10 Apr 2024

Autism Month and library work: Some introspective and wide ranging thoughts

This article is written by Elaine Chapman, who is a library assistant in Technological University Dublin. 

Elaine is a white woman with short, curly dark hair. The photograph is a headshot, the background behind her is a large window, and a tree. She is wearing a vibrant green woolly jumper.
Elaine Chapman

I am hoping to cover two things in this blog post:

  • Some thoughts on current issues for autistic or otherwise disabled library workers.
  • The history of World Autism Month, and the change that needs to happen.
I am an autistic library worker. I thought it might be nice to write up a blog for Libfocus on #WorldAutismMonth. I still wonder how accessible our profession, which actively promotes accessibility for its users, is for its own staff. I get the impression that it is quite hit and miss. Speaking to staff in multiple institutions and libraries, some staff, they get great support, whilst others within the same institutions do not. Some get managers who know about reasonable accommodations, others get managers who don’t know but are willing to listen to issues and resolve them, but others still get managers who are resistant to changing how they work with their staff. And staff can only get support if they are in a position to disclose their disability, which many still do not feel safe to do. Some mask incredibly heavily to try and fit into the societal expectation that adults must work full time. This often winds up with people getting heavily burned out and unable to work at all.

For some of us, it’s not possible to fit that narrative, especially with co-occurring conditions like Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, ADHD, dyspraxia and more. For some of us, we can only work part time, and within the current system, these people have a hard glass ceiling above their heads. How can they apply for jobs that just are not there? Even looking at the likes of job share for a full-time position; you often have to work the full time hours until a second person can be found. For many of us, not just disabled people, this is not an option. There needs to be better options across the profession. I am happy to see that some institutions and library systems are embracing part-time work, but this is done ad hoc. I feel like there needs to be an investigation done into what we, as colleagues, or perhaps the LAI, can do to embrace adequate career progression paths for all of our colleagues. By this, I mean, how do we ensure that all staff get training on things like reasonable accommodations, working with staff with disabilities, alongside considering how our systems may be restrictive and in need of change. 

Any change should of course be pursued and looked at through an intersectional lens as it’s not just disabled people that these issues impact, but also because our disabled staff may also face societal barriers from the likes of systemic racism, sexism, and much more. This refers to intersectionality, a term coined by the scholar and civil rights activist, Kimberl√© Crenshaw. To take a quote from her first article on the subject, Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics:

Imagine a basement which contains all people who are disadvantaged on the basis of race, sex, class, sexual preference, age and/or physical ability. These people are stacked-feet standing on shoulders-with those on the bottom being disadvantaged by the full array of factors, up to the very top, where the heads of all those disadvantaged by a singular factor brush up against the ceiling. Their ceiling is actually the floor above which only those who are not disadvantaged in any way reside. (1989, p. 151)

Fobazi Ettarh writes a very good article on intersectionality and why representation of differences is important in libraries, with particular focuses on gender and racism: Making a new table: Intersectional librarianship.

Now I get onto the second part of my blog: World Autism Month.

I’m not sure many outside of the neurodivergent and autistic communities realize this, but this month can be quite draining for a lot of us. The old Light It Up Blue campaign, for Autism Awareness Day, was created by a charity called Autism Speaks. This charity has numerous issues and a very negative history within our community. Some examples of why include:

As it is, this month often focuses on us educating others, including through free labour. What I would like to see is the community reclaiming the month to celebrate ourselves, and to fight for our needs. Focus less on educating others, but let them see who we are and the fact that is okay to be happy being autistic, no matter what part of the spectrum you are on. There are 11 other months of the year where people can be educated. If allies are willing to educate during this month, that is fine. But sometimes autistic people need a break from this. So let this be their month, to rest, recuperate and celebrate. Make time, this month, to ask your staff what they need from you for the month. And I say the same for other minorities for their months too - if they need compassion and understanding during their month, they should get that too.

What I’d like to see, during future autism months are things like wellbeing events for neurodivergent staff, sensory and physical access audits of your work environments, neurodivergent staff and external people being paid for their advice, the official recognition of systemic barriers to employment within our profession, and projects looking into the provision of better supports for neurodivergent staff.

And make sure to celebrate Autistic Pride on June 18th, and possibly contact the likes of Neuro Pride Ireland, AsIAm, and AUsome training. It’s worth noting that AUsome training have a conference occurring this month on mental health and supports for autistic people: AUsome Training: Minding Autistic Minds Conference 2024. There is also an international group for neurodivergent library staff: NLISN (Neurodivergent Library and Information Staff Network)

To this end, and the end of supporting all staff from various minorities, I am working on setting up an EDI group within the LAI. If anyone is interested in learning more, please email mailto:laiedicommittee@gmail.com


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