Volume 25, Number 1, 2003

Is There a Place for Us? Toward the Full Inclusion of Blind and Other Librarians with Disabilities?

by: David Faucheux

Florida librarian Michael Gunde wrote: “Libraries should have always provided equitable services to students, patrons, and potential employees with visual and/or other disabilities, if for no other reason than our own professional ethics require it, most library mission statements imply it, and to some extent the fiscal health of our institutions depends upon it.” I would like to address educational preparedness, technological proficiency, and job search realities while touching on my background and reasons for choosing this profession. I regret not being able to speak about internships or actual job interactions with colleagues and patrons; but I have never had the opportunity, despite considerable efforts, to experience either.

It may seem almost ironic to some that a totally blind person could be interested in librarianship, a profession that upon first consideration might seem to be so entirely dependent on sight. But! I have always had a biblioholic's love of reading. Braille and recorded books take me places and show me things I would otherwise never get to encounter. They see for me by their descriptions, their vivid word pictures, and lyrical prose. They befriend me when I'm lonely, educate me when I'm curious, and amuse me when I'm blue. I have always known I could pick up a book and for a time be in a better—or at least a different—place. Books don't judge, ignore, or marginalize us. According to Henry Petroski, author of The Book on the Bookshelf: "Books spend a lot of time on bookshelves, hanging around near the curb, as it were, waiting for someone to come along with an idea for something to do."

For as long as I can remember, my love of reading and my desire to share books have been counterbalanced by the limited availability of Braille and recorded materials. Estimates vary, but they indicate that of the 40,000 to 60,000 books published annually in the United States, approximately 6,000 are produced in specialized media for the use of the blind. This alternative book production is largely split between the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) for leisure reading and Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D) for college texts and professional materials. I remember endless hours of summer reading offset by eagerly anticipating the next book in the mail from the NLS-affiliated library in Baton Rouge and going crazy with boredom when a shipment did not arrive. Fond memories of the excitement at having the 145-volume Braille World Book literally at my fingertips during junior high school study hall linger to this day. The most important and most challenging information need I have ever had was obtaining Braille, electronic, and recorded versions of texts, journal articles, class handouts, and other materials while attending library school. As a result of these experiences with this discriminatory "information gap," I have become increasingly concerned about the availability of print materials to the blind library patron, be he or she a college student looking for a textbook, a professional endeavoring to locate articles in a work-related journal, or a pleasure reader trying to get that latest Stephen King or long-awaited Jean Auel bestseller.

I had closed the door on my library aspirations and was considering other employment and education options when the Chair of LSSPS, Jenifer Flaxbart, asked me to present my story. After considering her request, I decided to accept her offer because it would serve as a fitting conclusion to my years-long efforts to generate awareness and help make it easier for other people with disabilities to enter this profession. I wanted to be heard as both a blind patron of the library and a blind librarian, because I believe that this dual perspective is a rare and valuable one. During many discussions with my major professor, Lee Shiflett, we came to the conclusion that the existing job market along with my background best suited me for employment as a reader’s advisor at an NLS regional library, and I structured my library school studies accordingly. After considerable effort, I came to realize the staggering difficulty of finding entry-level employment in this system. I therefore broadened my search to include employment in any library—academic, public, or specialized—with a director who could appreciate my career potential and a cooperative staff who could proactively assist me with integrating my adaptive software needs with the library's existing equipment infrastructure. In fact, I thought I would be working in a university library. I interviewed last fall at our local university library after I learned through a mutual acquaintance that the director was very interested in my situation. I felt disconcerted, however, during the hours-long interview process when asked how I would handle microforms, print ready-reference, shelving books, picking up trash around the reference desk area, maintaining the printers by ensuring they had paper and toner, teaching the Unix-based database system which no one could guarantee would run a speech synthesis software package, and so on. I had hoped that I would be considered for a newer position at this same library maintaining some adaptive equipment and eventually become a tenured employee with faculty status, but I later learned that I had misunderstood the director. Shortly thereafter, I canceled an interview with the local public library because I learned that the job was a reference position, and I did not want to go through a similar interview process. Prior to this, I thought I might get a chance to intern at the Louisville Free Public Library. I learned through a Library Users of America (www.ACB.org/lua) publication that one of the librarians had a blind son. When I e-mailed this librarian, he seemed very interested in me and asked for my resume. After several months of waiting and e-mailing, I learned from his supervisor that there was no money for such an intern position. Things had not changed when I recently e-mailed him again. The state librarian of Louisiana informed me that there were money problems preventing me from interning at the NLS Regional in Baton Rouge. Indiana also had money problems. New York had a hiring freeze on state civil service workers. Potential interest in me from NLS Regionals in Florida, Washington, California, Oregon, and Texas, which I had contacted along with other NLS Regional Libraries just prior to my last semester of library school, fizzled. Florida was especially disappointing because the then-director of their Bureau of Braille and Talking Book Library Services, Don Weber, made a point to call me while I was still in library school to say how impressed he was with my resume and to keep in touch and apply for anything that came open. California wanted to know what I had published and was disappointed to hear that I had nothing in print. Washington thought that there might be a Braille teaching job opening in the next year if funding allowed and wanted to know if I would consider a salary of about $10 an hour. I said yes, but they later had a budget problem. Oregon said I didn't have the technical skills they needed, and, when I offered to intern there to learn the job-specific skills, they said it was not doable. Texas said I needed experience. Several large public libraries also said I needed experience when they answered my queries.

