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Blogging: The Making of a Disabilities Librarian

By Anna Ercoli Schnitzer
Liaison/Disabilities Librarian
Taubman Health Sciences Library
University of Michigan

One day at the reference desk about twelve years ago, I was helping a patron finish up work on her doctoral thesis on disability issues.  In between searching for information and correcting citations, we were chatting a bit, and she asked me whether I would like to attend a meeting to discuss what the library did for individuals who happened to have disabilities.  I did not have anything specific in mind, but I agreed to attend that meeting which turned out to be a gathering of members of the University of Michigan Council for Disability Concerns.  I had little positive news to report, but I used my imagination to describe what the medical library could and should do in the future to serve patrons with disabilities.  The variety of Council members, their expertise, lack of ego, and altruism impressed me so much that I signed on as a member myself.Anna Ercoli Schnitzer at disabilities outreach exhibit

Our medical library of a dozen years ago offered very little in accommodations to patrons with physical challenges. Truth to tell, it did not even have a low energy door for easy access for wheelchair users.  Gradually, month by month, bit by bit, as a Council member I began to learn about various disability issues. With the able and altruistic assistance of the members of that Council,  we managed to acquire the requisite automatic door openers for our library along with an Ergopod, a large, free-standing apparatus of many sections and elements that provided adaptive computer technology to users with various physical and cognitive impairments. We also obtained a magnifying reading device.  Eventually, we also presented and attended a few sessions for staff members on increasing sensitivity about such issues as assisting a person with low or no vision, using the preferred language when referring to various physical and emotional differences, and, in general, spreading the word and thus raising consciousness about disability issues.

leader dogEventually all staff members of the library became aware of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations, and both our library’s physical structure and the website became more and more compliant to these requirements.  Coincidentally, our university’s libraries were among the first to have their books digitized by Google, which provided an opportunity to individuals with limited or no eyesight to have access to almost the entire contents of our print collections.

My exposure to the expertise of others with respect to disability issues—the physical and occupational therapists, the ADA coordinator, social workers, architects, nurses, interested individuals in the Plant and Transportation Departments, as well as input from a number of well-versed community members–both with and without disabilities themselves–caused me to become more and more interested in the topic of physical and emotional challenges experienced by a large percentage of the world’s population.  In fact locally, statistical surveys revealed that 20 percent of the city of Ann Arbor’s population was affected with either a visible or a hidden disability.

Other collaborative efforts involved a broad-based, cross-campus presentation of an annual week in October of disability-oriented events, Investing in Ability Week, which has a specific theme each year.  In years past our themes were “Art and Ability” and “bridging differences in learning,” while this year we are honoring all our veterans, both with and without disabilities.   Specific events this year will include demonstrations of service dogs, two lectures by a general who is also a nurse, a panel on traumatic brain injury, several films on pertinent topics, an art exhibit by individuals who have suffered traumatic brain injury with an accompanying demonstration by art therapists, a panel on expressive writing for veterans, a talk by a Navy officer who served for 25 years despite having cerebral palsy (he hid his symptoms), two presentations by experts on defusing potential situations caused by post-traumatic stress disorder, an Army/Navy wheelchair game at a local high school with an ROTC color guard and starring an internationally-renowned wheelchair basketball champion; and, finally, the Neubacher Awards, a ceremony that honors a number of people who have been nominated by the university community for having done an exceptional job at raising consciousness about disability issues.

As far as the history of my personal role is concerned, I served as the only outreach librarian, albeit on a part-time basis, at our particular library for three years; then, when a full-time librarian for outreach was hired, I stepped partly out of my former position and, with permission, chose to call myself a “disabilities librarian.”  I am charged with coordinating the disability pages on our university libraries’ websites, maintaining a guide to the major disability resources for our patrons, serving as the contact to other units with respect to relevant issues, and continuing to be a major resource for the Council for Disability Concerns.  I oversee the agenda, arrange speakers, invite new members, and generally serve as the communications point person both inside and outside of the Council.

I am also a permanent part of the university-wide Integrated Disability Advisory Committee, which is responsible for finding best practices in making it possible for injured and ill employees to return to work.  I also am part of a three-member Parking and Transportation Special Group, handling petitions by individuals who are having problems finding accessible parking places because of physical challenges.

In the arena of disability, there are a multitude of tasks to do and there are many contacts to make on a continuous basis, with new opportunities arising all the time.  For example, right now, a colleague from the University of Michigan Health System and I are planning to collaborate with several members of the Ross School of Business and with a statewide human resources organization with over 30 chapters (GAASHRM), to set up a conference regarding the disclosure of disabilities in the workplace.  This is a huge problem for both employers (productivity, turnover, employee dissatisfaction, legal traps for the unwary) and employees. Understandably, many employees who fear losing their jobs or otherwise being discriminated against tend to try to hide their disabilities.  This conference will focus on the best ways to handle disability concerns and disclosure issues, from both the employer and employee perspectives.

I am very enthusiastic and excited about this latest project.  It is literally brand new and has come to light only this very morning.  I think that the library can play an important part with respect to this topic as well as numerous others that in previous years we did not consider to be in our purview. I believe that I can provide information with respect to the salient statistics and also assist with finding venues and interested collaborators in this venture.   Libraries have opened their doors and librarians have stepped through them to the outside world. I like to think of myself as an example of one who has done just this in the role of “disabilities librarian,” and I am sure that many others have also ventured forth in similar ways.

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