The role of the “Listen in: Discussions from/in the field” column is to highlight interesting, exceptional, or provocative research published in LIS literature. This year we hope to emphasize a variety of research methods and the experiences of those often ignored in LIS literature.
Hearing their Experiences: Research on Library Workers with Disabilities
As librarianship works to be more inclusive and intersectional, discussions of groups of people who have been traditionally overlooked are finally receiving necessary coverage in the LIS literature. Unfortunately, there are gaps of people still missing from the literature, a problem that author Joanne Oud (2018) makes clear in her article “Systemic Workplace Barriers for Academic Librarians with Disabilities.” Oud uses her article to point out the alarming lack of research about librarians who identify as disabled, even though plenty of research exists about workers with disabilities and library patrons with disabilities. She grounds her research in the belief that if librarians with disabilities are left out of the literature, they are more likely to experience equity issues in the workplace.
One of the best features of this article is the detailed literature review which provides context for the importance of research that highlights the experiences of librarians with disabilities. Oud explains that “…disability is seldom included in professional programs or discussions on diversity. There are no disability-related groups or programs within major Canadian or American professional organizations, and almost no substantial research on disability in librarianship has been carried out” (2). Because virtually no recent research exists discussing the lives of library workers with disabilities, Oud takes readers through a detailed history of disability studies research and literature, focusing on workplace culture. Her work then is then framed in two theories: the social model of disability and ableism.
- The social model of disability theorizes that a person’s disability does not come from their impairment, but rather the barriers created by society that hinder them from functioning normally. (Oliver & Sapey, 2006).
- Ableism is a concept which suggests that those with disabilities or impairments receive unfair or unjust treatment due to their disability which creates inequitable circumstances both in the workplace and society. (Coleman, 2008).
Oud’s research, in many ways, reinforces these themes, as her participants reveal the ways in which their workplaces or leadership hinder them from thriving in their workplaces. On the other hand, the article also notes that the library workers with disabilities who participated in this study overall felt positively toward their workplaces, a good sign in terms of overall morale.
Two of the most notable characteristics of Oud’s study was the lack of definition of “disability” and the care taken to conceal the identities of the participants. These guiding principles dictate the methodology for the study and the way in which the results were discussed. The exploration of the lives of library workers with disabilities first requires the recognition that disabilities manifest in many different experiences. Persons with visible disabilities have a much different experience than those with invisible disabilities, for example. This is one reason why Oud did not attempt to define what constitutes a disability; she preferred that participants define this for themselves. Because of this, “interviewees reported a range of disabilities, including mental health disabilities, anxiety, ADHD, hearing-related disability, mobility-related disabilities, and chronic illnesses such as Type 1 diabetes and pain disorders” (p.11). Additionally, participants seemed aware of the oppression that is often faced as a person with disabilities and did not want the opinions of their workplaces to be held against them. For this reason, great care was taken to keep responses as anonymous as possible. All of the participants identified as female and held a variety of titles including leadership roles.
With these two ideas in mind, Oud’s study uses what she calls a “naturalistic, qualitative approach,” (p.11) relying on interviewers conducted face-to-face, over the phone, or via Skype with ten academic librarians. According to Beuving and de Vries (2015), authors of Doing Qualitative Research: The Craft of Naturalistic Inquiry, naturalistic research is “studying people in everyday circumstances by ordinary means. This includes observing how people go about their daily business and how they interact, listening to what they have to tell, considering what they accomplish and produce, understanding what their stories, interactions and accomplishments mean, and reporting back to them” (p. 15). Although Oud did not observe these librarians in their workplace, she did allow them to answer questions as they saw fit in an effort to avoid interviewer bias. Conversations with each of the participants were recorded and transcribed, ensuring accuracy in the collection of the data for coding purposes.
The qualitative analysis part of the study used a two-stage coding system by Saldana to identify recurring themes within the responses. Saldana (2013) describes a code as “researcher-generated construct that symbolizes and thus attributes interpreted meaning to each individual datum for later purposes of pattern detection, categorization, theory building, and other analytic processes” (p. 4). After transcribing the interviewee’s responses, each was analyzed using codes. While coding is not a new practice in qualitative research, Oud chooses Saldana’s style as it calls for a two-step approach which re-codes all of the data (without consulting the previous codes) to match similar themes. This validates the initial coding process and allows for small changes to be made if needed.
