Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Disability Allies in the Library: An Unsolicited Rant

Tweet from Storytime Underground that says
"Librarians are not neutral and libraries are not neutral spaces"
in all capital letters.
We need to talk.

What I am about to say is a long time coming. I am far from an activist and am speaking from the heart.

So here’s the thing; we all been dealing with a lot of tragedy recently. And it really sucks. And I get that we’re all tired.

But this week a bunch of stuff happened related to the largest minority in the world, disabled people/persons with disabilities/PWD* like me.

First, a minor with Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 2 has decided to end her life. One thousand people attended a party hosted by her mother  to celebrate before she dies. In other words, a suicidal teen has announced her decision to commit suicide, and the adults in her life are celebrating it. Let me be clear that I am not against the right to die, but I am critical of the adults in her life, including her doctors and counselor. ThisTwitter thread by Kayla Whaley gets at my feelings about it. This is not an isolated incident.

Second, nineteen people were murdered in Japan explicitly because they are disabled.  I didn’t see this shared on my Facebook feed until 24 hours after the fact, even though I searched Facebook for it so its algorithm would know it was important to me. Conversely, I saw many people who shared the new ALS gene findings, the sharing of which reads like an in-your-face to critics of the Ice Bucket Challenge drive which just so happens to include a huge portion of the disability community (I was going to find you some links to that, but please Google it if you have questions. It is multifaceted and not the point of this post**). I’ve seen it shared on library groups and on library Facebook pages.

To me, the narratives behind these two stories and its responses are the same: disabled lives are actively seen as less than able-bodied lives, unless our lives serve to make able-bodied people feel better about themselves.

I need to ask you, library staff and librarians on the Internet, to be disability allies.

Storytime Underground twee that reads,
"Collection Development isn't neutral. Cataloging isn't neutral.
Programming isn't neutral. Advertisiting isn't neutral."

Over the past few months it has come to my attention that while many libraries provide programming targeted at children with disabilities, people in the libr* world do not see themselves specifically as allies of PWD like they are allies of people of color, or First Nations people, or LGBTQ+ people (especially considering that people of color, or First Nations people, or LGBTQ+ people could all ALSO be PWD). I see it in the way that you rallied to save the job of a library cat that could very well be preventing people with life-threatening allergies from coming to the library. I see it in the way that you hold sensory storytimes, but do less to specifically target adults with disabilities, when, SPOILER ALERT, kids with disabilities turn into adults with disabilities (and in the degree to which your focus is sometimes is on the able-bodied caregivers). I see it in how talks about space concerns, and library spaces themselves, are dedicated to ADA compliance (but no more, no, we don’t have THAT much space) and how books are placed on display out of reach of some PWD. I see it in the weird backlash I got for suggesting new ways to make your programming more accessible—it was not a critique of CSLP’s disability resources, but I understand now it was seen as such because these are conversations we have so infrequently that it’s just assumed that this conversation should exist in an all-encompassing toolbox. I see it in the way people share inaccessible programming all the time in library groups and these considerations are not made. I see it in the way conference programs and other talks on disability exclude disabled people (not that PWD NEED to talk about accessibility).

Hopefully at this point you are wondering what you can do to become a better ally, and luckily a lot of it is similar or the same to how you’re an ally to other marginalized groups. Here’s a few ways you can do that now:
1. Talk about accessibility at your library. Talk to PWD and local resource centers. Really take a critical eye to what it means to navigate your space, programming, and website. Ask your director to keep this on their radar. DO NOT, as was actually suggested in a webinar I watched in 2014, put yourself in a wheelchair when you do not usually need a wheelchair. The idea that able-bodied people can replicate the experience of PWD to “try it on” is ableist AF.

2. Follow and amplify voices in the online disability community. Learn about the stories like the ones above before your friends and colleagues who are not a part of the conversation. Listen and amplify their experiences and concerns. Some of my current favorites are Kayla Whaley mentioned above, @crippledscholar, @erabrand, and @sjaejones. Follow the hashtags #a11y and #badassdisabledwomen for more voices to follow. My posts are not always completely accessible but I continue to make strides in this area because of these conversations. Oh, and making friends with PWD in real life couldn’t hurt.***

3. Share content by and about disabled people online.  The reason so many did not hear about the two above stories is because few able-bodied people shared them with a critical eye. Be that person. Do it on Facebook, because that’s where a lot of people go for their news.  You will probably get comments and questions. Find resources to answer them.

