On Library School and Invisible Disabilities

Over the last 20 or so months, I’ve seen an uptick in conversations regarding mental health in academia. Current and former Hackers have written some excellent posts about navigating mental health and self-care, which I recommend reading. This new focus on mental health in higher education is great for everyone, including people who have never struggled who have pre-existing mental health conditions like depression, and students who have disabilities – particularly invisible disabilities, such as ADHD, autism, or dyslexia. In addition to the heavy toll the global pandemic has put on everyone, struggling to accommodate a world that does not accommodate people like me has made everything just a bit harder to carry.

Variations in the human brain still carry a lot of stigma – Autism especially is often treated like a four-letter word. And while more and more colleges and universities are emphasizing diversity, equity, and inclusion higher education still puts a lot of value into conformity. Graduate programs expect students to be able to achieve consistently high levels of intellectual rigor in all of their classes. 

Of course the point of higher education is to challenge and invite you to grow. But the challenge for neurodiverse students is often just meeting baseline expectations such as reading and analyzing a high volume of weekly readings, inflexible deadlines, and graded class participation. In my case, this usually means I need to work twice as hard just to keep up with my classmates. While online classes are difficult to engage in, face-to-face classes present their own challenges regarding my sensitivity to various sensory inputs. 

The ableism of such rigorous expectations are not exclusive to library school, as has been pointed out before. But in addition to societal norms regarding productivity, neurodiverse workers and students are also confronted with challenges regarding sensory issues and body language. At my library job, I have a mental checklist of appropriate body language cues I go through when conducting a reference interview. Like many other LIS students, I struggle a lot with imposter syndrome, and often doubt my ability to work in this field, when I still struggle with things that seem pretty straightforward. 

While the ADA requires reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities, getting those accommodations typically requires an official diagnosis, which, in the case of ADHD for example, is not easy to get as an adult. Stigma and negative past experiences also makes many neurodiverse students hesitant to self-identify as having an invisible disability. That said, seeking accommodations is worth doing if you do have a diagnosis. I also have had good luck with speaking to instructors one-on-one regarding my needs, and an advisor who has been willing to help advocate for me. It turns out, librarians can be a helpful bunch, and asking for help when you need it is a good life skill to develop. 

While being neurodiverse can be a struggle, because I think about and experience the world differently, I can approach problems from different angles. Advocating for myself means I already have the skills to advocate for library patrons with disabilities. Yes, my ADHD can make me a little impulsive, but it also makes me great at taking initiative. 

I have not made it this far in my education without developing coping skills and organizational strategies. In addition to seeking a diagnosis and accommodations, here’s a few other thoughts on how to handle an invisible disability while in grad school:

Get organized

Find a method that works for you and use it consistently. Maybe it’s a Trello board, maybe it’s a bullet journal. I use a combination of Google calendar and a paper planner. I also have post-it notes all over my apartment to remind me of more immediate things, like submitting assignments, contributing to discussion boards, and regularly drinking water and eating dinner. 

Build a support system

This can include professional support such as instructors, your advisor, or your supervisor at your work or practicum. It also includes family, friends, partners. Make sure you have people you can go to when you’re low on spoons and need someone to cook dinner, or you need extra help with an assignment or meeting a deadline. 

Find your people

Support groups, either in-person or online can be a great resource. Reading about others’ experiences with invisible disabilities also can make you feel far less alienated. The recently released anthology LIS Interrupted includes several essays by neurodiverse librarians with which I strongly connected.

Get professional help

Therapy and medication are not affordable or accessible options for everyone, but they have helped me tremendously, so they may be worth pursuing for you, too.

Cut yourself some slack

There are no silver linings to a global pandemic, but the last year’s shift in how we talk about mental health, and the grace we are beginning to give each other has been a welcome change. Nobody can give 100% of themselves all the time, and I hope giving more space to talk about mental health will give us more avenues into how to be more inclusive and supportive to each other as well.

Robin Gee is the Community Manager of Hack Library School, and a student at University of Wisconsin Madison, focusing on academic libraries. You can find them on Twitter at @robinmgee 

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