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Disabled Reader to Librarian: Reflections on Accessibility in Libraries

Published onMar 30, 2023
Disabled Reader to Librarian: Reflections on Accessibility in Libraries

Accessibility matters. That small phrase can mean so many different things. It can mean we hand out library cards to anyone who asks, regardless of housed or unhoused status. It can mean we give children their requested materials regardless of parental wishes. It can even be as simple as shifting the stacks so that the bottom or top shelf is empty.

I have been two things my entire life: disabled, and an avid reader. One affects my life more than the other, but it might not be the one you’d expect. Being a reader with mobility issues caused me to seek refuge in libraries. As a child, libraries were a sanctuary where my physical limitations didn’t matter, as long as I could reach the shelves. My mind was free in a way that my body wasn’t. 

It’s apparent that a lot of teens (myself included, back in the day) use the public space (and anonymous wifi) of the library to learn not only about school subjects, but themselves. Having the inherent anonymity of libraries to research sensitive topics they may otherwise get in trouble for searching is critical to a teenager. Due to societal stigmas and the nature of “family computer rooms” in the early 2000’s when I was a teen, I understand the need for anonymity when searching for sensitive topics such as “puberty and cerebral palsy”. We need accessible spaces not only to solve physical issues, but intellectual and emotional as well. 

As I grew up, I not only saw libraries as a sanctuary, but a goal. They were a path to a career that meant no back breaking manual labor (or so I thought at the time). Even though I’ve had to request accommodations where shelving is concerned, coworkers and supervisors have always been more than understanding if I took a little bit longer to complete a task. There have even been instances of “my knee hurts, so today I’m staying on the first floor”. Whenever a situation like this arose, accommodations were always made. I was never made to feel like I was a burden or a lazy worker by limiting the steps I took. 

No one batted an eye at me taking over the spare first floor office for the day. My health was valued over my day-to-day performance, which made me love the position that much more. That’s the thing about workplace accommodations. They speak not only to job performance, but valuing the employee as a whole individual. In my opinion, recognizing employees as more than just workers and saying “we care about you” is the beginning of engendering loyalty.

Access to an understanding and gracious profession is something I only dreamed of as a child. It’s now something I am grateful for every day.I am overjoyed to be an academic librarian and to be able to advocate for accessible library  spaces, services, and technology. I hope my work reflects that commitment, and I hope my colleagues are excited as I am. One of the things I have advocated for was allowing SmartPens to be available to everyone instead of only those with a registered disability. This initiative served a need not only for accessibility, but allowed patrons the chance at self-advocacy. Letting anyone grab a SmartPen increased the item’s circulation and allowed patrons who didn’t feel comfortable registering with Disability Student Services to get the help they needed.

Libraries are one of the only public establishments where one can exist without the expectation of spending money. We hold the unique responsibility to be open to everyone, regardless of differences. Everyone is worthy of the same services from the library. This is a safe space, where one can learn, laugh, and explore. Everyone has the right to explore. In our attempt to level the playing field–or the exploration field, we need to break down some of the barriers that get in our way. One of those barriers is lack of understanding. In a world where we strive to be accessible to everyone, it can be difficult to make sure we have all of our bases covered. The easiest way to do this is inclusion, right? Include members of your community in renovation decisions, gather input on future improvements that they want to see in the library.

But how do we start these conversations? With the wide plethora of invisible and visible disabilities, it can be difficult to know how to approach the subject with tact. This is just one librarian’s opinion, but it could be as simple as asking your patrons directly. Personally, I welcome the question “how can I help you?” when it comes from a place of genuine care, and who among us doesn’t care for our patrons? We can also approach it with displays, events, surveys, comment boxes, etc. The inverse of that question is also important. Ask your patrons “can you help us?” As with most displays and events, it’s always best to receive feedback from the intended demographic. Why not ask your patron with spina bifida to join the panel discussion on the difference between multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and spina bifida? These three disabilities are often confused for one another and it’s best to go straight to the experts, those living with the conditions.

Personally, I’m always glad to have these kinds of conversations. My experience may not be universal, but at least it can shed some light on an unfamiliar topic for you. At the bare minimum it’ll satisfy your curiosity of why you see a thirty-year-old man walk with a cane. Of course these conversations need to be broached with tact. You should always foster a genuine relationship with the person first before looking them up and down and asking the inevitable question “So uh…what happened to your leg?” I have been known to give a snarky response about not eating my veggies as a kid if approached by a total stranger. Joking aside, some of the best conversations I’ve had has been when a colleague asked my opinion on an accessibility issue. It truly does make me feel seen and heard. 

Accessibility matters, not just for physical issues but also for intellectual and emotional ones. Libraries provide a safe space where everyone is worthy of the same services, and in our attempt to level the exploration field, we need to break down the barriers that get in our way. We can start by asking our patrons directly how we can help them and how they can help us. Let's foster genuine relationships and have these conversations with tact. After all, everyone has the right to explore, and it's up to us to make that a reality.

Headshot of Samuel Faulk, a smiling man wearing a flat cap, small frame glasses, white button-up, and black blazer, sits in front of a blurred background including a brick post, grass, and trees.

Samuel Faulk is a Faculty Librarian with Yakima Valley College. He is in charge of collection development and event coordination. By night he is a podcast host and an author of poetry/fiction,and has a published book of narrative poetry. His podcast “Sam I Am: Crippling Discussions” centers around his life with cerebral palsy and attempts to answer the question “what do able bodied people take for granted that people with disabilities struggle with every day?”
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