Thursday, November 16, 2017

Librarians with Disabilities: Accessibility in Action

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Amanda M. Leftwich is currently a Circulation Supervisor at a small fine arts college in Philadelphia, PA. She tweets as @thelibmaven. 

As a person of color with visible and invisible disabilities, navigating librarianship has been a complex and oftentimes frustrating experience. Most conversations about equity and diversity in librarianship solely involve race or gender, but exclude people living with disabilities or chronic illness. Dealing with health concerns in a rigid environment such as libraries can seem impossible; however there are ways to thrive in the field with disability.

Understand your rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) 1991 & ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA)! Although these protections set in place by law they are under attack due to H.R. 620. It’s still important to learn about both laws. The ADA is the original law granting people with disabilities civil rights protections. The ADAAA expanded the terms of “disability” which previously had not counted learning disabilities under civil rights protections. Your disability may be under the protected class, but you have to learn the basics of the laws first.

Reasonable accommodation exists for a reason; use it. Under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) policy employees with a disability have the legal right to request accommodations to perform their job duties. For example, employers providing changes to schedules, assistive technology, an interpreter, removing job duties that are deemed harmful to one’s disability, and moving office space are all examples of reasonable accommodations. Employees may request reasonable accommodation at any time (including the interview process). One must provide written notification of outlined restrictions from a medical professional. Although most librarians shyaway from the topic of reasonable accommodation, it shouldn’t be avoided if it’s needed to complete job tasks! Most requests can be filled cheaply and without much hassle to employers.

Don’t feel the need to apologize for your disability. Most librarians are used to working with few colleagues. This can create familiarity in the workplace. However, this doesn’t mean that anyone has to give detailed information about their health issues. The only person who should be concerned about your disability is your health care professional. Others will frequently ask questions (to the point of harassment) about your illness, especially those that are invisible. Quite frankly, it’s none of their business. You don’t have to prove nor should you feel guilty about having an illness while “looking perfectly healthy”. You do not need to explain anything related to your health to your colleagues, friends, neighbors, or anyone that you aren’t comfortable with providing.

Save your Spoons. Spoonies (anyone suffering from a chronic invisible illness) understand the importance of pacing themselves. I suffer from Meniere's Disease, an invisible chronic illness that impacts balance and hearing. Some days, I have enough spoons to complete all of my duties and tasks. Others, I only have one spoon just to get out of bed. For me, saving my spoons means not completing certain balance-heavy library projects (shifting, moving heavy carts, or anything that requires lots of walking around the Library, etc.) and on my “drop attack” days; it means calling out sick. Prior to being diagnosed with Meniere’s, I had to call out frequently due to issues with vertigo. I felt like a failure until my parents reminded me that “sick days are there for a reason”. I never used sick days prior, simply because I wasn’t sick. Not even for mental health days; this was a mistake. Sick days (and personal days) are there for a reason- they aid in you allowing your body time to recover from an episode, if necessary. If you need them due to illness (or mental health), TAKE THEM. Never be afraid to put your health ahead of your job.

Have compassion for yourself. We all know that one librarian that’s been with the Library since they “graduated from Library school”. The super dedicated, always dependable person ready to answer a reference question in a jiff. Most importantly, never called out sick a day in their career! As a spoonie, this will not be your testimony. Perfection does not exist. You’ll need to accept yourself at whatever stage in life you’re in. This will mean accepting the fact you won’t be able to control your illness. You are more than your illness! Remind yourself every day that your self-worth doesn’t revolve around your profession, but life outside of work.

Acknowledge that others won’t get it. Others will question your illness. What’s wrong with you? Are you really sick? You look fine to me. Unfortunately, questions and statements like these will continue to occur. In the face of chronic illness, most people have no idea what to say. This is not your problem. Only you understand how your disability affects you. Don’t concern yourself with the thoughts of others.

Get involved in the conversations about accessibility. Unfortunately, the conversations about inclusiveness and access oftentimes exclude librarians with disabilities. Organizations like the Association of Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) and ADA Center aim to train and promote scholarship for disability justice. Although these organizations don’t fall under librarianship, we can carry the conversations had in those spaces into our field. Write about your experiences as a disabled librarian to library blogs (this one), chats, discussion boards, etc. Follow disability justice leaders such as Mia Mingus, Emily Ladua, Lydia Brown, and Haben Girma to get involved in a larger discussion about accessibility to bring these ideas into the libraries.

Compassion in libraries shouldn’t only be directed towards patrons we serve, but also the librarians and paraprofessionals working in these settings. Don’t be afraid to challenge the norm and fight for your place in the field. There’s more than enough room for all of us, including those with disabilities.

Want more on accessibility? Click here for more in the Accessibility Series.

Are you a disabled/neurodivergent/chronically ill library staff member who would like to guest post? Click here for more information on writing a post of the accessibility. Posts on accessibility by abled members of the library community are not accepted.

The Accessibility Series was made possible by a grant from Awesome Without Borders.