Interviewed by Christina C. Wray
What ASCLA programs have you participated in?
Mary: I participated in the online workshop called Positive Interactions: Making the library a Welcoming Place for People with Disabilities with Brenda Hough . I also attended ASCLA programing at the Annual ALA conference in Chicago, because I was part of the Services to people with Disabilities working group here at the Monroe County Public library and attended sessions that I thought could help with that work.
Chris: I participated in some of the same programs as well, but I also took a Kate Todd online class called Improving Services to People with Disabilities. This was a fairly intensive month-long course.
Mary: One nice thing about the classes was that they asked you to inventory what services for people with disabilities were already available at your library, and through this we became more aware of programs that were happening in different departments that we just didn’t know about.
Chris: Absolutely! I think 10 of us took the initial class in 2012 (Improving Services to People with Disabilities), and we came from all different departments, including our facilities department. It did get us looking at the library from a different perspective. It was really well done. The fact that ten different staff members took part meant that a lot of us were able to discuss it and support one another. The course provided opportunities to dig much deeper than we do in typical on-the-job learning. As part of the class, participants were given homework, including blogging, and the instructor provided great feedback and clearly took her role very seriously.
Had you taken a workshop in this format before?
Chris: I don’t know that I have ever taken a multi-part, multi-week workshop
Mary: I hadn’t either.
Did the format work well for this type of content?
Chris: It did! It was challenging in that it required a lot of our time, but we got a much more rewarding professional development opportunity out of it.
Mary: I loved the format. The courses got me reading more fiction with people with disabilities as main characters. I think that is one of the great barriers. We’re talkers, we’re readers, and if we’re working with people who can’t express themselves in a way in which we’re accustomed to dealing with the average patron, you really don’t know what’s going on inside, or what they’re thinking, what their expectations are. I think that’s one of the great things about fiction. It can help you see the world from somebody else’s point of view and help you realize how important it is to meet that person where they are and be there to provide the services.
What was your biggest take away from the courses when you took them?
Chris: The Positive Interactions webinar was required for all staff here at the library, and included follow up discussion sessions. I led a number of those sessions and it was interesting for me to see the reactions of different people. I think the biggest take away there was that it’s often unclear when a disability might be affecting somebody’s library experience. Statistics from the Pew Research Center and the U.S. Census indicate that between 20-25% of Americans have some type of disability, but a large percentage are not necessarily things you are going to be immediately aware of when applying library procedures, interpreting policy, and devoting time to a patron’s need.
Mary: I think the fundamental shift in my thinking was not to make assumptions. Don’t assume that a patron doesn’t have special needs because there are no obvious indicators that they have a disability, and don’t assume that a person who has some indicator, like they are in a wheelchair, that they are going to want any special help, and don’t assume that everyone with a particular disability is the same. It was a really good foundational experience that helped me be better prepared to integrate the things I learned in other ALA workshops like Kate Todd’s Serving Children with Disabilities and the Sensory Story time online workshops. In fact, it was so good, we’ve made the Positive Interactions webinar part of our new employee onboarding program.
Were there specific ways that you incorporated the information you got in these sessions into your practice?
Chris: My focus is outreach, so I generally work with people who are facing barriers in using the library. As a department we are generally comfortable working with patrons with disabilities, but other departments were not. We’re often called in when folks elsewhere in the library are seeing somebody who wants an exception to policy, and that’s been difficult for a lot of folks in our circulation department. There has been a strong emphasis in years past that we offer consistent services to all patrons and not make exceptions. I think the idea was to prevent customers from looking for the friendly clerk who will forgive their fines. Having this ASCLA training, the Positive Interactions specifically, enabled me to address some of those issues on why it’s ok for us to make exceptions and why it’s not appropriate for the same late fees to apply 100% of the time.
Mary: Part of the work of Positives Interactions was to come up with ways in which we were currently trying to meet the needs of patrons with disabilities, come up with ideas of how we could improve. One result that came out of that was gathering information and posting it on our intranet so that we had a centralized place where everybody who works here could go and find out what programming and services are available. So that was a really concrete outcome of the work.
Chris: It helped us realize that there is a lot we’re already doing that we don’t necessarily think of as services for people with disabilities, like our audiobook collections. Audiobooks are incredibly popular and there are a lot of people without disabilities who are only audiobook consumers in terms of their library usage. But we are now more aware how important this collection is to people with a vision disability, and how beneficial it is that we have multiple audiobook formats, including Playways and downloads, in addition to books on CD.
Mary: Also, another thing that came out of our experience with these workshops was a greater awareness of assistive technology, so that in our latest remodel of our auditorium space we were able to demonstrate the need for a hearing loop system where we hadn’t had any kind of assistive hearing technology before. So the workshops have really helped us in shaping attitudes, the delivery of information to people who work here and changing our physical space.
What do you think the most lasting impact will be on your practice from participating in these workshops?
Chris: One of the tangible impacts has been a change in how we present and describe our services. Previously, we had more of a “compliance” mindset, specifically when it comes to the Americans with Disabilities Act. The language on our website and in some of our promotional materials was defensive. In light of our recent learning opportunities, we are now trying to make it clear that we not only want to comply with the law and established best practices, but that we also want to know how we can best meet each and every individual’s needs, addressing any problems they may encounter as a result of a disability.
Mary: When we began meeting as a working group one of our main goals was to develop programming for Disability Awareness Month in 2013. One of the things I’m most proud of is that a number of those programs became a permanent part of our programming schedule now. Some of the things we are doing are an Autism friendly movie showing once a month, and sensory story time. Neither one of those programs are limited to people with disabilities, but all types of patrons are attending and loving it. For instance parents with toddlers who can’t sit still and make lots of noise are coming to the Autism friendly movie showing and love that they have that opportunity.
Would you recommend the program to others?
Are there any other ALA programs you’ve found helpful?
We found two ALSC programs especially helpful: