As part of my endeavor to learn more about neurodiversity in librarianship, somebody recommended to me to read the Winter 2019 issue of Library Trends for more insight. The entire issue was dedicated to disability in librarianship — an under-represented theme in the scholarly literature of the field — and I’ve found it tremendously helpful to read and gather more insight into theories of disability as applied to librarianship. It’s a topic I want to continue to learn about; as a bipolar librarian (a disability that can usually go unnoticed by my peers) it’s valuable to understand that I’m not alone among others “passing” in my profession. But the deeper issues are critical, and reveal the fault lines of ableism and discrimination built into professional practices in libraries and I’m deeply concerned for those within our profession who struggle with more difficult disabilities in an unfriendly environment than I do.

I’m going to quote some of the papers in that issue of Library Trends as I read through and reflect on what they might mean for libraries. I’m hopeful someday to develop a practical framework that could be implemented in a library setting that would begin to break down ableist structures and more positively welcome disabled library workers into our field.

I was deeply impressed by the article “Disability, Identity, and Professionalism: Precarity in Librarianship” by Christine M. Moeller. Moeller takes the reader through the ableist issues in librarianship within a broader context of disability in American society. While the library profession looks outward in its perspective on disability, inequalities in the profession itself are largely unaddressed. Not only does the field’s literature have very little written on the topic, but the practical approaches to disability in the library profession are steeped in the medical theory of disability, which centers disability in the body or mind of the disabled individual. This inevitably leads to the view that disability is a problem in need of a solution. Moeller observes that this approach relies on “retrofitting” the organization to accommodate the disability rather than evaluating inequities on an internal level.

Libraries have done significant work toward making information accessible for all, particularly in regards to web and digital accessibility, yet the library literature largely looks outward toward the needs of library users and only minimally examines the lived experiences of disabled library workers.

Moeller (2019, 459)

How can libraries claim to include all and to uphold democratic values, when it leaves behind the most at-risk populations within the field of librarianship itself? Librarians have a great many talking points when it comes to diversity, but disability is a topic on which the profession is curiously silent. The profession has its own challenges internally when it comes to employment of disabled workers. According to a 2017 ALA survey (cited in Moeller’s article), only 3% of librarians reported being disabled. According to the CDC, 26% of Americans are disabled. This is a huge disparity. Are we really inclusive if we’ve filtered the disabled out of our profession?

Moeller’s central theme is that of precarity, the idea that library workers rely on the will and decision of others for their employment. Precarity creates vulnerability among the workforce, and leads to low wages and poor work-life boundaries, as well as anxiety regarding stable employment. This precarity is only increasing under the tightening budgetary constraints across the country following the COVID-19 pandemic. In a profession driven by the burden of homogenous norms and vocational awe, those who don’t “look the part” or “act the part” are at risk of their precarity tipping in the wrong direction and falling out of favor.

The employment of library workers remains largely dependent on the will of others, and as the value of higher education and of libraries continue to come under question, library workers across a variety of employment situations are facing increased precarity in their workplaces. This precarity is increased further for those who may not fit the perceived white, hyperable norms of academia, and disabled library workers, who are often excluded from discussions regarding workplace diversity, are particularly at risk.

Moeller (462)

In this context, it’s no wonder that librarians are reluctant to disclose a disability. The disclosure of a disability and the request for accommodation can itself be a painful process filled with suspicion and recriminations. More on that in a subsequent post on the article by JJ Pionke in the same issue of Library Trends another time. Pionke does a great job of shining a light on the ableist paradigm of the medical model of disability as embodied in the ADA process of requesting an accommodation for a disability that is not readily visible to the employer.

There’s a broader topic for further discussion touched on in Moeller’s article. That’s the heavy reliance on “professionalism” as a core value of librarianship. The term itself drives a wedge between library workers: there are those who are professionals, and those who are not. It’s difficult to imagine how to make this distinction in a way that doesn’t translate itself into the “haves” and the “have-nots.” There has been a lot of tinkering with terminology in an attempt to tweak this distinction: library “support staff,” “paraprofessionals,” and in some places, “professional associates.” While the move toward more inclusive language is generally good, the difficult concepts are still there and merit more thought.

Rather than continuing to adhere to an accommodations process that views disability as a problem in need of a solution, and perpetuating an ableist professional ideal that places responsibility on the individual to be resilient, libraries and library workers need to redefine professionalism, minimize the stigma associated with any type of disability, and reduce precarity for disabled library employees.

Moeller (466)

Something I’m learning is that it’s critical to understand where the locus of disability is considered. If it’s in the body or mind of the disabled individual, then disability is a problem in need of solution. If we locate it in society instead, it opens up a whole new perspective on the matter. Disability isn’t a problem if our societal design accommodates people of different abilities. The design of our older buildings, for example, often doesn’t account for the disabled. Because of the fact that the design was based in an ableist norm, the presence of the disabled is considered problematic. The solution is to “retrofit” the building with an accessible entrance, or accessible signage. But these measures don’t address the underlying issue of the initial design. So too with our less concrete structures in our workplaces.

The precarity described in Moeller’s article intuitively fits my experience of the library field. Low wages and uncertain employment in difficult financial times are hallmarks of the profession. It’s beneficial to shine a light on the precarity that exists in the immaterial threats to the standing of the employee in the workplace context. There are many risks to disclosing a disability, and our workplace cultures must (at a minimum) change to make that disclosure less painful or (more positively) undergo redesign to account for the disabled. There’s enough precarity in librarianship already; it’s time to build up structures of support for all library workers which will benefit the disabled and serve the cause of true diversity in our profession.

This is the first post in a series following my reading of the Winter 2019 issue of Library Trends. More posts will be linked here as they are completed. I recommend anybody interested in learning more on this topic to purchase a copy of the journal and read its articles; it’s been extremely enlightening.