This is a guest post from Kirsten Elliott (@BookishKirsten)
When I started studying for my librarianship qualification in September 2013, I had a plan. I was enrolled on the Aberystwyth distance learning course and I had decided I was going to complete the diploma part within a year, making it to the earliest possible study schools, and then complete the dissertation within the next year. It was ambitious, but the first six months or so it seemed to be working out. I managed to fit in time to do my assignments around two part-time jobs, a social life and martial arts training. I even completed my first few modules fast enough to make it to the April study school at Aberystwyth. Things did not, however, keep going to plan.
In the summer of 2014 I developed health problems which drastically limited my ability to work or study without pain. For a while, my inability to type for any length of time made it feel like it was impossible for me to study at all. I took a temporary withdrawal from my course and contemplated giving it up completely.
Eventually, my health issues plateaued to a point where I was able to work in both jobs, but at reduced hours and with some changes to my duties. It became clear that I was dealing with a long-term problem severe enough to constitute a disability, and so I needed to plan to work around it rather than hoping for a cure. Getting back to studying was a way for me to have a sense of forward momentum.
I bought a shiny new laptop and voice recognition software, reregistered on my course, and applied for Disabled Students Allowance. The application process for DSA is long and tedious, and requires filling in a level of paperwork prohibitive to many disabled people, but I ultimately found that it was worth it. The last stage of the process was an appointment with a specialist adviser, who did an amazing job of listening to my needs and suggesting different solutions. The equipment I received paid for by DSA made a massive difference in enabling me to study. (Although unfortunately the system does not allow for retrospective compensation, so the voice recognition software I had bought to enable me to fill in the forms came out of my own pocket.)
There were other ways in which I had to adapt the way I studied. Not being able to handwrite notes was a major challenge, so I ended up printing out huge numbers of journal articles, annotating them with colour-coded post-it notes and consulting them extensively as I wrote. I also had to revise my idea of how much it was realistic for me to study, as limiting my activity levels and carefully pacing myself is a really key part of looking after my well-being. I had to repeatedly adjust my mental timeline of when I would finish my assignments and therefore the course as a whole.
But I did it! I got my diploma, with a very respectable mark. I cannot deny it was harder and more stressful than it would have been had I not developed health problems or had support been easier to access; my tutor at Aberystwyth was very sympathetic, but as a distance learning student getting support was not easy. My disability has been a major factor in my decision not to continue on to do a dissertation. It’s been really important for me to learn not to compare my career path with that of my peers, which is probably sensible advice for everyone. Often people are at their most visible when they are at their most successful, so it’s difficult not to feel bad in comparison.
While I was able to get my diploma in the end, there are other people within the information profession who have the skills and talents to do so, but who cannot due to health issues, caring responsibilities, financial circumstances or other constraints. The very same issues can also prevent people from taking up the kinds of CPD opportunities that require a large investment of time outside working hours. While I value the enthusiasm and commitment that characterise librarianship, I worry that expecting too much of library workers contributes not just to ‘librarian burnout’, but to a lack of diversity and equality of opportunity in the higher levels of the profession.
Image: Orange and Green Pen on Graphing Notepad, under CC0 license