Thursday, November 03, 2016

Accessibility Series: Definitions and 5 Quick Tips

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UPDATE: Welcome, new readers! if you're interested in guest posting, please click here for more information. 

On Saturday, I was honored to present at the Oregon Library Association Children's Services Division fall workshop, as part of an afternoon on diversity. I figured a lot of what I talked about might be a good starting point for this accessibility series! Note: I am very new to this activism and, probably like many of our guest posters, still battling my own internalized ableism. If you see something that is incorrect or needs to be amended or updated, please email me at brycedontplay at gmail dot com. 
Here we go:
 First I would like to start with definitions of some terms we'll be using in this series:
AB/NT (Able-bodied/Neurotypical): These are terms used to describe people who do not have disabilities. I will also use the all-encompassing “abled.” When I talk about disabilities, I consider the wider spectrum of disability. For instance, I am not legally disabled, but I do have a disability. I’m also talking about invisible disabilities like fibromyalgia, lupus, and mental illness. While these don’t pose consistent barriers to participating in an abled world, they affect the decisions a person makes about how to use their time and energy, and libraries should keep them in mind too. When I talk about disabled patrons, I mean children with disabilities, adults with disabilities who come in with groups and caregivers, and disabled parents and caregivers who use the library for and with their children.

Neurodivergent: Neurodivergent is a term to describe disabilities that have to do with the brain—for instance, a person with a mental illness might be able-bodied, but they still are a part of the disability community. Some disabilities, like cerebral palsy and autism, affect how a person behaves or performs tasks outwardly, but the actual disability is brain-related.

AB/Abled Narrative: The AB narrative (shortened from "abled" on Twitter. I forget who I first saw this from. Maybe @erabrand) is the societal understanding of disabled people through the lens of abled people. Part of the AB Narrative, for instance, is that the lives of disabled people are somehow less than abled people, and that disabled people exist to inspire abled people or to teach them a lesson of some sort. Think of those videos that circulate often on Facebook about disabled people doing completely normal things, like attending high school dances with dates. The abled person is usually seen as a hero of some sort, when all they were doing was choosing to go to a dance with someone they liked.

So, of course, I’m Bryce, and I’m a disabled person. I call myself a “disabled person” rather than a “person with a disability” because, like many people in the disability community, I dislike person-first language. My disability is a fundamental part of who I am, and while the AB narrative would tell us that using person-first language means  that you  can applaud yourself for seeing me as a person, which, congratulations;  what I hear is an erasure of a piece of my identity so that people can distance me from my disability. Not everyone with a disability feels this way, though, and it’s best to ask.

Cerebral palsy makes me neurodivergent, and my brain damage was likely caused by a stroke at birth. It manifests itself in my body on my right side.  I have problems with fine motor skills and spasticity, which is a combination of paralysis, increased tendon activity, abnormally high muscle tension, and a reduced mobility. Cerebral palsy affects people in lots of different ways. There are some people with cerebral palsy whose bodies are unaffected. Other people with cerebral palsy are wheelchair users or otherwise need assistance for movement or speech.

I add here that I work in libraries, because I feel like when we talk about people with disabilities, we talk about our patrons, when really the considerations we make in the library can also be on behalf of members of this community who work among us. We are there, whether abled coworkers know it or not, and we notice.

For this intro, I've boiled down 5 things to consider when working with members of the disability community. Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list, but you can head to the digital handout to learn more. You may think that you do not serve or work with disabled people in your library, but one out of every 5 people living in America has at least one disability.

1. Consider yourself a disability ally as you would an ally to other marginalized groups like people of color, First Nations people, or the LGBTQ+ community.  The disability community needs to be represented in your collection with high quality, non-problematic characters. The blog Disability in Kid Lit, created and written by disabled librarians, has an honor roll of books that do disability right. There are not many, but hopefully with movements like We Need Diverse Books, that will soon change. The disability community needs to know they are welcome in your library.  So how can you do that?

2. Talk directly to people: This suggestion may seem facetious, but in my personal experience it’s absolutely necessary to add here. If someone cannot speak, do not assume that they cannot hear, or communicate or process information. Even if they are with a caregiver, direct your questions or comments about the disabled patron directly to the disabled patron. If they are in a wheelchair, do not touch it without asking, as wheelchairs are considered an extension of the body. If necessary, get down to their level so you are face-to-face, keeping a reasonable distance. Speak clearly but not exceeding slowly or loudly unless you’re informed this is an accommodation they need. One of the biggest complaints about abled people in disability communities I’m in—yes, we talk to each other about you on the Internet, abled people—is the frequency with which disabled people feel patronized and condescended to. We are often treated like children, and the result of feeling infantilized is usually no longer visiting places where we get that feeling. Please don’t let that be your library. There's a great series of videos about this called #endtheawkward.

