During my reading on disabilities in librarianship, many articles point back to a study by Joanne Oud called Systemic Workplace Barriers for Academic Librarians with Disabilities. This study, conducted in 2019, interviewed ten librarians with disabilities and formulated qualitative findings from these interviews.

I am going to focus today on the first portion of the findings: on the culture of the workplace and the difficulties the respondents reported. The first centers around awareness.

One of the key barriers mentioned was a lack of awareness of disability-related issues. Most interviewees commented that even when their colleagues and supervisors were sympathetic and well-meaning, they often lacked a basic understanding of disability. Interviewees frequently mentioned the general lack of awareness of disability-related issues at work.

A recurring theme in the literature surrounding these issues is the lack of connection and support for librarians with disabilities. Respondents to other surveys mentioned workplace support networks and supportive mentors as key components of a successful workplace environment. The lack of awareness stems from a cultural paradigm centered on the assumption that all workers are able-bodied, and that any disabled workers are an anomaly in need of fixing.

This misunderstanding of disability may render disability invisible in the workplace. Multiple participants commented that colleagues and supervisors assumed that everyone in their workplace was able-bodied, which had the effect of rendering disability invisible. Others mentioned that since their colleagues and supervisors assumed there were no people with disabilities in their workplace, they therefore felt that they didn’t need to engage with or learn about disability issues. As one participant with an invisible disability said, “That’s another kind of erasure of people with disabilities. It’s easy not to think about it because there isn’t anyone they know of in the system.”

The breakdown in culture becomes clear. By allowing the normative attitude to be one of passivity regarding disability. the workplace culture is a barrier to understanding and inclusion. This breakdown becomes critical in the broader library culture that puts an essential premium on overwork.

Interviewees frequently discussed concerns about productivity and workload. Doing more with less creates potential difficulties for all workers but can cause particular difficulties for people with disabilities who need to use different strategies or take more time to complete their work. As one interviewee commented, “I feel there’s quite a lot of pressure to do work or to do certain types of work, and certain types of work are valued differently. That makes it a tough situation for anyone, and maybe for me with a learning disability… because I feel it takes me longer to do things than everyone else I feel it would be nice if there was less workload.”

The overwhelming majority of discussions I’ve had surrounding workload in libraries relies on the word “pressure.” As scope creep impacts the library from outside (in the form of new mandates and services the library must implement and provide), vocational awe drives pressure from within. Library workers are pressured to do more with less, to work longer hours, and to “go above and beyond.” This pressure incentivizes self-destructive behavior and leads to exclusion of the disabled from the field.

I’ll continue reading Oud’s study in a future post. There are many insights in her work!