On Being a Disabled School Librarian

When we study to be school librarians, we learn the importance of accessibility. I, like the majority of you, took courses on serving students with disabilities. But there’s an assumption that goes into the course design that made every one of the classes that I took on the topic frustrating. The assumption is that the disabled individual will always be the patron or student.

That isn’t the reality I live, nor is it a reality many librarians live. I’ve been disabled from the moment I entered the world, autistic and epileptic. I have neurons that are both wired differently from the general population and randomly decide to misfire. When I was a student, I had a 504 plan and accommodations, but as an educator I don’t have those things. Disabled people often have to make difficult choices about how to live our lives. Do we ask for help, or do we pursue careers? It’s often one or the other.

Being Realistic

Being a school librarian is both ideal and difficult for me. It’s ideal because I like the amount of control I have over my world – I am the only person in the school library. However, that control is often a double-edged sword. Because my autistic traits mean I don’t like relinquishing any of that control, and I often try to do everything and be everything. I use a mobility aid, and things like shelving books are difficult. But,  I want things to be shelved perfectly.

After a particularly painful month in January, I reached an impasse with myself. My books had piled up behind me, needing to be shelved. So, I sent out a call for student aides. I had to be realistic with myself. Students like helping – when I was younger, I was helping in my library and the school library where my mother was a paraprofessional. I know for a fact that is part of the reason for why I’m in the profession.

We are in the middle of a mass-disabling event. School librarians also have a tendency to have that drive for perfection, to do everything for everyone and be everything for everyone. We want to prove our worth, because not everyone sees it. But we also need to have grace for ourselves. And we need to ask for help when we need it.

The Benefits of My Presence

I am, for many of my students, the first openly autistic adult they’ve ever encountered. In a lot of ways, it helps me. My hyperfixation on manga and anime is definitely a bonus, but there are other, more nuanced things. I’ve been told that I’m “eerily patient” by students (this is a byproduct of processing differently than others). I will sit and listen to a student’s hyperfixations for as long as they want to talk about them. My school campus has a large number of neurodivergent students, and I’m protective of them.  I tell my students that I’m autistic. My other disabilities are already on display: I use a cane, I could have a seizure at any moment.  I’m not embarrassed by my disabilities. They’ve been with me my entire life.

The messaging you often get as an autistic person is that your difference is something that separates you, that makes you difficult and other. Groups of people weaponize it and spell it out as the worst possible scenario. But I want my students to see that my neurodivergence, and by extension, their neurodivergence, is just a facet of what it is to be a person. I share that some things are difficult for me because of my autism – I may not remember a student’s name, but I remember what they like or what books they’ve read.

Acknowledging It Isn’t Easy

The point here is that it’s not easy to be a school librarian with a disability. We work a role that is often isolated. And ultimately, the nature of disability is such that many more of us are disabled than it may seem. I can’t possibly speak for everyone, but this has been a bit of what my experiences are. I hope they are validating and resonant.

Author: Ashley Hawkins

Categories: Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

Tags: ,

8 replies

  1. Thank you for sharing this important message.

  2. I often feel I am the only one. I also had a 504 plan when I was in school due to a brain injury at birth. Now I have been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and use a crutch. It is nice to know there is someone else out there.

  3. Thank you for sharing your experiences! Your students are fortunate to have you as a role model.

  4. Thank you for sharing, Ashley. This is very important!

  5. Ashley, I’m so proud to be your colleague and honored to be your friend! We have much to learn from you.

  6. Thank you for sharing this! My disability makes it painful to maneuver my neck to look up. My current library is overstuffed and the books on the top shelf are painful to work with. My goal, weed, weed, weed and shift to eliminate top shelf usage. It’s too high for the kids too! Thanks for your inspiration!

  7. Ashley, thank you for sharing this important insight. Your students (and fellow librarians) are lucky to have you!

  8. Thank you for the wonderful article!

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