3. Don't make assumptions: Making assumptions can be easy to do. For everything. It’s why stereotypes exist: our brains are constantly looking ways to cut corners and be more efficient, but that sometimes makes us jerks. An assumption that we make a lot is that if we see someone who appears to be struggling, we jump in to help. Turns out, this is not very helpful for people with disabilities. Many times, what an abled person perceives as struggling is just a disabled person performing a task in a different way, the way they know best. Now, if things are falling or catching on fire that’s one thing—you would help anyone in those instances. But if a person looks like they are struggling and you jump into help because it makes YOU feel uncomfortable to watch them live their life, that’s putting your feelings before their actual needs.

Once people with congenital disabilities get into adulthood, they often are hyperaware at what things they can do unassisted and what things they can’t. People who have developed disabilities over their lives also continuously make adjustments. The opposite side of this is: Encouraging people with disabilities to try things they’ve communicated they CANNOT DO does little to instill their trust in you. You may see it as encouraging someone to try new things and beat the odds, but in reality people with disabilities are people just like everyone else trying to get through the day so they can watch Luke Cage episodes in their pajamas with their cats. If they ask for help, give it to them, so we can all get out of here!

4. Make your programming accessible: Despite the prevalence of needs-specific storytimes, there is a growing body of research that shows that children with disabilities and their abled peers benefit from sharing experiences together. Additionally, it’s unreasonable to expect that families with disabilities will tell you beforehand that they plan to attend, unless you ask that of everyone.

So how can you make your programming more accessible?
-Inviting parents, caregivers, or older siblings to attend programs: Often, a babysitter, parent, or sibling plays a dual role in a child’s life as their helping hand. Make programs that everyone can attend. I know some libraries struggle with Type-A parents “doing everything” for their abled children, thus inspiring a “no parents allowed” rule at school aged and teen programming, but this sends a message to disabled patrons that they are unwelcome.
-Rethink competitions or performances, especially those where kids work in groups and one child’s contribution affects the outcome of the entire group
-Have a few different ways to interact with the program:  try having no one way to complete the program. Provide a few different options: crafts that accommodate weak motor skills, a chance to observe and report on what others are doing, finding a quiet corner to read. All families will appreciate engaging in the program in a way that makes sense to them.

5. Exceed ADA compliance with universal design: Now I know this sounds like a tall order when even meeting Americans with Disabilities Act expectations can be a challenge, but a few industries have been working on accessibility for years; they’ve just been sneaky about it. You know those “as seen on TV ads”? The ones that show some horribly clumsy people in situations that you can’t even imagine, and then sell you a magic gadget at 3 easy installments of $19.95? These infomercials are actually selling accessibility devices parading as conveniences for abled people. They wouldn’t get the airtime otherwise.

Tweet with a picture of mandarin oranges in plastic containers.
Text that says "If only nature would find a way to cover these
oranges so we didn't need to waste so much plastic on them."

There’s also the case of precut vegetables in grocery stores. Last year Whole Foods was called out on the Internet for having pre-peeled mandarin oranges for consumption due to the use of plastic and sustainability. Whole Foods issued an apology and pulled the items, even though many people who use items like this are disabled. I understand the argument for sustainability, and I sincerely hope the packaging is biodegradable, but the message was clear: the AB Narrative does not invite anyone to consider disabled people as consumers. Critics of these silly people on commercials and prepackaged fruit are quick to make moral judgments about laziness and the planet, because we are simply not encouraged to think about people with disabilities as people that have the same needs as abled people do. Now that the Whole Foods controversy is over, we still get sliced and diced fruits and veggies; just nothing as fancy as mandarin oranges. Because perfectly diced tomatoes and peppers are still seen as convenient enough, but not ABSURD.

So how does this connect to libraries? I’m glad you asked! We can use this same technique to create a welcoming environment for disabled people in the library. I know that a lot of abled people, especially in positions of organizational power, scrunch their faces when they hear the term ADA. They think about lawsuits, and they think about space concerns, and they think about weeding their precious collections. What they should think of is March 12, 1990, when over 1,000 disabled people literally crawled up the steps of the US Capitol to protest the delay of the Americans with Disabilities Act’s passage. Even so, mentioning ADA compliance can be met with rolled eyes and fear. Sina Bahram, whose ILEAD keynote is a must-watch, suggests that we instead reframe these concerns in the library and attempt to exceed ADA compliance by promoting universal design.

Disabled people need allies in the library to create welcoming environments and services that meet our needs. We need library staff to see us as real people, the same as abled people, even if we use alternate communication or are assisted by caregivers. We know our lives can sometimes make people uncomfortable, and need abled people who are committed to helping us in ways that don’t make us feel like children (or younger children, as the case may be). We need to know that the library and our librarians are there for us, and that you expect to see us in the library and during programs. Basically, like any marginalized group, we need equitable spaces and service that address the barriers we face every day, because we are people too.

Do you work with libraries and identify as disabled or neurodivergent? Click the link here to learn more about guest posting for this series. Thanks to the great people at Awesome Without Borders, I can pay you for your contribution if you need it!

Click here for other posts in the Accessibility Series!


  1. This is such a great post, I've forwarded it to a couple of people who desperately need to understand what you've laid out. Thank you.

    1. Hi Amy! I'm happy to help. If you'd want to be a part of this and guest post, let me know!