Academic libraries are the cornerstones of universities in providing information resources for the students and staff of the university. Indirectly, they may be instrumental in the development of beliefs and attitudes regarding the employment of disabled people. In 1998, the Australian Bureau of Statistics conducted a study into the status and wellbeing of disabled people, including employment restrictions. The percentage of the population who are disabled had risen from 15 per cent to 19 per cent in 17 years and half of these are unemployed or have restrictions on their employment.
This article explores some examples of the successful inclusion of disabled people in the library workplace and explains why it is necessary to overcome attitudinal barriers so as to include disabled people on the staff of the academic library in particular. It also explains some of the myths that exist among employers and shows how disabled people can be productive and valuable employees with the possible assistance of adaptive technologies. The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 was enacted to ameliorate this problem of discrimination in all areas of life. Since the legislation was brought to bear, various assistive or adaptive technologies have emerged to assist disabled people live a successful life and participate in employment. The literature has shown that the main barrier to employment for disabled people is attitude and lack of awareness of their abilities.
Academic libraries are central to tertiary institutions; the equity employment principles espoused by all Queensland academic institutions stem from Federal and Queensland legislation. It follows that the managers of academic libraries should continue to monitor and implement equal employment opportunity principles regarding disabled people, not only to comply with legislation, but to uphold the rights, engender trust and loyalty and maintain efficiency and productivity of staff within their libraries (Evans, 2000; Campbell, 1996; Smith, 2002). One aim of a library manager should be to reflect the broader demographics and culture of a society (in which disabled people form a part) in the library's staffing profile (Evans, 2000).
This article explores the issues and makes initial recommendations relating to the employment of disabled persons within the academic library environment. It reviews the legislation underpinning equal employment opportunity for people with disabilities, the current status of disabled people within Australia, misconceptions about the abilities of disabled people and suggestions on actions that may be taken to integrate this minority into the staffing profile of the academic library. It is beyond the scope of this article to suggest specific solutions to particular situations as the range of disabilities and solutions to overcome them are vast. However, examples of some current technologies that are available are touched upon.
Within the library professions, considerable emphasis has been placed on equal employment opportunity in the past 25 to 30 years (Evans, 2000). However, this has mainly been regarding gender and race inequalities within the workforce (Hogan, 2003). Consequently there is little literature, and no studies immediately apparent that have been done regarding the inclusion of disabled people in the staffing profiles of libraries in general, let alone academic libraries specifically Some literature exists regarding the inclusion of disabled people in the workforce, particularly with legislation that has arisen specifically targeting their rights (Healey, 2000; Hogan, 2003). And yet there is a proliferation of literature about satisfying the needs of the disabled patron in the library environment (Lisiecki, 1999; Hopkins, 2004).
Impairment according to the World Health Organisation is 'any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological, or anatomical structure or function' (Healey, 2000, p1). Disability according to the World Health Organisation is 'Restriction or lack (resulting from an impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being' (Healey, 2000, p1). This includes functional limitations or restriction to activities. Assistive or adaptive technology is any machine or software that can assist a disabled person to perform the functions of a task or many tasks in a similar manner to a person who is not disabled (Hogan, 2003; Lisiecki, 1999). Disability discrimination is when a person or persons (or his/her associate) are stopped from performing an activity or are treated less favourably than a person who does not have a disability.
A number of journal articles and books were consulted in the preparation of this article as well as statistical information on the status of disabled people. The literature rarely addresses the library work environment. Some articles review the incorporation of assistive and other technologies in the library environment to assist patrons with their research, as well as articles addressing the experiences of disabled people in other professions. Some personal anecdotes exist regarding the successful employment of disabled people in the library professions and offer invaluable insights into the effectiveness of legislation and technology in ensuring the equal treatment of disabled people in the work situation.
This article is a preliminary analysis of the issue of employment of disabled people in libraries and outlines the current status of disabled people in regard to employment, common misconceptions and the facts regarding these. It does not look specifically at different types of disabilities and how they may be accommodated within the academic library, nor does it analyse the ability of specific academic libraries to employ disabled people: further, the successful integration of disabled persons into library employment in Australia is not covered in the literature. There is little evidence that legislation regarding equal employment opportunity is being adhered to in libraries: more research into this issue is needed.
In 1998 the Australian Bureau of Statistics collected statistics regarding the status of disabled people in Australia and in Queensland (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1998). The outcome was not encouraging about the status of disabled people in Australia. The studies showed that in Australia overall, 3.6 million (19 per cent of the Australian population) had a disability and of those people 3.2 million (87 per cent of that group) had a particular restriction in core activities, schooling or employment; core activities being self-care, mobility and communication. And of those with a restriction in core activities 1.3 million (47 per cent of the total population) were restricted in schooling or employment. The people without a core activity restriction also had limitations in their participation in schooling and the workforce (327,900 people in the total population) (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1998a). Additionally, ABS found that the population of disabled people had increased from 15 per cent of the total to 19 per cent since the last study in 1981. The implication of these statistics is that the percentage of disabled people in Australia is growing and due to discrimination regarding employment, they are increasingly a burden to welfare, medical resources and social security funding. Although they may be restricted in the types of employment they are able to undertake, disabled people remain eager to participate in the workforce in a meaningful fashion and are capable of doing so if given the opportunity.
The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 covers people with physical, intellectual, psychiatric, sensory, neurological and learning disabilities, physical disfigurement and the presence in the body of a disease-causing organism (Productivity Commission, 2003). It covers disabilities that people have now, have had in the past, might have in the future or are believed to have currently. It also covers 'associates' of people with disabilities (partners, relatives, carers and people in business, sporting or recreational relationships).
Employment is one of the main areas in which the legislation makes it illegal to discriminate against disabled people and it covers both direct and indirect discrimination. Direct discrimination is where a disabled person is treated less favourably than a person without a disability in the same circumstances and indirect discrimination is where a rule or condition applies to everybody but is disproportionate in effect when applied to a disabled person. An employer is expected to make 'reasonable accommodation', essentially alterations or adjustments, to the workplace to allow a disabled person to perform the inherent requirements of the job effectively (O'Donohue, 1997) as long as the changes required don't impose 'unjustifiable hardship' on the employer.
Various studies have found that the main barrier to people with disabilities regardless of whether it is employment or other areas are impediments created by the attitudes of people (Healey, 2000; Faucheux, 2003; Steinberg et al, 2002). Disabled people then face restrictions in further career opportunities once employed in a position. Some other barriers faced in the general community include knowing where to go to get information, mobility within the community, communication via accessible media and access to premises and/or facilities (Healey, 2000, p 22).
A number of assistive technologies and innovations that were originally designed for disabled people are available for the general use of the public and have become part of our daily lives without knowing why they were developed. Some examples include ramps that benefit both the physically disabled person and the person with a pram; the typewriter which was originally developed for a blind woman to use for writing; and talking lifts developed to assist the blind which announce which floor a person is on (Hogan, 2003, p 14).
The internet has expanded the independence of those with mobility issues enabling them to perform from home a number of tasks that they were previously unable to do. (Grimaldi and Goette, 1999; Williamson et al, 2000). Web sites within libraries are being designed now that are accessible by all people regardless of the presence or type of disability (Kirkpatrick, 2003). The sites can be read by screen reader software, have 'alternative text' tags that describe graphics to the user, have customisable screens and text, have keyboard-only navigation, announcements with pop-up windows, transcripts with any audio output and captions for video files. Other assistive technologies in libraries include large-print books, portable screen magnifiers, talking books, Braille computer technologies that convert other formats into Braille, text telephones and captioning features on various visual equipment and e-mail (Hopkins, 2004).