After much consideration, I believe that the service model which could best have assisted me would consist of a highly interactive and interdependent proactive dialogue between the blind student (in any discipline) and/or his/her advocate and a symphony of support people including, but not necessarily limited to professors, computer technicians, interested computer science graduate students, disabled student services staff, college counselors, adaptive software providers, state rehabilitation agency staff, and library professionals. Admittedly, this model is complicated by the need for input from numerous professionals, but this need not imply its failure. We need to look at information delivery in new ways and encourage all interested people from college students to knowledge engineers to share ideas. Perhaps, VR technology could render the information held in complex databases topographically as three-dimensional tactile models. Other Internet functions might be rethought as well. Perhaps, larger Braille displays using prototype rheologic agents that mimic a complete screen could be tested. If we can send men to the moon, examine things at the nanoscopic level, learn and map the genetic code, develop the Internet and worldwide web, then surely we can represent information in such a way as to make it completely and instantly accessible to all potential users.

The journey that ultimately led to my MLIS was convoluted and unpredictable. After obtaining a B.A. in English in December of 1987, I attended a rehabilitation and training center to learn various life skills in order to live solo. I then planned to obtain an advanced degree in linguistics but was unable to do so, largely due to funding difficulties. In October of 1989, I went to California to get a guide dog. There I met a student who was planning to pursue a career as a medical transcriptionist. This sounded doable. I attended a program to learn word processing along with medical transcription terminology and worked in this field for a time. I planned to earn enough money to go to graduate school, but I was unable to fulfill all my job duties successfully. I taught Braille for several years, but found that working half-time offered very limited opportunities for financial security and career advancement. I began to consider the possibility of either starting a home business or telecommuting.

In 1996, I was chosen to represent the southern region of the United States at the annual collection development meeting held by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in Washington, DC. It was while attending this meeting that I became interested in library work as a possible career. I had heard that there were few blind people who had done library work, but I felt that with advances in technology and the passage of the ADA it would be possible if somewhat of a challenge. I researched numerous educational possibilities, including several Internet models, and narrowed my focus to Louisiana State University. Over a six-month period, I exchanged e-mails with the dean of the School of Library and Information Science, who patiently answered my many questions. During these electronic dialogs, the Dean mentioned the possibility of developing a pilot program that would be uniquely designed to ascertain and meet the needs—especially technological—of blind library science students. With a great deal of optimism and a little trepidation, I applied, was accepted, and began my studies in June, 1997. I felt rather like a pioneer, a cybernier, helping to fling wide another door of opportunity for blind students.

The 18 months I spent pursuing my degree were a learning experience for all of us on campus. I discovered that even with the best and most carefully thought out strategies, things can simply not work according to plan. Finding and keeping good readers the first summer proved especially problematic. I failed to impress upon them the importance of having things read rapidly. One informed me that she had an oboe convention in Chicago and would be out the remaining week. She had also informed me that her job did not include helping me package and mail my malfunctioning four-track tape player for repairs. I found a more sympathetic replacement. But this reader came too late to help me survive my reference class which I dropped and retook in the fall with a different professor. Finding and keeping good readers continued to be a challenge. One, a fellow student, had planned to take a systems class with me. At the last minute she decided to do an internship out-of-state. Another was irritated at a last minute change in the method of payment that DSS was using. They wanted to adopt a per page fee to replace the hourly rate they had been using, and she tossed several cassettes she'd read in the trash. Everyone let me know I should have planned better. It seemed whenever something went wrong, the powers-that-be were quick to explain to me in exacting detail why it was always my fault. Lack of qualified readers caused me to take a cataloguing class solo with a specially-hired instructor at the professor's insistence. I had hoped OCR technology would have decreased my dependence on readers, but it never worked well. Font variations proved difficult for the software to scan and interpret. I tried to scan a textbook, only to have the beginning and ending of each line not be read by the speech software, making for a disconnected, disjointed narrative. No one seemed able to help me solve this enigma. The SLIS librarian did prove invaluable in helping me get photocopied handouts and other information sent to several reading services with a quick turn-around.