The way in which Oud delivers the results of the study is important as it helps to conceal the identities of the participants while providing a framework for understanding their stories. While many interview-based studies, especially ones with such a small sample, might provide the responses of each participant individually, this article organizes the responses of the participants by theme, making no distinction by participant. Instead, Oud separates the results of the study into three sections:
- Structural Workplace Barriers
- Impact and Implications of Barriers
- Positive Contributions of Disability
Structural Workplace Barriers
Oud describes the structural workplace barriers to library workers with disabilities as the lack of awareness of disability from coworkers, negative assumptions made by one’s peers or leadership, and the competitive environment of current workplaces. Many participants described situations with leadership or coworkers when accommodations were made for the person with a disability. In these events, others often felt that the person being accommodated was given special treatment or an easier workload (p. 17). Additionally, participants described the amount of emotional labor that went into thinking about how their accommodations were perceived, nervous that others would believe them to be lazy or unable to complete their work. In reality, these workers are able to complete their work at the same level of others, but just may need to work in a different way.
Impacts and Implications of Barriers
“When a participant felt that they could not discuss or explain their disability in their workplace, it was because they felt insecure in their employment, the work environment, or their own confidence (p. 27). “
Participants within the study overwhelmingly reported that their work peers or supervisors were uncomfortable discussing their disability. No doubt, this discomfort with another person’s disability only continues the misunderstandings about that person’s experience with a disability. Furthermore, this discomfort when felt by either party would often increase the rate at which librarians chose not to disclose their disability to their workplace at all because they “did not feel safe doing so, or feared that it would have a negative impact on their job” (p. 26). Some librarians did choose to disclose their disabilities to their workplaces in an effort to raise awareness. Oud explains the difference between these two groups as one of security. When a participant felt that they could not discuss or explain their disability in their workplace, it was because they felt insecure in their employment, the work environment, or their own confidence (p. 27).
Positive Contributions of Disability
Even though all participants in Oud’s study reported negative experiences throughout their library careers and before, all reported that they felt their disability made them a better librarian. These librarians were able to give better service, think creatively, lead others with compassion, and made them more empathetic to the experiences of others (p. 33).
“This study is also a reminder that no matter what, we must believe library workers with disabilities when they tell us about their experiences.”
The LIS literature has slowly started making great strides in representing the perspectives of diverse people. Like Oud suggests, these efforts seem to halt at library workers with disabilities. Oud reminds us that the experience of working with a disability is different for everyone and that those in leadership positions must understand that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to accommodating disabilities. Most importantly, the study continuously highlights the mental and emotional struggle of library workers with disabilities as they attempt to educate their colleagues and supervisors. Abled coworkers and leadership must do their part in researching, learning, and understanding their differently-abled peers. This study is also a reminder that no matter what, we must believe library workers with disabilities when they tell us about their experiences.
Keep the Conversation Going
- How do we create workspaces where library workers with disabilities can thrive?
Oud. J. (2018). Systemic workplace barriers for academic librarians with disabilities (Preprint). College and Research Libraries. Retrieved from https://crl.acrl.org/index.php/crl/article/view/16948/18654.
Jessica Schomberg (@schomj) has created a thorough bibliography of disability related articles in the list Libraries + Disabilities here: http://catassessmentresearch.blogspot.com/2018/04/libraries-disabilities.html
Beuving, J., & de, V. G. (2015). Doing qualitative research: the craft of naturalistic inquiry. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com.
Colman, A. (2008). ableism. in A Dictionary of Psychology: Oxford University Press,. Retrieved from http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199534067.001.0001/acref-9780199534067-e-15.
Oliver, M. & Sapey, B. (2006). Social work with disabled people (3rd ed). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Saldana, J. (2013). The coding manual for qualitative researchers (2nd ed). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
Featured image by Vincent van Zalinge on Unsplash
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The expressions of writer do not reflect anyone’s views but their own
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