One of the most informative articles I read in the Winter 2019 issue of Library Trends was Claiming Our Space: A Quantitative and Qualitative Picture of Disabled Librarians by Robin Brown and Scott Sheidlower.The study included a quantitative survey of disabled librarians and the authors followed up with a qualitative interview to record the views and opinions of the study participants.
The article mentions several issues touched on in the course of the study. The backdrop of these issues in libraries is ADA compliance. Almost everything in the field’s literature has to do with accessibility from a compliance standpoint.
The ADA is known as a law that is moved forward by citizen activism. It is complaint driven. The most common complaints toward libraries have been about digital accessibility. Many libraries have been pushed by civil-rights actions to make their web presence more accessible to the visually impaired (Walker and Keenan 2015). This is often where the conversation about accessibility begins in libraries. Under the influence of the ADA, a conversation has begun in the library literature about the importance of access to librarianship and educating us all regarding the needs of the disabled population.Brown and Sheidlower, 473
This is problematic. While compliance with ADA is better than no compliance, a heavy emphasis on ADA compliance bases the library’s perspective in the medical model of disability. The medical model centers disability in the body of the disabled individual, and treats the disability as a problem to be solved. In this context, the burden of accommodation falls on the disabled individual, who must disclose a disability and ask for accommodations. Further, once accommodations are given, the institution can consider the disability to be “solved” and return to “normal.” This isn’t true accessibility, which can only be attained when the design of the library is accessible as an entire institution.
The study wasn’t a representative sample of disabled librarians, but there’s some difficulty in achieving that since many disabled librarians pass as nondisabled. The authors relied on self-identification as disabled, something that is difficult for library workers who fear negative consequences of disclosing disability.
Passing was discussed in all of the interviews (see Appendix B). People “pass” because it can be easier to try to “fake it,” rather than having to constantly explain yourself. The interviewees stated that if one has an “invisible disability,” constantly explaining your disability is exhausting. However, passing for a nondisabled individual is a difficult choice, because faking also hurts the individual, as has already been discussed above in the literature review.Brown and Sheidlower, 477
Passing is harmful to the individual, as it often takes significant personal resources to give the impression that one is nondisabled. Respondents to the survey reported feeling exhausted often, and splitting much of their lives between self-care and work. Still, passing is often better than the alternative: facing recriminations for disclosing a disability. In fact, several of the respondents to the survey expressed concern that disclosing their disability hurt their careers.
A couple of points of interest to me personally arose in reading this article. First was the role of simple support systems in creating a better environment for disabled librarians. Allies and mentors seem to make a big difference to disabled library workers, and implementing that sort of network should be close to zero cost.
Many of our respondents (over 60 percent) declared that allies and mentors were very important in their professional lives. The value of community was discussed during the interviews. Most people felt that having a community dramatically increases the quality of life. Networks within the disability community provide mentors and increased self-understanding and self-acceptance. Those respondents who are part of an academic institution felt that a disabled-students club or a gathering of disabled faculty can provide support, guidance, and encouragement.Brown and Sheidlower, 477
Another point of interest to me was the section of the interview dealing with neurodivergent library workers. Exhaustion plays a big role in the life of autistic librarians, and autism appears to complicate communications and social dynamics.
Several of the interviews were with autistic people. When social skills have been difficult to learn, job interviews are a big boundary. There is a complex challenge buried in the issue of social dynamics if you have an invisible disability. Anxiety is definitely an issue for people with communication issues. For autistic librarians, existing in an able-bodied neurotypical world is exhausting. Exhaustion can also get in the way of communication and thus contributes to negative social dynamics for people with a wide range of disabilities.Brown and Sheidlower, 478
The conclusion section of the article lays out several action steps to follow moving forward. One is to adjust library school curricula to include disability awareness training alongside other diversity training. Another was to lend support to getting the ALA to restart the Century Scholarship Program, which provided some support for disabled library school students. And the authors would also like to explore building community around disabled librarians. Community support appears to factor greatly in job satisfaction and is a powerful element in personal fulfillment for disabled librarians. Unfortunately, I have yet to encounter such an open community organization in the field. Maybe that’s something that can be developed soon.
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.