things i heard at the library: an occasional series: #14

One of our regular Readers' Den customers approached me with her usual long list of movies. She researches movies online, prints out lists, and comes to the desk to see what we have in our collection. Anything we have, we place on hold for her.

She's a great customer, in terms of library use. She has an intellectual disability, and sometimes helping her can be a bit of a challenge. 

This customer talks very fast, and a little too loudly. While you're searching for one item, she's rattling off the next few, so after placing each hold, you must ask her to repeat the next title. Because she's reading from a list, the effect is a constant stream of chatter, from which you must pick out the movie titles.

After we had exhausted her movie list, she asked, "Is there a way I can do this myself, put on holds, from home?"

I know she uses a computer to research movies, and I know she checks her library account online to see which holds are available. I told her, yes, definitely, she can do this from home, and I'll show her how right now. She made some self-deprecating remarks. It was apparent that the prospect of learning something new was stressful for her.

We went to one of the public catalogue computers. I asked her if she knew how to log in to her own account, and she did that with ease. I asked her to search for a movie title, and she did that. Then I showed her how to place the item on hold. We did that a few times, and then she started talking.

"Want to hear a really sad story?" she asked. On the radio, a woman was talking about her son, a teenager. "He's like me," the customer said. "He's slow." At school, instead of being in class, the boy was working in the cafeteria, and washing teachers' cars. His mother didn't know. He was afraid to tell her, fearing he would get in trouble for skipping class. None of the teachers came forward to tell the boy's parents. Another special-needs student told her parents, who told this woman. 

Her son was being used as a slave. He was being deprived of an education, and working, without pay. Pretty clear human rights violations. Teachers and school administrators allowed this to go on - later, of course, claiming ignorance.

The customer said, "I thought those days were over. When I was in school, they used to call us re-tards, they kept us in a special class, they didn't teach us anything, they thought, why bother to teach these re-tards. But I can learn. I can learn. It just takes me more time. My brother taught me to use a computer." Then she said, "I could teach this boy. I wish I knew him, I would teach him, I would show him that if I can learn, he can learn, too."

I was struggling to maintain some professional distance, to avoid tears. 

Later, I looked for the story online, but realized it was not necessarily recent. The customer might have heard this story anytime. Because she identified so strongly and felt so compassionately towards the boy in the story, the story remained fresh to her. 

I wondered, too, about her earlier self-disparaging remarks, wondered what had ingrained anxiety and fear so deeply that the mention of learning - anything - triggered that response. 

* * * *

Back at the information desk, I learned from a colleague that some staff find this customer somewhat annoying. I don't at all, and the colleague who shared this with me - who also loves movies and enjoys helping this customer - doesn't either. She reminded me that we all have our own irritations, different buttons that customers unknowingly push. 

I would like to take this more generous view of my co-workers... but I can't. Bias against people with disabilities is rampant. I feel so strongly about our library being accessible to as broad a range of people as possible, and I see how this customer needs us. Hearing that some staff dislike her raised my hackles.

I later wondered if perhaps the customer already knows how to place holds, and perhaps just wanted to extend our interaction. Or perhaps she knows how to search the catalogue but is still wary of taking another step. Either way, it's okay with me. That's what we're there for.

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