notice me and ask if I need any help. It is crucial that staff talk directly to me rather than to my assistant or family member. The worst shopping experiences are the ones where I am ignored. I may not need much help, but it is great to have that initial contact with a member of staff so I know who to speak to if I need something later on.
I understand that staff may feel unsure about approaching someone disabled but a friendly welcome and quick open chat as with any customer makes all the difference. It is also important to ask general questions about what needs the customer has but not to ask anything intrusive or too personal. Some disabled people are happy to talk about their lives, but others prefer not to go into detail. Like any customer, we are all individuals.
I have to mention the digital world. Disabled people are online a great deal in order to connect with others over social media and to make purchases. This has, of course, increased in importance during the pandemic. I think that bookshops appreciate that their online presence has an effect, and some are really good at interacting with their customers. However, while scrolling Twitter, I am yet to find a bookshop that adds alt text image descriptions to their photographs. All major social media platforms have brought alt text in as an option and it allows the user to add a description of up to 1000 characters to an image which is only read out to screen-reader users. Inaccessible social media excludes potential customers. Good image descriptions will give me the titles and authors of the books pictured plus a short description of the cover. At the very least, bookshops should ensure that any posts with photos of book covers also have a link to the book so blind and partially sighted users can find it. Threads of tweets are also preferable to a photo of a list of books without alt text which I cannot access easily. Silent videos also result in me scrolling by.
Website accessibility is also important to consider. I would encourage all bookshops to have their websites thoroughly user-tested for accessibility and a couple of organisations that can help are Ability Net and the Digital Accessibility Centre. It is worth noting that 22% of the population in the UK is disabled which equates to around £250 billion in spending power each year. When bookshops actively consider inclusion they open up more potential markets.
How has your voluntary work with Listening Books affected you personally? Can you tell us a little about the work you do?
After a long period of rehabilitation and adjustment to my disabilities, I am now involved with books again through voluntary work which I love. I volunteer for Listening Books who are a brilliant charity and provide an audiobook service for anyone who has a print disability such as sight impairment, dyslexia, mental health conditions or chronic health conditions that make holding a physical book difficult. I support the team by compiling spreadsheets, transcribing audio recordings or completing internet research.
Before the pandemic hit, I enjoyed the routine of going into the office one day a week and would take a taxi there independently without my wheelchair which felt great. I miss going in at the moment, but I can continue to volunteer from home. I am learning how to use a screen-reader on my laptop and can practice my skills while contributing to the work of the charity.
I also volunteer for a charity called Clear Vision who are a children’s braille library. They adapt books by inserting clear braille sheets between the pages. Over the last six years I have learnt braille and now help the charity by transcribing books into braille. I initially learnt braille to read to my son using Clear Vision books, so it is great to help in this way. This voluntary work means a lot to me and has increased my confidence and vastly improved my outlook on the future.
You can contact or follow Sarah via her Twitter @sarahm_matthews