Conferences and Diversity

When I go somewhere new (like a conference), I tend to look around to gauge the visible diversity of the attendees. AALL was definitely more white than my place of work. I’m fairly confident it was more white than the average general population. So was Digital Preservation, though my “all of the presenters are white or Asian” complaint was countered by a really interesting presentation about data sharing among zooarchaeologists by Dr. Ixchel Faniel. Still pretty white, though.

As much as I found that disheartening, though, I know that there are efforts to increase racial diversity in librarianship. I don’t know that they’re necessarily working, but it’s at least a topic of conversation.

What I found more troubling was that I saw no one at Digital Preservation (out of about 330) who had a visible physical disability of any kind, and at AALL only one person (out of about 1250) who used a wheelchair–for what looked to be a temporary injury–and only a few with other physical limitations. (For lack of a more appropriate word. Please correct me in the comments, and I can edit this.) I saw no blind librarians, and no sign language interpreters, suggesting no deaf librarians. (Sad for me, as my feeble attempt to learn sign language would have benefited from watching interpretation and making new friends who are deaf. Can’t make friends if you don’t meet them!)

At AALL I went to a subcommittee meeting on the general topic of “individuals with disabilities.” The focus–because the subject has too many facets for a group of 7 to address all at once–turned to patrons with mental illness. But I am interested in making our profession welcoming to librarians with disabilities.

I realize that conferences do not reflect an accurate cross-section of our profession. To attend a conference, one needs to be able to afford the travel, have a partner to take care of any children at home, have a job that allows time off for conference attendance, and other privileges. I’ve never needed to use a wheelchair, but I imagine that travel is more difficult and more expensive for someone who does. The same for someone who is blind or deaf. In fact, I’d imagine that as stressful as travel is in general, there is additional stress when needing to worry about accessibility that might make attending conferences more stressful than it’s worth in many cases. So the absence of librarians with visible physical disabilities from conferences does not mean that there are no librarians with visible physical disabilities.

Nevertheless, I think about my LIS program, and I haven’t met any students with disabilities.* (Okay, thinking about law school, I only remember 2 students, one in the class I began with and one a class or two below the one I graduated with, who used wheelchairs. And that program was much larger than my LIS program. So maybe the problem is grad school in general? Or the paths to higher education in general?)

What can we do?

I have colleagues in the archives field who have noted that archives job descriptions generally include a requirement of being able to lift [XX] pounds. Yes, archives involve boxes of paper and ephemera.** Yes, those boxes need to be moved on occasion, whether to bring to a researcher or for processing. But does every person working in an archive need to be able to lift boxes? No. The archivist processing a collection could have the boxes brought to her. Other office procedures could be adapted for patron service.

Are we encouraging our paraprofessionals with disabilities to get an MLS? Are we arranging our physical spaces not simply to be compliant with the ADA but to actually be welcoming and comfortable to potential coworkers?

Do you have a physical disability? Do you have LIS classmates or coworkers with disabilities? I would love to hear about your experiences in your LIS program or workplace. What more should we as a community be doing?


*Totally lying. One of my classmates has CP–but if she hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t have realized it. So maybe I shouldn’t have lazily left the word “visible” out of this sentence.

**I am excited to have had the opportunity to use the word “ephemera.” It’s almost as good as “stuff.”

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