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Including every voice

Posted October 8, 2019
By Christopher Lorensen

Clayton A. Copeland, a faculty member and director of the Laboratory for Leadership in Equity And Diversity in the School of Library and Information Science, has personal and professional experience with equity of access and inclusion in libraries.

Copeland believes that everyone struggles in some way, but she was raised with the understanding that for some, those challenges are simply more visible than others. Everyone, she says, has ability within themselves.

Growing up, Copeland frequently found herself in the library. There she found possibilities and inspiration from her K-12 librarians, SLIS alumni Ellen Ramsey and Vicky Culbertson.

“They created an environment that was welcoming, embracing and where every child could find answers,” she says. “I was inspired to join this profession by them because I knew the tremendous difference that they had made not only for me but for all of the children who were in the library.”

Improving the lives of underserved populations is what drives Copeland’s work within SLIS. Her research and teaching style focus heavily on universal access and design for everyone, the concept that the burden of accessibility falls on designers, not users.

When she started studying as an undergraduate at the University of South Carolina, her focus was on the social constructions that surround disabilities, looking at why some challenges are considered a disability compared to others. The example that she was first given was the idea of glasses and whether the people who wear them have disabilities. Socially, she says, the answer is no.

“When something has been appropriately accommodated in society, we don't think of those challenges as being a disability anymore,” she says.

To better understand this concept and the challenges people face, Copeland goes to the library, where it all began for her, to learn the lived experiences of people who self-identify as differently able versus those who self-identify as typically able. 

“While research can be very well-intentioned, until it includes the voices of folks who have those lived experiences it’s not a complete picture,” she says. “As we work to make accommodations, ask those who know their needs best of all.” 

MLIS student Kathy Barry says that some library patrons may have post-traumatic stress disorder, be illiterate, have high-functioning autism or just be having a bad day. Copeland’s personal nature and focus on inclusion, she says, has helped her understand how to assist these people.

“Theory is great, and it’s important,” Barry says. “But you also need the boots on the ground.”

Among the projects Copeland is a part of is a partnership with the university’s School of Medicine to conduct research on libraries’ roles in providing disaster support. Whether that’s about accessible shelters or where to locate medications, the information needs to be available in accessible formats.

She has also helped start the Laboratory for Leadership in Equity And Diversity at SLIS. LLEAD focuses on universal design in digital and built environments along with skill development and job training for those who self-identify as differently able.

As someone who got her start in the library, Copeland is working with associate professor Kim Thompson to encourage the inclusion of people with disabilities in the library workforce, not just as patrons. Already, the two have led presentations and webinars for employers on using language in job postings that is inviting to diverse applicants. This diversity, Copeland believes, will bring new perspectives to library staff.

Mike Corbo, a recent MLIS alumnus and former office coordinator for SLIS, now works as a librarian for the Charleston County Public Library. He says Copeland’s lessons have helped him to better understand patrons.

“Don’t just think that because a patron is there, that they are able to easily access everything,” he says. “She really hammered that home right away.”

One of the first things Corbo checked when he started his new job was whether the library had computers set up for people who are differently able, something Copeland emphasizes in her technology class.

“The assignments aren’t easy,” Corbo says. “But they’re also assignments that you actually use in the real world.”

Copeland enjoys teaching and learning about her students. She incorporates service learning into her classes and pushes students to apply lessons from class within their communities.

“I just really love seeing the diverse perspectives and seeing people on their learning journeys ­— it’s a real privilege to be a part of that,” she says. “They’re learning about how principles of universal access and design make differences not only for specified demographics, but for everyone.”

Chris Lorensen

Christopher Lorensen

Christopher Lorensen is a mass communications major in the College of Information and Communications and a Dean's Communication Fellow. As a Navy veteran with a background in nuclear chemistry, Lorensen focuses on communication of science and technology.

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