Handicap “Hack”-cessible: Disability Services and the Library Student

Raise your hand if you have a disability. While I can’t actually take a count, I can guess that at least 8% of you should have responded in the affirmative. Were I not using my hands to type, I’d be reaching for the ceiling, too. Disabilities in library school are hardly rare. Based on a 2007-2008 study, nearly 1 in 12 master’s students reports that they have a disability – and that number only includes students who disclosed their disabilities. That number means that in my required introductory course of nearly 60 students, it’s likely at least five of us have a disability. If that’s the case, why do resources for library students like myself seem so difficult to find?

While there seems to be plenty of advice for library students on assisting patrons with special needs, like Ruth Kitchin Tillman’s HLS guest post, there seems to be little available for library students with their own disabilities. That’s not to say that resources for students don’t exist: GradHacker did a week-long series for graduate students with disabilities and the American Psychology Association released a handbook for psychology grad students. There’s some useful information in those sources, but the best resource for addressing your needs as a library student may be the one whose information is catered to you personally – your university’s disability services division. Here’s why library students should speak with disability services:

The goal of disability services is to help students.

Every university has a disability services department. Louisiana State University’s resource center for disabled students (where I’m registered) is known as LSU Disability Services, but your university may call it something slightly different. Regardless of nomenclature, though, all of these departments have the same awesome goal: ensuring the success of students with disabilities in all areas of university life. 

Disability services functions a bit like a library. The personnel ensure students have access to information and assistive technology. Like librarians, they produce programming for the communities they serve. LSU Disability Services, for example, offers a Disability Services Orientation, as well as workshops for coping with a disability and improving grades. And, oh boy, do they have literature! Disability services offers enough flyers and pamphlets to make a tree weep. These reading materials range from tip sheets on studying with ADHD to lists for legal advocacy groups. Most importantly, though, disability services exists to be a resource. As the name implies, they aim to serve.

While it's best to establish your accommodations before classes start, you can also register with disability services later in the semester if you realize you need assistance.
While it’s best to establish your accommodations before classes start, you can also register with disability services later in the semester if you realize you need assistance. (Photo Credit: “Mood and Anxiety Disorders” by adohnes licensed by CC BY 2.0)

Disability services works to create an accommodation plan suited specifically to you, your program, and your disability.

According to LSU Disability Services, “[a]ny student with a documented learning, physical, psychological, or other disability that significantly impacts his or her academic pursuits” may receive accommodations. Accommodations are small modifications made to a student’s course or campus life to mitigate the effects of their disability on their education. These accommodations are determined based on your needs and the requirements of your program. In other words, disability services will work with you to customize your accommodations. You’ll be required to fill out some forms and provide documentation of your disability, but the process varies slightly between schools. To find out your university’s procedures and your eligibility, check their webpage (a search of the university website or any professor should help you find it) or contact them directly. There are multiple accommodations you may receive. A student with dyslexia may receive extended exam time; someone with a chronic illness may have consideration for absences; a deaf student may have in-class captioning services. Last semester, I received consideration for absences, but this year my courses are web-based, so I’m not receiving any accommodations. If the program requirements were to change, I could then seek accommodations that would suit my new needs.

You might be eligible for programs you weren’t even aware existed.

In addition to resources of their own, disability services personnel can tell you about other programs and organizations that aid students with disabilities – many of which you may not have known to contact otherwise. Every state, for example, has some version of vocational rehabilitation services. Their goal is to help citizens with disabilities in their state find employment by providing assistance and guidance. Your university’s disability services personnel will have the inside scoop on the best campus, local, and state resources.

Disability services makes your privacy a priority.

I avoided registering with disability services because I was afraid of being labelled. My apprehension was misguided. While disability services will require proof of your disability for accommodations, those records cannot be shared without your permission. You will have to inform your professors that you need accommodations, but you do not have to disclose any information about your disability, including which disability you have. Because disability services stores their information separately from the main record keeping offices, your status is even kept confidential from other university personnel. Just as librarians provide confidentiality to best serve their patrons, disability services personnel provide confidentiality to best serve students with disabilities.

Disability services is equipped to address the needs of web-based students.

Web-based programs are becoming significantly more common in library schools. While that shift has made library school more accessible to me, it could create more obstacles for students with different circumstances. Disability services stays informed regarding the newest assistive technology to make distance education viable for all students. LSU Disability Services has worked with professors and interpreters to include sign language with online lectures. If the student is eligible for extended exam time, disability services can increase the allotted time on online exams. Disability services personnel prioritize accessibility, which means, like librarians, they have to stay current in an increasingly digital world. They work with organizations like AHEAD to learn the most up-to-date solutions, and then use those solutions to aid students with disabilities.

While you may not need accommodations yourself, understanding the challenges facing your colleagues, students, and patrons will help you to connect with them throughout your career. The tools that help disabled students today could one day help our patrons with disabilities. We’d love to hear about your experiences working with disability services. What have you learned from navigating library school with a disability? If you teach, what would you like to tell students who need accommodations? Continue this conversation — it might help a fellow library student realize they’re not as alone as they feel.

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