Bridging Deaf Cultures @ Your Library (ALA 2013)

Back in April, I attended ACRL and was quite pleased to see that there was more information on accessibility in libraries, and ALA continued this trend.  I wasn’t able to go to many of the sessions related to this topic, but I made it to this one. It was listed as a discussion group sponsored by ASCLA (the Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies), but they actually had a speaker presenting information, if somewhat informally, and answering questions.

The speaker was Alec McFarlane, President of the Library for Deaf Action and advocate for the creation of the Deaf Cultural Digital Library.  He was quite an engaging speaker and argued strongly for the creation of more resources for the deaf.

McFarlane explained that few libraries do a good job of providing such resources.  There exist some libraries for the deaf, but only a few, and those that exist are often 1-person programs, which die when the person who is responsible for them leaves for another institution.

He took a few moments to define what he means by terms such as “deaf” or “hard of hearing.”  People may self-identify with many different terms and may have many different levels of hearing. McFarlane himself is completely deaf, but there are different degrees of deafness in general.  However, he prefers an inclusive definition, so that we can focus, not on deciding who “counts” as deaf, but on what we can do to serve people who have some degree of deafness.

As I have indicated above, McFarlane supports the creation of a Deaf Cultural Digital Library, which draws on the idea of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. In general, there are many more resources available for blind patrons than for deaf ones.  NLS has staff members who study blind education and other blind issues, but there is no equivalent for the deaf community.  The Deaf Cultural Digital Library could serve that function.  This is important because most deaf children are born to hearing parents and don’t want to go to a School for the Deaf.  They need a neutral place to find out about deaf issues and libraries that serve the deaf community.

There’s been some work on deaf issues in Maryland. There was Maryland legislation mandating service to the Deaf, but it was protested because it didn’t specifically mention American Sign Language.  McFarlane thought that it was fine not to get that specific because it would need to be flexible. He’s worked with Molly Raphael, former ALA president. A resolution for Deaf history month has been sitting on the shelf since 2006.

So what are the problems with the library for deaf users?  Not all deaf people can read, so using a library can be frustrating.  This is especially true for those for whom ASL is their first language; this makes it more difficult to learn to read in English. They may also at some point have been sent to the library for a punishment, which creates negative associations.  Some libraries offer reading programs but don’t really serve the Deaf community.  We should keep in mind that anyone can become deaf at any time. In fact, hearing loss is the top disability for veterans and we are not providing for them.

So, how do we push for a Digital Library of Deaf Culture as a national program?  We can start by transforming libraries’ programming and outreach.  We should think about what we are doing already and how much involvement the community has.  Sometimes we tell the deaf community that the library is there as a resource, but the resources they need are not there.  We need more people to be involved.  He mentioned The Red Notebook, originally published in 1978 by Alice L. Hagemeyer, long the only tool designed to promote deaf community involvement in libraries. Now there is an online version of it which includes library toolkits and programming.

The challenge for the library community is to bring in people who may not realize what the library offers.  Scheduling workshops can help.  We also need to assess our resources for deaf people.  If you walk into the stacks, how many books on Deaf culture can you find? We want to have that information.  If there were a state foundation, that would be your resource for these issues. Academic libraries tend to have more than public libraries, so ILL needs to be in place too. The California Public Library has been blogging about these issues. Blogging is a written medium, so it doesn’t reach everyone, but this is still good because there are many different deaf populations. Someone also mentioned an ASL book club.  McFarlane expressed approval of these projects but also reminded us that 90% of deaf people don’t identify as Deaf and don’t know ASL.

After McFarlane’s speech, there was some interesting discussion. He explained further that he hopes that the DCDL will function as a series of state level libraries that serve the same area as the NLS does.  It should have staff members who study and collect information and know how to meet ADA requirements.  It can work with providing interpreters and toolkits and explaining how to set up programs.

Someone asked whether he works with the DPLA (Digital Public Library of America).  He says that they are not reinventing the wheel, and in fact he is a member of the Digital Content Working Group.  He points out that digitization has done a great deal to help change materials into formats accessible to the blind, but not for the deaf.  Similarly, there are many treaties to ensure service to blind populations, so why can’t we build the same for deaf? One format that is more accessible to (some) deaf populations is video.  There has never been a TV program without a written script, even the news, so captioning should be available.

I’ve come across another write-up of this session which considers these issues a little more deeply, and which I would recommend.

I found the session to be a very interesting one and I’d certainly love to see more resources available for this population.  But what occurred to me in the session is that it’s very important, especially in libraries with a specific user population (including academic libraries) to figure out what kinds of disabilities people in my community have, so that I can look at this more specifically.  We try to make our website accessible, especially to people who are blind or color-blind, but what are we doing for deaf students, or students with other disabilities?  Doing one thing does not mean we are meeting ADA standards.  I am guessing that a trip to our Office of Special Services would help me to think about these issues more clearly.

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