5 Jul 2019

Accessibility and libraries.

Guest post by Elaine Chapman. Elaine is a library assistant working with the TU Dublin Library Service - City Campus. She is interested in the areas of accessibility for all and universal design. 

Following a recent presentation at the LAI/ CILIP annual conference, I was asked if I could write something for the Libfocus blog- yay! The theme that I had said I would run with here is accessibility, but I might have ‘diversified’ it a little bit! To me at least, improving accessibility and increasing diversity in our workforce go hand in hand.

At the conference I co-presented with my colleague, Sarah Anne Kennedy, the College Librarian for the College of Business, TU Dublin Library Services-City Campus. We presented a talk called “Nothing About Us Without Us- The benefits of hiring staff with a disability in libraries”.

The theme for the conference this year was Inclusive Libraries, and as an autistic member of library staff, I wanted to explore what it is that disabled people can do for libraries.

I would like to think that, these days, we all recognise that diversity is important. It’s how we grow as a society. However, many interpret that to just mean diversity of ethnicity. While that is hugely important, diversity of mind and of ability are also as important. When we say we want to embrace diversity, we should mean the full range of it, not just one specific aspect of it. Intersectionality is an increasing area of study, which examines how disadvantages caused by disability, race, sexuality, poverty, age, and gender are often not separate, but interwoven. That is to say that someone who is black, transgender and disabled is often more disadvantaged by society than someone who is white and cis gendered but still disabled. It’s only by employing staff across the range of diversity that we can come to understand the level and range of access barriers that many face when trying to access our services.

If we want to find ways to make our services more accessible, then areas of studies like this, and contacting community groups, are things that we need to be looking at, especially if we do not have staff who are from different minorities. If we don’t know what the issues are, we cannot fix them. For example, a poor student with a child, or a student who is a single parent may struggle to be able to access our services in academic libraries as they can’t find someone to mind the child. We don’t know of this unless we are in communication with them or their community. Queens University are a good example of a library that have come up with a solution to that, in that they have added a small children’s collection and allow parents to bring their children into study rooms. When people think of accessibility, they often just think of it in terms of disabled people. Accessibility is not, and should never be, just about improving our services and buildings for people with disabilities. It needs to take into account the needs of every single potential user. Can’t get in as academic libraries do not welcome children? The library is too hard on your senses? It has no place to rest or lay down if needed? Is too far away? Or you can’t access its online resources? These are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of accessibility issues. Just as embracing diversity should mean embracing the full range of diversity, tackling accessibility should mean tackling all issues that prevent accessibility, no matter who it is that they impact.

I feel that, as a profession, there is a lot more that we can do to increase our accessibility. We can look at our job advertisements- do people really need ‘excellent’ communications skills for all library roles? Do all library assistants have to be able to shelve? Have your staff had training in how to work with disabled people? Is your building fully accessible? Have you ever performed a sensory or physical audit of the building to determine access barriers? I know that we cannot necessarily control all of these issues, but there are many that we can. And those that we can’t currently control? We fight for that to change.

In terms of accessibility, one recent example of my own relates to this years LAI/ CILIP joint conference. The combined exhibition and break room was a bit hellish for me at lunch/ break times! It was full of people going every different direction, extremely noisy, warm and quite bright, with no seats. I feel like having a designated Quiet Space in the conference area would have been of such benefit to people- these are not just for autistic people! On the first day I had to take a break from the ‘break room’ and go out to the gardens to get access to a quiet area, but due to preparing for my own talk on the second day, I did not get time to do this, hence the reason why having a Quiet Space as part of the conference area is preferable! Also, we are famously a profession of introverts, so giving everyone a space where they can quietly retreat or prepare for the next set of talks would be great! Ideally with dim lighting too. In addition, I feel like the exhibition area could have done with some seats for the lunch and break times. It was really difficult to find somewhere to stand and eat where you weren’t getting in people’s way, as well as just standing in a warm crowded room. Perhaps these can be things to think of for future events?

As was said in my presentation, we are an information profession, and the ability to meet changing information needs is something we have to continue to do. Recruiting disabled, black and minority ethnic staff better enables us to do this, as they can highlight communication issues that we were not aware of, and provide us with information that we were not aware of too. I feel that engaging such staff helps in our core responsibilities of making libraries help to promote equity, accessibility, and engagement in both the social and learning spheres. They can highlight changes that we need to make and barriers that we need to take down. This all depends on us being open and supporting enough to them to allow them to feel like they can safely speak up though.

In relation to working with disabled staff, training can allow for a better understanding of the struggles that disabled staff can face in some areas of work. Disability awareness training allows managers to better support their own staff and enables all staff to reach their full potential. Understanding potential limitations, whether it is knowledge and attitudes of other staff, or limitations from the disabilities themselves is key. Working towards this understanding is something that has been proven to be worthwhile as research shows that it gives us access to a larger talent pool, aids with retention of all staff, increases staff morale, and improves your image in the community.  In Ireland, disabled people make up 13% of the working age population, yet the public service quota, which is supposed to promote employment equality, is just 3%. I think employment is a service, and services should not be measured by quotas. I also think that there is an idea that employing a disabled person may place more burden on other staff, managers, and finances, when in fact most of this is not true. The training mentioned above helps to tackle how the needs of managers and other staff can be merged with the needs of disabled workers and there are grants available to cover many adjustments that are needed to make workplaces accessible.

In addition to this, the quota system is one that can be used against disabled people to some extent. I have been told by people working in HR in a part of the public sector to not say that I am disabled when applying for jobs with them, as if the quota is already filled they will not hire me. In addition to this, I have been advised by job coaches that they would “hesitate to tell a potential employer they are disabled”, ie don’t disclose your disability. I have likewise heard of black and Asian people in Ireland being told to “whiten” their names. Why? Employers pick the cream of the crop. What they don’t realise is that minorities can be the cream of the crop.

If you want to attract the cream of the crop, it has to be made clear what type of employer you are. If you are an equal opportunities employer, don’t hide that towards the end of the job advertisement- put it front and centre. Shout it from the rooftop! Include positive action statements in your candidate briefs. To give an example of one potential solution, TU Dublin have created a new employment slogan, “Recruiting difference; Reflecting diversity”, and it features on the first page of all job advertisements. It is one of the first things that people applying to us will see when they open the advertisement.

Diversifying our staff and improving our services should always be an aim. We should never settle and think that we have reached that goal, because then we become complacent. Employing disabled staff is just a cog in the wheel that is driving libraries towards the future, and that wheel should never stop.