Invisible Disabilities and an Inclusive Library Workplace

guest post by John Connolly of

Comparatively, there’s very little in the library literature about support for library workers with disabilities, and there’s even less about those of us who have mental health challenges specifically. Our field isn’t exactly welcoming to library workers with disabilities, and the proof is in the pudding: only about 3 percent of library workers surveyed identified themselves as having a disability, and several surveys of disabled library workers in the past few years have shown that the landscape of our workplaces has much to do to be inclusive of those with physical and mental challenges. 

Many disabled library workers report that they engage in “passing,” or hiding their condition to avoid being treated differently, or to avoid potential negative consequences for their careers. It speaks volumes that “passing” appears to be fairly normative in our field, especially for those with invisible disabilities or mental health conditions. I believe that this stems from the culture in library workplaces, which despite the rhetoric surrounding the library as an organization, still has far to go to achieve true diversity.

There’s a lot libraries can learn from the field of disability studies. There’s a valuable distinction in how we approach mental health challenges and mental and emotional impairments. The traditional approach is the medical model of disability. This model views the disability as located in the body or mind of the impaired individual. The logical conclusion of this approach is that it treats the disability as a problem to be solved for that particular individual. The legal framework for approaching disabilities is based in this model. Library workplaces, to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, place the burden of disclosure of a disability on the individual, who must then generate solutions in the form of a request for accommodation. It’s a mentally fraught process, and even well-intentioned managers have very little experience with mental health issues or invisible disabilities. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

The medical model is only one way of looking at disability. Another, more appropriate way of viewing disability is the social model. It understands that every individual has a variety of abilities, and may or may not have impairments. True disability occurs when an individual is excluded from participation in social structures through the design of our institutions. The problem, then, is in the design of society, not in the body or mind of the individual. The goal, then, is to strive for universal design, which includes everybody. The move toward universal design helps everybody, impaired or not, because it leads to a truly equitable environment where individual accommodations are no longer necessary. 

The word I hear most often when discussing the challenges of library work is “pressure.” We are a pressurized field, both from within and from outside. From outside, we are under pressures to do more with less, to receive low pay, and to continue services without adequate staffing or funding. From within, pressures exist to appear perfect, to represent lofty ideals at all times, and to always go above and beyond for the sake of “the cause.” These pressures create an environment where the weak and vulnerable can easily be left behind or viewed as unable (or unwilling) to keep up. Thus, the incentive to hide a condition.

I was diagnosed a few years ago with bipolar disorder. It has been a long process to come to terms with my diagnosis, and to truly understand myself as a library worker with a disability. I am unable to go “above and beyond,” as my mental resources and energy can be limited. During manic episodes, there’s a deep temptation to go further than I should. During bouts of depression, it’s a struggle to keep up with my daily duties. 

It has been a journey to identify with my disability. To see myself as a bipolar person, not a person with bipolar disorder. There’s no cure for my mental states, they are a part of me. Still, there is a stigma surrounding mental health issues. People mean well, but are made uncomfortable by the topic. But I’ve decided not to “pass” any longer, as the field is in desperate need of additional voices to be heard. The library field needs strong support networks to promote mental health as well as provide support to those with visible and invisible disabilities. 

In my reading of the literature, I’ve found that disabled library workers repeatedly report that networks of support and strong mentorship opportunities go a long way toward creating a better workplace. These sort of measures could be put in place with little cost except time and effort. It also would pay to promote better awareness of mental health and disability issues. There’s likely little malice or antagonism when it comes to the stigma in the workplace, but even involuntary discrimination can do great harm.

In the end, I hope to continue to read, write, and speak out on issues of mental health and invisible disabilities in the library workplace. These voices are needed. We also need strong networks of support for mental health, where we bring together library workers from across the field in order to raise awareness of mental health issues and invisible disabilities. There’s much work to be done, and the time is right to begin discussions to make libraries truly inclusive workplaces in the future.

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