4. Speak up online in library communities when people are being ableist. Read this post at Autistic Hoya to learn more about when someone is being ableist. It is difficult for the small number of PWD in the library world to address every time someone says something ableist. Oftentimes, we are dealing with our own internalized ableism due to there never being any books that had non-problematic PWD characters available or knowing no adult PWD the same as us or not having clubs to join to meet other PWD in order to help us craft our own identities as PWD in the world. For the longest time whenever I talked about my cerebral palsy to people I would cry. Advocating for myself was too personal, too much to ask of me; I didn’t know how to do it. After speaking up about the ableism in the  “try it on” exercises I mention in #1 on a librarian Facebook group, one person told me that  doing that is actually helpful because for the longest time PWD were institutionalized, so this person never thought about them as patrons until recently.  I was not (and am still not sure if I am) a strong enough advocate for myself to continue that conversation. I am now (obviously) becoming stronger as I realize my role as a privileged member of the disability community as I can pass as able-bodied. But: please. Speak up. It is exhausting to be the one to continue to argue for our humanity, to educate about issues or concerns or privilege surrounding disability, etc.  You can do it and not feel as drained as I am, I know it. As a disabled person, I take it all personally because they are talking about ME.

5. Get disabled people to talk about accessibility at conferences. There are too many preconferences and programs and panels that talk about accessibility but do not include disabled voices. I said above that PWD do not need to speak on accessibility, but there are plenty of people who do. Like Sina Bahram who is absolutely amazing and please reach out to Sina to present at your next conference immediately. I don’t know them personally but I’ve seen them talk and yeah, do it.

*I prefer identity-first/disability-first language, and refer to myself as a disabled person. Others may prefer something different. Here is some more information on that.

**But TURNS OUT, the fact that I have to say that IS the point of this.

***At the same time, recognize that having a friend/family member (child, especially) with a disability is not the same as being a disabled person, and always believe and listen to the experiences of a PWD even if the person in your life has reported different experiences. Here is an explanation of erasure of people with disabilities in their own life stories by well-meaning family members.

Note: I know that they know this, but in case anyone is wondering, using Storytime Underground's tweets is not to implicate the Joint Chiefs. They have done amazing work on all of the above this week. But I ask you to reflect on the issues in this post in relation to the popularity of that Twitter thread.

UPDATE: 7/28: I am overwhelmed by the interest in this post and the feedback I've received. Let's keep talking.

UPDATE 11/29: I have since found myself in a complicated relationship with the word "ally", and am unsure if this is a word I would like to use. I am keeping it in this post, as the word may be a way for abled people to understand my charge here. I may not use it in the future.

Click here for the Accessibility Series!


  1. Thanks for posting this! A lot of people focus on people of color only when talking about diversity, which is important, but diversity is about so much more and the community of people with disabilities is a group I hold close to my heart. Thanks!

  2. Thank you for this! I'm trying to improve the accessibility of my community college library (and the college in general), partially (but not only!) by asking my friends with disabilities what makes it easier for them. For instance, how much room between shelves actually makes them accessible for people in motorized wheelchairs (which tend to be larger)?

  3. Thank yo ufor this.

    My partner and I are both disabled librarians and always spend out way cringing through disability training in the workplace presentations, and how it doesn't even begin to take into consideration disabled workers, let alone really do any good for patrons with disabilities. We are determined to come up with a panel or presentation by people with disabilities for libraries, because our voices are so rarely amplified.

    1. That is awesome, Amy. While I didn't want to encourage able-bodied librarians to contact me first to present on accessibility, working on a project with other disabled librarians sounds amazing and something I'd love to be a part of, if you'd like another hand (literally because I only have one good one to offer [wink emoticon])

    2. I will make note of this! We have another friend who has an MLIS and has just started a disability studies master's degree that we want to get in on this, but we're just waiting on life things to get out of the way first (like moving and a wedding!)