When I thought about the American Library Association’s Spectrum Scholarship, I considered it in terms of promoting librarians from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. However, a Spectrum Scholar and former colleague of mine, Tanya Brown-Wirth, wrote this:
The Spectrum Scholarship Program directly addresses underrepresentation in our profession. Only about 10% of librarians come from an ethnic minority, and only about 4% of librarians identify as disabled. In most professions, building a diverse workforce is a common sense strategy. Supporting diversity in libraries leads to better service strategies and effective interpersonal communications with staff and patrons alike.
I had managed to overlook the variety of abilities and disabilities that exist in our communities. These aspects of our lives are just as essential as racial or ethnic make-up. Similarly they not all-encompassing and cannot be used to define an individual or group. For example, while Gary may be blind, he is not “Blind Gary.” He may also be Gary the oboe player or Gary who loves pepperoni pizza. He could be all of those things. He should not go through life, or be seen by library staff, as any label– including “Blind, oboe-playing, pepperoni pizza loving Gary.”
Library staff recently had a training session with The Whole Person, a non-profit organization that promotes independence among disabled people. I am new to a myriad of aspects of this. For example, I had to learn that guide dogs do not always wear identifying harnesses or vests. If the people with them say that the animals are for assistive purposes, we have a legal obligation to give them the benefit of the doubt. In addition, I am not always sure what terminology to use to avoid offending someone. I learned that ignorance happens, but we should ask people with disabilities what words they would like for us to use.
So, how can the library be accommodating to patrons with special needs? We have more tools at our disposal than ever before because of technology.
Patrons who are visually impaired but still able to see some can use our large print books and can magnify text by zooming into the digital files on e-books. These patrons, as well as those who cannot see at all, can enjoy audiobooks on CD or electronically (like through Overdrive or Hoopla).
For those who cannot hear and their loved ones, we have books and DVDs that teach American Sign Language. We can have interpreters at our events. If they can only attend certain performances or lecture times, we should include that information in our promotional material. Books and e-books are naturally visual. However, let’s also remember that our DVDs and digital movies come with the option to view subtitles.
In addition, libraries remain hubs of information. Sometimes, people are not born with a disability. They acquire it. There are unseen disabilities and those we may never consider. The facilitator at our training talked about his diabetes. It may feel overwhelming to go from not having diabetes to needing to consider it whenever one eats, exercises, or refrains from either activity. My library system carries 145 books for adults, published in the last decade, with diabetes as a topic. Thirteen of those are specifically cookbooks. So, with these materials, the newly diagnosed can go from feeling helpless to being empowered.
Also, our buildings need to consider people with altered mobility. We should have handicapped parking spaces and at least three feet of open space between shelves, displays, and walls. If we have multiple levels, we need ramps and elevators. We must offer at least one stall per bathroom that has increased capacity and hand-rails. If we offer self-checkout, at least one station should be at reachable from a wheelchair or for a little person.
What does this have to do with outreach? It is very possible that there are people in our communities who feel like, due to their disabilities, the library isn’t for them. Ideally, we would have staff who can communicate in sign language. However, even if we do not, we can provide written materials so that the hearing impaired can learn about our services. We can inform users of all the accommodations we have to ensure that their libraries are places of increased independence. We just need to know what we offer. Then, we can proudly share that with others.
Anna Francesca Garcia earned her Master of Library and Information Sciences degree from the University of North Texas and has worked for a decade in public libraries in Nevada and Missouri. After a surgery in high school, the nurse gave her a special key to access the elevator. She is grateful that she and her seven-year-old daughter can now both walk the stairs.