What about adults with disabilities in libraries?

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.



6 responses to “What about adults with disabilities in libraries?

  1. As always, a brilliantly written piece, Tess. Thank you so much for sharing. This is something I’ve struggled with significantly since working to create a community-led program for adults with developmental disabilities. There is often the problematic and offensive assumption that adults with disabilities can be grouped with children on account of general misconceptions about cognitive level. This misconception also extends to children’s’ materials being used in programs for adults with disabilities, as some wrongly assume that such resources fit the interest/ability level of the adults. These assumptions are not only disrespectful and dangerous, they also further marginalize the adults from speaking for themselves about their interests and wants when it comes to programs and services. I can only hope that education efforts can work to resolve these issues moving forward.

    I will note however that I think (and hope) ‘special’ library programs designed with and for people with disabilities do have the potential to advance inclusion aims at libraries. During the BC Inclusion conference last year – and in many subsequent conversations with self-advocates since this time – I have heard that such programs can offer a starting point to building a sense of safety, connection, and belonging for those with disabilities in a library space. The sad reality is that many within the community have not felt welcomed or safe in the library spaces we have built under the banner of inclusivity. I believe that ‘specialized programs’ can help build this foundation and the programs can then be opened up/adapted for all community members – and all our programs can be truly welcoming for all. I hope 🙂

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment Christie, I have slightly edited my post as I agree with you that special programs can and do serve a purpose to build relationships with communities who have not felt safe or welcome in the library before. I say the same thing with regards to specialized preschool storytimes – use them as a bridge to help cross that chasm: intend for the outcome to be that everyone is welcome and able to participate in whatever they want and they have the resources and supports in place from the get-go. We are on the right track, and I will reiterate that libraries are one of the best places to demonstrate that inclusion is achievable.

  2. Well, I’m glad I gave you some fodder for a new post.

    Would it be better if I share this post instead of anonymizing your earlier message?

    The other aspect of that specific case I was talking about but didn’t focus on in my question to you was the refugee and language component.

    I’ve been acting as a system-side Newcomer Librarian for the past 3 months and might do it for another 2 months.

    Ottawa has welcomed about 2000 Syrian refugees and is expecting another 500 or so before the end of the year. The majority of these people are school-aged children. Most of the GARs (government assisted refugees) and many of the privately sponsored refugees speak next to no English. The parent are in language training programs are the kids who have been in school are picking up English (and sometimes French -it’s Ottawa after all) fast. Refugee 613 is an all purpose organization that is a resource for those who have needs and and those who want to give and a go between for service providers and refugees and those working with them. They spearheaded meetings and a compilation of resources and programs available over the summer to keep the youth engaged and adapting. Identify gaps and fill them.

    Overall I’m pretty impressed with how Ottawa service providers who tend to be steeped in bureaucracy more than your average have mobilized so quickly. The library has even preformed well coming up with Teen ESL groups, teen peer to peer ESL groups, family conversation circles etc. Going to many events and signing folks up for library cards (it takes significantly longer than usual) Apart from the frustrating and typical problems of collective agreement challenges – Arabic language speakers who are not in the right classification (pages/shelvers)to do outreach

    Just curious how VPL is fairing. Do you have any idea how many refugees have come to Vancouver? How in the heck would they even be able to find somewhere they could afford to live? Or are they mainly setting in other municipalities in the Lower Mainland?

    Lysanne ________________________________

    • ; ) Thanks! And I totally appreciate you sharing what your library is doing in terms of serving refugees. Vancouver has various settlement agencies and they are indeed visiting the library a lot as part of their settlement processes (getting library cards and so forth) but my sense is that most are eventually moving to other municipalities when permanant housing becomes available for them. This wouldn’t be the case for privately sponsored families of course, who are being supported by various organizations and could be housed anywhere in the city. As you pointed out, the main struggle is finding translators – several groups of Syrians have had to cancel their planned visits because they didn’t have translators. That being said, our staff have made extraordinary efforts to figure out how to configure keyboards, how to use Google translator, put up wordless picture book displays and just generally be welcoming and supportive even with the language barrier!

      By the way, my peers who, like me, are also raising/have raised kids with disabilities often note how difficult it is for us to navigate support services even with fluent English. I can’t imagine the barriers to getting supports for families who are new to English…

  3. tina dolcetti

    I totally agree on this. I work one on one with an adult with a cognitive disability and “age-appropriate ” is always the focus. People with disabilities are people with passions and interests, no matter what their age or ability level. It is finding out how to use that passion to find age appropriate services that uphold their value as people that is important. Most of my town is only borderline wheelchair accessible. So, my student and I are learning coding and mapping skills to update a Google map so she can have a tool to get around… a mature pursuit. If you want more info on the map, contact me!

    The abilities council is hosting adult coloring nights at our library and the adult department is also offering games night. It is because I asked and gave examples of program ideas, in addition to the flexibility of the adult department.

    For more information on employment and disabilities in Canada, watch Mark Wafer’s youtube videos and visit specialisterne.ca. if your library union allows this, try getting a young adult with a disability to help at a program. For a very small sum, I hired a junior Minecraft expert to talk Minecraft. It gave her a good work experience and I got the street cred without having to spend hours playing, though I did have to put a bit of thought into her role.

    I really enjoyed reading your post as always, Tess. So glad I met you on ALSC all those years ago.

    • Tina, thanks for your response and as usual, you totally impress me with the work you do in Moose Jaw, SK! They are so lucky to have someone with your skills and commitment there! We can’t hire teenagers but we do have teen volunteers at our Reading Buddies. I don’t run that program but I think they have had both teen and kid buddies who have disabilities participate which is great. We will meet IRL some day and have so much to talk about!

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