Opportunity and Tools for Discussing Diversity

When reading about a recent and unhappy event involving a library staff member’s response to the behavior of a library user with Down syndrome, which behavior was already being addressed by her acompanying mother , I recognized an excellent opportunity for library managers and leaders everywhere in the US to have a discussion with staff about aspects of diversity we sometimes neglect to discuss openly. Without making judgments about the events reported in the news story, the story itself provides a context for exploring how our professional understanding of collection diversity might inform our staff responses to user diversity.

In an auspicious bit of serendipity, later the same day of my own reading of the news story, I accidentally discovered a small and concise book which might help move local discussions forward. (Rangenathen’s rule concerning “every reader his book and every book it’s reader” expanded in the moment to “and every serendipitous browsing find its moment”).

Kieron Smith, who proves himself a capable and insightful public policy commentator, has taken on a topic that receives relatively little popular press: The Politics of Down Syndrome is among a series of brief books that examine how specific realities require us to reframe our unconsidered responses that have grown into habits.  Available in paper back for under $10 as well as on Kindle for a couple dollars more (WorldCat indicates it as available at a variety of American libraries as well), his book may help you to focus those necessary staff discussions.

In addition to showing how Anglo-American policies in health and education seem to follow a bias that does not take into account the past thirty years of Down syndrome research and discovery, Mr. Smith also gives an accessible overview of how our societal and personal attitudes toward viewing all matters as consumer-based and the human predisposition to seek the safety of communal identity even if that means objectifying those who differ from that community as Other, and lesser, can contribute to a maintenance of outmoded understanding when science offers more informed views.

Diversity is not in itself tricky, but what continues to be a stumbling block is a popular denial of the reality–or at least possibility–that a truly diverse society supports all of us, makes us better as humans. Books featuring characters of color aren’t just for readers of color. Understanding how to manage navigation in an unfamiliar place, if one is blind, isn’t just for those who are blind. Speech communication difficulties that arise when staff and library user don’t speak the same language isn’t the user’s “fault” or even her wholly owned concern.

And recognizing the role Down syndrome may play in someone’s life isn’t just for the “benefit” of those born with trisomomy 21. Those with Down syndrome  are not Other but among the us. Humanity is diverse. And it’s a good time to work with library staff to explore how diversity informs our work, just as do organizing principles and standards.