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2023 FLASHBACK: The Importance of Recognizing Disability Representation in EDI Work
Posted On December 26, 2023
This NewsBreak originally ran on Feb. 7, 2023.

There is an increased push for equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI, also known as DEI) initiatives in organizations such as academic, public, and school libraries (see the University of Pittsburgh as an example). Committees, task forces, and working groups are being created to address issues that have long been a blight on the everyday work of librarians and library staffers. EDI efforts take unique forms depending on the library, library system, or consortium that is planning and undertaking them. But one common thread among EDI work is to ensure that diverse voices, as well as unique and creative insights, are acknowledged and represented.

According to the State of Rhode Island Office of Library and Information Services, EDI combines equity, which “takes difference into account to ensure a fair process, and ultimately, a fair outcome”; diversity, which is “defined as the sum of the ways that people are both alike and different”; and inclusion, meaning “an environment in which all individuals are treated fairly and respectfully.” A recent critical view of the concept of equity has focused not only on understanding the difference between equity and equality, but also on the dynamic and powerful concepts of liberation for all and social justice. However, this is a deeper conversation outside the scope of this article. I encourage you to read “Equality, Equity, Justice and the Need for Reasonable Accommodations” by Howard Blas.


In this brief NewsBreak, I will delve into what is often left out of the EDI discussion: disability, particularly when thinking about neurodiversity and other, often called invisible, disabilities (see the Invisible Disabilities Association’s definition of invisible disabilities for more context). When speaking about EDI endeavors, we typically talk about gender-based, racial, and ethnic inequities—of which there are many. The systemic prejudices against people of color are profound and disturbing. There is much to unpack from our own inherent biases and collective history of prejudice. This discussion of disability and its place in EDI work is not to discount the serious and multi-faceted inequalities that exist for other marginalized communities. However, it is important to acknowledge why and how disability is often left out of the conversation when writing EDI policies and statements.

As background for this discussion, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines disability as “any condition of the body or mind (impairment) that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities (activity limitation) and interact with the world around them (participation restrictions).” While this definition lays a good groundwork regarding disability, it does not speak to the lived experience of someone with a disability. It is critical to discuss openly and fully what disabilities and being disabled truly mean, so that we as a population can be more understanding, empathetic, and inclusive. As someone with several disabilities, I am constantly learning what it means to live with disabilities and how I can participate in a world that is often either unfamiliar with what it’s like to be disabled or indifferent to the obstacles we face.


All of this is to say that representation of those living with disabilities and disabled individuals absolutely belongs in any EDI policy or framework. For more information, see the following article:

Wolbring, G., & Lillywhite, A. (2021). Equity/Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) in Universities: The Case of Disabled People. Societies11(2), 49.

Consulting with disability advocacy groups is a first step in learning more about placing disability within the forefront of EDI efforts in libraries and other information organizations. Speaking with those who live with disabilities goes a long way in normalizing discussions and showing that we are all just people trying to live our best lives. This may be difficult because those living with disabilities are often stigmatized, criticized, and seen as outcasts by many in our communities. Furthermore, no one wants to be thought of as the token addition to any EDI committee or working group.

Inviting these individuals to discussions without othering them by their disabilities—but, instead, welcoming them as equal and insightful members of the process—goes a long way. See the following article:

Quirin Manwiller, K., & Pionke, J.J. (2022). Understanding Disability to Support Library Workers. Journal of Library Administration62(8), 1077-1084.

In their article, Quirin Manwiller and Pionke write about the lack of representation of disabled individuals within the library and information science community. This is a disservice to not only disabled people, but also to the profession itself, which becomes much richer through listening to a variety of voices and viewpoints. By being more inclusive of all librarians and library staffers, we demonstrate to the public our dedication to the well-being and health of our own community of workers.

This brief article is meant to highlight the inadequacies in the current landscape of EDI efforts that are occurring in libraries. This is not a description of a hopeless situation, but instead an endeavor to offer advice for bringing in the thoughts and reflections of those living with disabilities to any EDI discussion. To make a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive community, we must recognize and invite all.

Dr. Abigail L. Phillips is an assistant professor in the School of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. She can be reached by email at or on X (@abigailleigh).

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