I am in the throes of revising my dissertation. I have a publication coming out in a library journal in a few months though, and I will post about that here when it is available to read. The library world is quite small, and I have been approached to offer suggestions on how to “handle” certain disability-themed situations. Sometimes I have good, concrete suggestions, mainly because they are things I have thought about before, or things that I have heard other people have had success with. Even though my scholarly knowledge is focussed on young children, I even get asked about adults with disabilities in libraries sometimes, as was the case today. The person who asked me said that some staff were considering inviting some adults with disabilities to children’s programs because they were developmentally more like children so wouldn’t these programs be the right fit for them?
I am tired of hearing that adults with developmental disabilities described as being “like children”. They aren’t. They may have low literacy levels, they may have low vocabulary and lower abilities to express themselves than other people their age. They might like a lot of things that kids like but so do many non-disabled adults too (hullo, Star Wars, Harry Potter?). That doesn’t mean adults with developmental disabilities should be grouped in with children, or worse, treated like children. They are not children and have every right to be treated like adults because they are adults. Adults with disabilities should have agency in the choices they make, even if they need help making those choices and need support in acting on their choices. It is demeaning to adults with disabilities to be perceived as children and treated like children in adults’ bodies.
Now on to specific scenarios to address in public libraries: Many children’s library programs are designed to be experienced by a group of age peers and that is completely okay. As long as they are inclusive of all the children within that age range who show up, disability or no disability, it is okay. I might be one of the most disability-friendly librarians on the planet, but I would not want an adult with any kind of disability to come to my book trailer program, not because of their disability and not because I thought they couldn’t learn to make a book trailer, because I would always assume they could. I would not want them to come because it is a program for children and this person just isn’t a child. However, that being said, in order to provide topnotch library service, I would want very much to point this person to an appropriate program for adults and I would want very much to assume that they would be welcomed at that program by that particular program’s leader. If this adult needed to have or bring a support person of course that would be accommodated and if they needed to have things explained visually, or needed a bit of extra time to do the program activities or whatever, that would also be accommodated. That is what inclusion is.
What concerns me about this is that in discussions to do with libraries and adults with developmental disabilities, it often seems to me that offering children’s programs are the only thing being considered. But adults should attend offerings for other adults, not children. So what are adult librarians thinking about here? Have they never encountered an adult with a developmental disability who wants to participate in any of their book clubs or crafting circles or whatever? I am going to venture a guess and say, rarely or probably not. This might be because there is a widespread assumption that adults with developmental disabilities are “child-like” so they couldn’t possibly be interested in adult oriented programs so they often don’t get invited either.
If public libraries offer programs that are open to the general public, things like puppet shows, magicians, concerts and singalongs then by all means, invite adults with disabilities to come, but don’t invite them just because they are adults with disabilities. Invite them because they are people who might enjoy something fun. If you offer programs with specific age ranges in mind, like my example of a book trailer camp for ages 10-12 then no, don’t invite them and gently say no even if they ask. It is a program for children and they are not children. Refer them to something else instead. If there isn’t anything else then we’ve found a gap in service haven’t we?
Library staff members at all levels of service need to be educated in what is called the social model of disability and they need to understand that barriers to participation for an adult with a disability are erected by society, not the person themselves. Keep in mind that we are emerging from an era when people like the adults with disabilities who come into your library today were institutionalized as a matter of course. This practice was generally horrendous and unjust and we should be relieved that it is no longer standard practice. However, the remnants of that era are still with us and many of the practices directed at people with disabilities seem to me to be designed to keep them in their assumed place at the bottom of the social heap. Often they must be recipients of “charity” just to live their lives with dignity and many do not have lives of dignity even with charity. This is appalling. People with disabilities need agency and opportunities not tokenism and charity and they most definitely do not need to be infantilized.
We have long way to go, but I maintain that public libraries are a great place to demonstrate inclusion. However, I also believe that there is a chasm we all need to cross first. In my research, I have been working on early years inclusion in libraries but I sincerely hope other library researchers take up other age groups. Finally, I will state that “special” library programs designed just for people with disabilities are perfectly acceptable and that while they can and do offer a great many things they don’t really do much (or enough) to advance inclusion aims. Finally, it troubles me that libraries are constantly calling themselves inclusive places when their programming and overall practices really aren’t inclusive. As a profession, we need to understand inclusion from a social model of disability standpoint and it is on all of us to figure out what that means in terms of how we go about meeting the needs of adults with disabilities beyond inviting them to a program designed for children.