It’s been a busy semester at the reference desk. Amidst the busyness, I was elated to see that some of my coworkers created a display of books relating to chronic illness and disability. I was even more thrilled to see that students were often stopping by to look at the display, telling their friends about it, and checking out some of the books that were featured.
March is Disability Awareness Month, and my library makes sure to create displays and programming relating to chronic illness and disability throughout the month. But with more and more people, including college students, becoming disabled due to Long Covid, it is more important than ever that we consider the needs of disabled students year-round. It is also more important than ever that we as academic librarians highlight books by chronically ill and disabled authors throughout the year, and not dismiss displays and programming as options that solely serve the needs of school and public libraries.
Chronic illness and disability are personal to me, as someone who is disabled because of chronic illness, and whose disability is considered invisible. Some days are better than others, which means I use a mobility aid on some days, but not others. It is often said that disability is the only group that anyone can become a member of at any time.
Katie Quirin Manwiller, who has written two previous posts on Conferencing while Chronically Ill and The Inaccessibility of ACRL 2021, recently presented on Reasonable Accommodations from the Employee Perspective for the Pennsylvania Library Association 2022 Conference. Her research cited 26% of Americans living with disability prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as 1 in 5 adults who will experience Long Covid.
However, we never know truly how many of our students, faculty, or staff are living with either chronic illness, disability, or both. There is still significant stigma attached to either, leaving many people to decide not to disclose. Also, no one is under any obligation to disclose to us, as librarians. We should make an effort to prove that we are capable of meeting the needs of disabled students without requiring them to disclose personal information they might not feel comfortable sharing.
What does this look like in practice? On my end, it looks like:
- Continuing the practice of masking. While there is no longer a mask mandate on my campus, I and many others on staff have continued masking. Working at a busy reference desk, I feel more comfortable interacting with people while wearing a mask, and I’ve found that many students have appreciated that we are still masking, and are also choosing to wear a mask themselves.
- Staying up-to-date on the evolving language of disability. Language is constantly evolving. Not all websites have caught onto the fact that disabled people have reclaimed Identity-First Language, as opposed to People-First Language, and often refer to themselves as disabled not as a person with a disability. I’ve found that the best way to stay current on disability language is to follow disabled people on Twitter. Even lurking will allow you to gain a better understanding of issues facing disabled people, which undoubtedly includes many of your students.
- Promoting materials by and about disabled people. The display at my library includes a combination of memoirs by disabled writers, sociology books on the history of disability, and even ready-reference on disability history. There are also plenty of electronic resources that contain information on disability history, which I’ve been working to familiarize myself with over the past couple of months. This is a work in progress for me; keeping in mind that resources can and will become out-of-date.
- Being mindful of library space. I’m always conscious about how my library physically meets, and doesn’t meet, the needs of disabled students. In practice, this looks like ensuring that aisles are kept wide and clear for users with mobility aids and offering study areas with varying amounts of light in order to accommodate students with sensitivity to light and/or sound. However, being mindful, for me, also means continually learning and keeping in mind that there is always room for improvement.
With this in mind: How have you met the needs of disabled students, and how should libraries improve going forward?