Although the reader situation was challenging, the biggest hurdle of my entire graduate school experience was the ongoing, ever-changing, and endlessly frustrating process of endeavoring to configure my special adaptive speech synthesis software to the computers in the library school's computer lab and the university's main library. I had hoped to have access to OCLC, Dialogue, ERIC, the Internet and LSU's pioneering electronic reserves system. Because I never obtained access to materials, campus-based e-mail, or web sites, I depended on sighted readers who either read or recorded the materials in question or e-mailed web-based files they had reformatted to me. I was never able to take advantage of the free campus e-mail system but continued using Compuserve despite its cost and my limited access to its features. In April 1998, I spoke to the director of the blind services section of Louisiana Rehabilitation Services. She indicated that, as things stood, I'd have to use a reader to access the Internet. In September of 2000, I met with LSU's provost, vice-chancellor for diversity, and the head of Disabled Student Services to acquaint them with my concerns in hopes that things could be made better for future visually-impaired graduate students. Repeated attempts to contact them last year to learn what had been done to implement changes subsequent to our meeting were not successful.

I cannot change the past, but perhaps we can change the future for other potential librarians who are blind or physically disabled. I urge you to consider a not always visible facet of advocacy—that of developing a library future which will guarantee support, acceptance, and viable career opportunities to those of us who are not yet fully empowered by existing legislation. I hope that I speak for all library students with disabilities when I urge you to work for our full inclusion in the library world and offer my support and assistance to accomplish this objective. I do not know if my attempts to contact several U.S. Senators, a state representative, a governor, a mayor, a university provost, the IMLS director, state librarians, a blind NLS regional library director, a blind library paraprofessional, two retired visually impaired professors (one of law and the other of information science), LUA and NFB officials, magazine editors, several radio and TV talk show hosts, book authors, a nationally known rehabilitation specialist, the First Lady, a celebrity lawyer, a PBS producer, a local TV news reporter, the AOL-Time-Warner Foundation, and others will ultimately prove beneficial to me and by extension to those with disabilities; but I do know that with your help, we can make an exponential difference. Won't you join me and others like me in unbolting and flinging wide that library door?

  • WE CAN work with the Century Scholarship Committee and ASCLA to recruit potential library students who are blind or otherwise disabled and encourage libraries, publishers, and other information providers to hire many more of these same students as librarians via the newly established and very much-needed policy, Library Service for People with Disabilities!
  • WE CAN work to establish a Century Scholarship Leadership Institute similar to the Spectrum Institute and increase the Century Scholarship Fund!
  • WE CAN work with Spectrum to recruit minorities with disabilities into the profession!
  • WE CAN encourage successful librarians and other information professionals with disabilities to mentor library students with disabilities. Perhaps a protocol could be formulated and a database maintained of likely candidates and matches!
  • WE CAN advocate strongly and persistently for the development of disabled-friendly mentoring programs in academic, public, school, and special libraries!
  • WE CAN work with existing mentoring programs to expand and broaden their ethnic-based definition of diversity to include those persons with disabilities!
  • WE CAN work to enlist major philanthropic foundations to assist with funding for mentoring programs and adaptive technology!
  • WE CAN work to encourage editors of leading professional publications such as Library Journal, American Libraries, Computers in Libraries, and JASIS, to prominently feature articles about librarians with disabilities and their mentors. Such a collection of articles would also make an excellent book!
  • WE CAN brainstorm with the major consumer organizations of and for people with disabilities to generate a database of best-practices, how-to information and positive job tips based on the experiences of successful librarians with disabilities.
  • WE CAN encourage ASCLA and the Century Scholarship Committee, PLA, YALSA, SLA, ACRL, CLA, Beta Phi Mu, state library associations, IMLS, LUA, ASIS, library schools, RFB&D, and the NLS to develop meaningful and viable internships, field experiences, and/or mentoring situations for all interested library and information science students with disabilities. These programs will generate a reciprocal exchange of knowledge and, more importantly, lead to more employment for librarians with disabilities that will generate a greater and much-needed diversity in this rapidly changing sector of the information profession!

As Oprah said on her May 23, 2002, program that featured Barbara Ehrenreich's book Nickel and Dimed: Nobody makes it alone, "No one makes it without a hand up." Please consider how you, too, can lend a hand so we can all pay it forward.

David Faucheux can be reached at biblioholik@earthlink.net.