It is clear that the disabled remain a significant but largely unrecognised minority group that should be represented in the workforce. They represent 19 per cent of the Australian population, a percentage that has increased by 4 per cent in a period of 17 years. In regard to employment, both in recruitment and on-the-job, they are now covered by the Disability Discrimination Act 1992. As to whether this act is effective remains to be seen and is currently being investigated (Productivity Commission, 2003). The main problem that people with disabilities have is the various attitudinal barriers to their inclusion in the workplace. Perhaps this can be remedied to some extent with the great advances in assistive technology that now exist and are rapidly being developed. It is important that further research be undertaken to consider the implications of employment in library services. Academic libraries are part of institutions that have strong equal opportunity policies, which should be adhered to in the interest of equal employment opportunity.
It is important that managers of these institutions understand how the disabled can be integrated into the workforce. The perception is that it is a task that is very difficult: in fact it is easier than it might seem. In the following sections, we look at positive examples of workforce integration, how this may be accomplished and why.
Mary Joe Venetis who was a serials librarian at Dallas Public Library in 2000 has been professionally successful and has not had conflicts between the demands of the professional workplace and her deafness (Venetis, 2000). She lip reads well and needs interpreters only occasionally. In her studies she had enthusiastic mentors and hearing members of her family who believed in her abilities and occasionally helped out when needed (which was not often). She acknowledges the importance and usefulness of adaptive technology such as closed captioning, fax machines, e-mail and relay services for telephone conversation. She believes that the needs of the disabled need to be looked at seriously in the design, building or adaptation of any structure, and that workable solutions need not be complicated.
Northern Illinois University decided in the 1990s to employ blind students in the library of the university (Dick and Jones, 1999). The library had other disabled employees currently on staff. Dick and Jones acknowledged that as an academic institution educating future workers and having policies on equal employment opportunity, this was a 'wonderful opportunity to be proactive' (Dick and Jones, 1999, p 84). Tasks suiting students such as shelving, filing or reference work could not be given to blind students however work at the information desk was a problem which could be solved with the use of appropriate tools. The library found that visually impaired students didn't apply for work because they didn't believe that they would get hired (which shows that blind people are very discouraged by employment issues). Those that were given work received training and supervision and were encouraged to say what they needed to do the job efficiently. They were given replacement duties for any tasks that they could not physically perform and the other (sighted) students were informed of this to prevent resentment. All staff were briefed regarding disabilities and adaptations to the library environment before hiring and all staff were made aware of, and consulted with regarding the initiative. Both the current staff and the new employees were consulted on new ideas for making the work more productive, including the use of assistive technology. This is an outstanding example of an academic library making successful efforts in hiring disabled employees. It can be accomplished successfully and most of the time quite easily with a little effort and thought.
The State Library of NSW has a disability access consultant who conducted a disability awareness program for the library in 1997, which included affirmative action projects. This included a 20-week work placement program through the Deaf Education Network and was funded by the Commonwealth Employment Service. They also had work experience placements for disabled people. Murray Spriggs stated 'Many social psychologists suggest that when true awareness and acceptance is gained, there will no longer be a need for lobbying for adaptive computer technology, building access or special resources--it will be a matter of course.' (Spriggs, 1997, p 14)
With some planning and understanding of the issues, disabled people can be included, accepted and celebrated as an integral part of the personnel of an academic library, especially when so much is being accomplished in regard to adapting the library environment for disabled students. Employees may benefit from these adaptations. Hogan (2003) believes that the disabled are a huge, untapped resource of trained and talented individuals just waiting for employers to give them a chance.
All of Queensland's universities have internal policies on equal employment opportunity and some have policies specific to disabilities (Griffith University, 2004a and b). These policies seem to be put in place due to the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and other Federal and Queensland policies. If discrimination of any kind occurs, the people involved have a right to seek retribution or compensation through litigation. Some US claims of discrimination have been successfully filed under the Americans with Disabilities Act 1990 and substantial payments have been given by some large corporations (Cicmanec and Kleiner, 2002).
