The Social Model of Disability in the Children’s Area

We often serve patrons with disabilities in our children’s spaces, even when we are unaware that we are!

Patrons in the disability community who use our space can be as varied as our abled patrons: children, disabled caregivers with abled or disabled children, and other adults. They can have visible or invisible disabilities. They can be physically disabled, neurodivergent (having a brain that operates differently than a neurotypical one) or both.

We also have coworkers with disabilities, whether you know it or not. I’m pretty vocal about the fact that I have cerebral palsy, which manifests itself physically on my right side. I have problems with fine motor skills and spasticity, which is a combination of paralysis, increased tendon activity, high muscle tension, and a reduced mobility. I am, however, also neurodivergent, since my disability was caused by brain damage sometime between my time as a fetus and when I was diagnosed as a toddler.  Your coworkers do not need to tell you about their disability if they wish not to or are uncomfortable doing so, but it’s important to keep in mind that serving disabled patrons is just part of the “disability community in the library” discussion. The disability community makes up 20% of the population, so if you work with at least 5 people there is a pretty good chance someone at your work has at least one disability. It might even be you! (Hi, disabled YS staff! Let’s be friends!)

When you are thinking about creating a welcoming library for people with disabilities to visit and work, it’s important to think about your perceptions of the disability community. Two main schools of thought have emerged regarding perceptions of disability: the medical model, and the social model.

The medical model is the one that has shaped most perceptions and thus the societal narrative of disability today. The medical model focuses on the individual, and those who subscribe to this model operate with the assumption that disability reduces a person’s quality of life and causes disadvantages that abled people do not have. People who understand disability through the lens of the medical model usually look to find ways that disabled people can navigate the world by focusing on their individual needs and fixing impairments.

The social model of disability is not a widely accepted model societally, but it’s one that disability activists hope will one day prevail. The social model focuses on society’s view of disability, and people who subscribe to this model operate with the assumption that if quality of life is reduced for disabled people, it is due to a world that has been designed without us in mind. People who understand disability through this lens acknowledge that there is a lot society can do to break down barriers to a quality life as a disabled person, and each disabled person does not need to be fixed.

Assumptions of the medical model versus the social model of disability can completely change the way you think about your library. Here’s one example that we face often: space concerns.

Medical model: “We need to keep our shelving 36 inches apart to comply with the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) so we don’t get sued.”

Social model: “How can we reimagine our space to be more accessible to older people, people with disabilities, and people without disabilities?”

On March 12, 1990, upwards of 1,000 people literally crawled up the steps of the Capitol Building to protest the delay of ADA. Twenty-seven years later, we still have issues with compliance to ADA. I recently talked to one caregiver who reported filing at least one complaint per month in my area, an otherwise progressive part of the country.  At the Symposium for the Future of Libraries at ALA Midwinter, one panelist shared about a library’s bathroom that was so inaccessible to modern wheelchairs that staff asked patrons to visit the bathroom at the fast food restaurant across the street.

Checklists like one provided by Sheryl Burgstahler, PhD, at DO-IT called “Equal Access: Universal Design for Libraries”, calls on library staff to ensure people with disabilities are considered alongside abled people (including those with strollers or otherwise need ample space) to create a library that is inviting to all.

It’s difficult to think about creating more space when the space you do have is so limited. Remember, however, that people with disabilities have no obligation to announce themselves in order to use our space and services, and the reason that you might not see people with disabilities in your library is because your space is inaccessible or otherwise unwelcoming to the disability community, and word has gotten out.

The above example implies patrons and coworkers with mobility aids, but there are a wide range of people with disabilities who may be eager to work at or visit your library if only there were fewer barriers. Embrace the social model of disability and expect us in your space!

For more on the disability community in the library, check out a few of my current favorite #ownvoices resources on disability: “I’m Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much”, a TED Talk from the late Stella Young; “Perspectives and Advice on Accessibility and Universal Design” (there is regretfully no transcript available; see, we’ve got a long way to go!)  a 2014 ILEAD keynote address by Sina Bahram; and The Silent Wave, who recently shared their 70 favorite #actuallyautistic blog posts. We’re out there, if you’re ready to listen!


Head shot of guest blogger
Photo courtesy of guest blogger

S Bryce Kozla is the Youth Services Librarian for Washington County Cooperative Library Services in Washington County, OR. She severely dislikes person-first language and the term ‘special needs’, and would love to see more ALSC contributors talk about disability and neurodivergence from a first-person perspective. Bryce represents youth services library staff as a member of the Center for Future of Libraries Advisory Group. You can visit her blog, Bryce Don’t Play, where she is currently accepting submissions for an  ongoing blog series  on accessibility. She has a continually updated Pinterest board on the topic. Tweet with her @PLSanders

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.

If you’d like to write a guest post for the ALSC Blog, please contact Mary Voors, ALSC Blog manager, at alscblog@gmail.com.



  1. Tess P.

    This is a very valuable post, one that should be required reading for everyone. Thanks so much!

    1. Bryce

      Hi Tess!
      Thanks for commenting! I appreciate the feedback.

  2. Ruth

    I found this extremely interesting, and a little embarrassing, since I had just given a talk about disability etiquette and suggested people SHOULD use “people-first” language. I noted that the article that you referenced about that topic used examples of “autistic people,” exclusively, which made me wonder if you think it is inappropriate for other disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, blindness, etc?

    1. Bryce

      Hi Ruth! Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Everyone is different, but I think in part it might be the insistence on person-first language, rather than allowing people with disabilities to choose how they’re referred, can be a sticking point. I know that people with cerebral palsy don’t have much of a choice with how our disabilities are name, by the nature of language; which had led a community online to come up with another word to refer to ourselves and each other when taking to each other 🙂 I actually just came across a great article that explains this a little more! Follow The Disability Visibility Project on FB for more informative articles and first-person opinions: http://www.rootedinrights.org/my-journey-with-disability-language-and-identity/

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