A useful article I read while researching more on disabilities in librarianship was an overview of attitudes toward disability in the field titled “Disability, the Silent D in Diversity” by Teneka Williams and Asha Hagood. The article lays out some basic truths surrounding the issues: namely that diversity is sought after in librarianship (and in other fields), and most organizations want to be diverse, but the disabled are largely overlooked in this discussion.
Williams and Hagood point out that disability should be important in the ongoing conversation about diversity. Anybody could become disabled at any time, and it’s an uncomfortable truth that most of us will become disabled as we age. The push for diversity has many causes, but the article points out that diversity is “good for business:” with a variety of voices at the table, an organization has a creative advantage. Nevertheless, for the heightened emphasis on diversity, the disabled are rarely if ever mentioned in the diversity discussion.
There is a subset of the community at large that is habitually ignored and marginalized. So while there is a structure in development—a vehicle designed to carry us more boldly and more inclusively into the future, a locomotive powered by progressive intentions, fueled by varied demographics, cheered on by hopeful bystanders—the proverbial train is leaving the station. Is anyone thinking to make sure there are accessible seats and accommodations on board?(Williams and Hagood, 488)
A good portion of the discussion surrounding the disabled is framed in terms of accommodation for their impairments. But the authors assert that the library community is failing the disabled when it comes to accommodation, representation, hiring, and employment. A large reason why this is the case is that libraries have divided their services. We have one collection for the disabled and another for those who are not. The article’s authors point out that the division of services has changed how we design our libraries. We now have essentially different experiences of the library depending on whether one is disabled or not. But the thrust of the article focuses more specifically on the field of librarianship and how welcoming (or unwelcoming) it is to those with disabilities.
The drive to create accessible libraries has been a challenge for many reasons. Stretched budgets along with limited training and resources often reveal disconnects between a vision and reality. Diversity in staffing confronts the personal assumptions and biases of individuals, which can impede opportunities for employees with disabilities.(Williams and Hagood, 490-491)
The library, as an institution, has positioned itself rhetorically as a hub of inclusivity and equity, as a place for all. But it’s possible that libraries fall short of those ideals, and if so, it’s because of the attitude with which libraries approach accessibility. Williams and Hagood have an excellent point about the approach here. As long as accessibility means a line of product offerings (certain height shelves, certain computer monitors, certain size aisles), the accessibility of the library will be limited. Instead, accessibility should be understood as an attitude of service to the disabled.
This implies a strong need to dive deeper into understanding the disabled and how better to serve them. And as that understanding grows, we can perceive the opportunities to improve our workplaces through universal design. Most accommodations in the workplace are low-cost or no-cost. When compared to the strategic advantage the organization has from diverse perspectives, it’s a no-brainer to be proactive in accessibility. But there remains much to be done to bring libraries into alignment between their words and their actions.
A 2012 article in Forbes magazine states, “According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Job Accommodations Network annual report, Workplace Accommodations: Low Cost, High Impact, workplace accommodations not only are low cost, but also positively impact the workplace in many ways” (Owen 2012). This report found that more than half of requested workplace accommodations cost absolutely nothing for the companies to implement. Some examples of these accommodations include scheduling flexibility, allowances in dress code rules, or allowing somebody to sit or stand when other positioning is customary. The responsibility falls to us to design an inclusive blueprint of service that benefits all community members and to actively promote it in order to ensure its development and strengthening. The drive to be accessible and inclusive must begin within an organization. We cannot continue to espouse principles and values that we are not practicing.(Williams and Hagood, 493)
In the end, this article is advocating for the consideration of something revolutionary: the re-imagining of library collections and services in comprehensively accessible ways. If we can manage to do so, we would build truly inclusive and diverse libraries across the board. This should include hiring practices and the design of our workplaces. Librarianship has well-known diversity deficits in race and sex, and anything that helps diversify will benefit the field as a whole.
An inclusive community that evolves from mutual exchanges benefits both participants. It is time for the campaign of accessibility to move beyond conferences and webinars. As technology changes the information landscape, it has created an opportunity for us to challenge our current service models. It may no longer be ideal to serve our populations differently due to service delivery but instead to create accessible formats available to all. This will foster an environment that is inviting to patrons and employees, which would inevitably lend itself to an inclusive environment. Is this not what the library advocates?(Williams and Hagood, 494)
We need to find our way to inclusivity permeating everything we do, not just relegating it to a specific committee or department or collection. I don’t know if we will ever see the library reinvent itself in this way. But putting forward the vision is as good a first step as any.
This is the second 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.