The Association of Specialised and Cooperative Agencies of the American Library Association has stated that in order to promote workforce diversity it is important that libraries employ librarians with disabilities (Bourdon, 2003). Considering the legislation Australia possesses and the equal employment opportunity policies that universities consequently have, it is important that academic libraries hire qualified disabled people to improve the reputation that academic institutions have of being inclusive of all sectors of society and complying with relevant legislation.
The main issues to employers seem to be the cost of 'reasonable accommodation', and various other incorrect assumptions. There are doubts about the ability of a disabled individual to perform in a team, assumptions about accessibility of areas and facilities, thinking that people with visual disabilities present insurmountable challenges: the focus is too often on the disability, not the ability of the person (Hogan, 2003). This is simply due to attitudes and beliefs that are not based on fact.
Employers seem to be concerned about the financial cost of adjustments needing to be made to the workplace to accommodate a disabled person (Hogan, 2003). The opposite is actually the truth and persons with disabilities have been found to have fewer sick days, be as productive as other employees, have good safety records and stay longer in the job (Hogan, 2003; Healey 2000). The Australian government has various financial incentives related to employing disabled people and this includes financial assistance in the adjustment of the workplace (O'Donohue, 1997). Companies which have employed disabled people (such as Telstra, Qantas and Pizza Hut) have been very pleased with their quality (Healey, 2000). Dibben et al (2002) have suggested through their research that corporations are neglecting the financial benefits in positive promotion of their companies through hiring disabled people. Since promotion is becoming increasingly important to libraries to widen their patron bases, this may be wise advice to follow. Employing disabled librarians would have the added bonus of servicing the customer who is disabled more effectively.
There are positive moves toward including disabled people in the library workforce. With the increasing emphasis in academic libraries on electronic information, this is becoming easier to accomplish. There are assistive technologies that are being developed constantly that can help disabled people work successfully in an academic library and as a result disabled people can easily be included without great cost and with likely benefits. The legislation and policies that exist for equal employment opportunities require that academic libraries start to hire qualified and work-ready people who happen to have a disability.
The population of disabled people in Australia is slowly increasing. Approximately 50 per cent of these are not employed in the workforce despite strong legislation which makes it unlawful to discriminate against disabled people in interviews for and obtaining work: it seems that this is due to the attitudes and fears of employers. And yet the majority of these beliefs and discriminatory behaviours are actually unsupported by fact. Academic libraries have the opportunity to play an instructive part in the education of the Australian population and can assist in changing behaviours and attitudes in the general public. Part of that obligation is to employ disabled people and to provide ethical role models to the managers and business owners of the future. This has been done with success on a small scale but needs to be continued. It is clear that this minority group includes qualified and willing workers who are likely to be very successful at performing in the workplace, particularly in an academic library where electronic access to information and technological innovation has become increasingly important and necessary.
* It is recommended that on-going disability awareness is conducted for all staff of the academic library to endeavour to make the pathway smoother for the inclusion of disabled persons in the personnel of the library, preferably by someone who is disabled or has working knowledge of the disabled. This should cover recruitment processes as well as awareness covering on-the-job staff issues.
* It is recommended that the library be assessed for its physical accessibility, investigation into the costs of adjustments that may need to be made to the structure of the library and funding that may be available from government and non-government sources for these adjustments.
* It is recommended that the library investigate the costs of assistive technologies that may be required for people of different disabilities and the funding that may be available for this.
* It is recommended that a work experience program be implemented for library students who have been identified as having a disability in order to give them work experience and allow staff to experience working with these people.
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Jodi Johnstone is currently a part-time student in the Graduate Diploma of Library and Information Studies at Queensland University of Technology and working on a casual basis as a reference librarian at Griffith University. She has worked in academic and special libraries and archives in various capacities, including Queensland University of Technology, Griffith University, Queensland State Archives, CRS Australia, Education Queensland and the Queensland Department of Corrective Services. She is an avid reader, singer, gardener and armchair film critic.
Manuscript received October 2004…