Not many discussions on equity and inclusion in librarianship have focused on disability. Equity issues do exist for librarians with disabilities, though, and many stem from views prevalent in our society. In popular culture, disability is often represented negatively and seen as a personal tragedy or a problem to overcome.
Many people with disabilities challenge these attitudes and advocate for change. They point out that cultural attitudes often create more difficulties for them than the disability itself. Despite their efforts, stereotypes persist—even in the workplace.
I recently surveyed 288 librarians, interviewing 10 who identified as having a disability, about their experiences working at academic libraries in Canada. Though most were positive about their workplaces, nearly all reported equity issues related to their disability. These ranged from misunderstandings and negative judgments to discrimination and harassment. Compared with nondisabled colleagues, librarians with disabilities found work to be more stressful, reported less support and acceptance, and felt their workplaces to be less inclusive.
Nearly everyone I interviewed commented that people at work do not actually understand what disability is. To many people, disability consists of visible, physical impairment. But in reality a majority of disabilities are invisible. Librarians in my study, for example, reported chronic illness, mobility issues, pain disorders, hearing loss, mental health issues, and learning disabilities.
Fearing negative judgments, librarians with invisible disabilities are often reluctant to tell people about them.
This lack of awareness often gives rise to stereotypes and misconceptions at work. Librarians with invisible disabilities reported sometimes encountering suspicion or disbelief because they are not seen as having “real” disabilities. Some talked about being perceived as lazy, making excuses, causing trouble, or being less reliable or productive.
Fearing negative judgments, librarians with invisible disabilities are often reluctant to tell people about them. My study found that only half had disclosed their disability fully to their supervisor and only 30% to their coworkers. Many tell only a few people they trust. This means that disability in our workplaces is likely more common than we think.
Librarians with disabilities are also reluctant to request accommodations, though workplaces have a legal duty to create them. Nondisabled people often assume that the accommodation process fully addresses issues of disability, but the reality is more complex. Most participants said they wouldn’t ask for accommodations unless they absolutely had to, because they feared negative consequences. These fears are indeed justified: Some participants who requested accommodations reported repercussions, including being perceived as a whiner or troublemaker, seen as trying to get out of doing work, and threatened with job loss. Though accommodation is meant to level the playing field, it is commonly misunderstood as asking for special treatment, unearned privileges, or gaming the system.
The legal accommodation process is not working in libraries. It also isn’t enough. There are limitations to what individual workplace accommodations can do because they are reactive and don’t address the larger systemic barriers that create difficulties for librarians with disabilities in the first place.
Though many of the librarians I talked to mentioned supportive coworkers, positive attitudes are not enough to ensure an equitable and accessible workplace. In the words of disability advocate Stella Young, “No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp.”
If we are serious about equity and inclusion in our profession, we need a better understanding of the barriers faced by librarians with disabilities and a commitment to minimize them.