I’m continuing my reading of Joanne Oud’s study called Systemic Workplace Barriers for Academic Librarians with Disabilities. It’s an in-depth look at the views and attitudes of ten academic librarians interviewed in 2019. I’m interested in the discussion on the structures of the workplace and how they contribute to challenges for library workers with disabilities.
Some participants reported that ambiguous work structures created difficulties for them. In particular, a few participants with mental health–related disabilities reported that the conflict and stress created by ambiguity and lack of clear priorities at work made it challenging for them to cope at work or contributed to the worsening of their disability. One discussed how difficult it was for her to work in an environment where she is expected to determine her own priorities even though the organizational goals and priorities are conflicting and unclear: “Everybody seems to have different ideas about what should be valued… and that can be problematic.”
Something that’s emerged for me is this notion of clarity. This is particularly important for neurodivergent library workers. It’s another instance where accommodations for disabled library workers would benefit everybody: nobody likes to be caught in an ambiguous situation; clarifying roles and duties would likely help everybody. But without that clarity, some of the workers are left behind or needlessly challenged.
Although the lack of structures related to supervisor support caused the greatest concern, participants mentioned other workplace structures that were problematic from a disability support perspective. One commented on the lack of structures and processes in place in her workplace to deal with any problems encountered due to disability: “If I did feel discriminated against it’s hard to know what to do about it.” Others commented on previous workplaces without policies or trained staff who could deal with workplace accommodations.
The fact that these interviews were of librarians makes that statement pretty sad. The library claims to be a model of equity. But it’s rare for any library to even mention disabilities when it comes to the discussion of inclusivity and diversity.
Given some of the negative cultural attitudes about disability reported in the previous discussion on barriers, and participants’ personal experiences with others’ discomfort, it is not surprising that librarians with disabilities report mixed feelings about discussing or disclosing their disabilities to others at work. Disability disclosure was frequently discussed in the interviews. Some participants decided to disclose their disabilities to others at work, either as a coping strategy or as a way to raise workplace awareness of disability. Others were reluctant to mention their disabilities due to past experiences with stigma, or fears for the potential impact on their job. The majority of participants reported disclosing a disability selectively, to only a few coworkers they trusted.
That’s powerful. The attitude of the workplace can make or break whether library workers want to disclose their disabilities. We need to look at changing the paradigm to make that step easier. Without it, the environment causes library workers to hide their disabilities, further perpetuating the cycle of ableism in the library. It means it takes even more courage to be open about a disability in the face of the culture.
Further barriers exist in the form of the accommodations process. I’ve read and reflected on that a bit already here, and I might look more in detail at that again in the future.
Some interviewees reported negative, difficult, and stressful experiences with accommodation requests. Negative experiences tended to be associated with more “difficult” requests. People with straightforward requests like furniture or technology tended to report relatively positive experiences, but people who needed changes to work patterns or hours tended to report more negative experiences. One participant who requested both straightforward and difficult types of accommodation expressed the difference between the two in her experience: “The simple stuff is accommodated easily. The more difficult stuff I think there is always a fight, an unnecessary fight, and that’s what I find very unfortunate. That someone has to go to some kind of war to get it done.”
This is a reflection of the misunderstanding of disability baked into the workplace culture. The accommodations process is based in the medical model of disability, which views disability as a problem located in the body or mind of the impaired individual. I’ve now read several articles where survey respondents report that the accommodations process is one steeped in suspicion, especially for individuals with invisible disabilities.