Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Accommodations and the ADA: Writing Policy to Exception

Accessibility series logo by Chris Frantz

I had a less shouty post brewing. I really did. It was about research or maybe it was about other favorite tools or trust and maybe I'll get to those later.

But then I found out about H.R. 620. And I thought about how little I'd seen about it yet. But then I read the intent of the bill, and I thought about how libraries sometimes approach disability, and I feel the need to talk about this instead. I also feel compelled to say that the appropriate response from abled people here is not outrage/shock. (Seriously, read that link, it's really good).

Here's what the link to H.R. 620 says: "The bill prohibits civil actions based on the failure to remove an architectural barrier to access into an existing public accommodation unless: (1) the aggrieved person has provided to the owners or operators a written notice specific enough to identify the barrier, and (2) the owners or operators fail to provide the person with a written description outlining improvements that will be made to improve the barrier or they fail to remove the barrier or make substantial progress after providing such a description. The aggrieved person's notice must specify: (1) the address of the property, (2) the specific ADA sections alleged to have been violated, (3) whether a request for assistance in removing an architectural barrier was made, and (4) whether the barrier was permanent or temporary."

Right now, the Americans with Disabilities Act puts the responsibility of ensuring accessibility on a building's owner, proactively. Meaning, if your building does not comply with ADA, whether or not anyone told you about it, or whether or not a disabled person had to compromise their humanity to tell you about it, your building is breaking the law. This bill would put the responsibility on disabled people to announce themselves in order to use a space effectively, in writing, not only the specific ADA non-compliance but also that they asked for assistance. One reason for this proposed change is that many, many buildings built before ADA passed in 1990 still do not comply, after 27 years, and their owners cannot be bothered to think about disabled people as actual people who need to use or work in their buildings.

FYI: There's a very good chance your library is one of those buildings.

Not that you need to be told that, of course; disabled people in libraries are reminded of their statuses as potential lawsuits all the time. I recently heard from a librarian whose library's elevator wasn't working, told that it would be "fine". When another brought up that people using walkers couldn't get through the exactly 36" wide hallway in a library during construction, they were told "no one will probably say anything, and they can't sue."

I really implore you to think about what it tells disabled patrons and staff when your ADA compliance is based on convenience and lawsuits rather than, I don't know, actually giving a damn that people can accessibly use your spaces.

While talking about disabilities in libraries I've met a ton of amazing disabled librarians and library students. So many of them talk about how fraught it is to ask for accommodations-- how hard it is to actually get what they need in the first place, and how using the term "accommodation" gets them what they need but also can feel like a target on their back. They're no longer just employees who need what they need to do their work effectively. They're lawsuits waiting to happen.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, through chats with online colleagues, reflections, writing my upcoming course (which has been as heart-wrenching as this post is to write), and working through comment threads on Facebook groups. There's some things I need abled people to realize about the ADA and accommodations and perhaps dispel some misconceptions we've picked up somewhere  (hint: it's from society in general):

1. Asking for accommodations is fraught: As mentioned above, there's a reason why hiring panels aren't supposed to ask about disability, and that's because disabled people come with extra legal protections and may be more expensive and who would want to hire someone like that? (Nevermind we come with extra perspectives and brains that may help you work through problems from different angles and and and...) So many library staff are afraid to ask for accommodations that may actually help them do their work more effectively because that means being "the disabled one".  So if someone needs an accommodation, recognize how tough it actually is to ask. This is extra-extra true for library staff of color, LGBTQIA+ library staff, and others already working as a member of another not-white-straight-cis population. Full disclosure: since I literally cannot effectively shake people's hands, I talk about my need for minimal accommodations in an interview right away because abled people will not think about anything else until I can tell them my disability is relatively cheap. I would love to stop doing this in an "inclusive field" like libraries and education, because this is gross.

2. Pretending to be disabled to take advantage of accommodations is rare: Yes, we've all heard those totally-not-made-up stories of abled people using wheelchairs to cut lines, or whatever. These stories do not shed light on a big problem; but they DO position disabled people as "fakers" who will take advantage of accommodations at every opportunity. The person who says they need soda when you have a "no food and drink" policy? Believe them. That person who's taking a sick day and didn't give you a detailed explanation about why they are sick? Believe them. When others ask about it, don't act all eye-rolly. Please.

3. Disabled people don't always know what they need immediately: and the need for accommodation can be evolving. I thought about this on a recent excursion to explore an underground touristy thing here in Portland. I had Caleb call ahead and we were told that the staircase had a railing; but when we got there we found a hole in the ground with a rickety staircase and a railing that was basically for show. I panicked: what if I couldn't get down? Or what if I COULD get down, but couldn't get OUT? As a disabled person who doesn't need accommodations enough to know exactly what I need when I need it, one of my biggest fears is going somewhere I haven't yet seen pictures of and getting stuck there. Needless to say, however, that asking for accommodations "after the fact", like in response to problems, can feed the narrative that disabled people are lying fakes. Please be doubly advised that we are not.

4. Giving people what they need when they need it is an inclusive practice: What if you tried to set up your space as inclusively as possibly for patrons and staff, and then when someone asked for something else/new, you said yes? What if you tried your best to take away the burden of self-disclosure and just tried your best to "accommodate" everyone? What if a couple people took advantage of you for doing that, but you didn't care because you had worked to build AND maintain trust among your patrons and employees (trust building and maintenance is another whole issue for another whole post)?

Our county's circulation committee has this rule, "we don't write policy to exception." I think it's a good one that can apply here too: believe people when they tell you what they can or can't do. Give people what they need to work effectively. Resist your assumption that this makes them cheaters.

And make your library ADA compliant and beyond because you care about people.

And contact your reps about H.R. 620. Please.

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