human-libraryNever judge a book by its cover. I have always liked that phrase. It reminds me that things aren’t always what they seem, and it’s a good response when people are making incorrect assumptions about me. I also appreciate the phrase because it is simple, direct, and almost everyone knows what it means.  ________________________________________________________________

I have never been a fan of disability awareness exercises. You know, the “put a blindfold on for fifteen minutes so that you can know what it is like to be blind” kind of things. To be blunt, I think that kind of thing is stupid. Doing an exercise like that for a matter of minutes isn’t going to clue anyone into anyone else’s experiences, and it seems somewhat demeaning to me to even try, given that a blindfold can always come off when the person participating in the experiment gets frustrated.

A few years ago I did something against my better judgment. A new caregiver told me that he wanted to know more about how it was to live my life, so he suggested we spend an afternoon in downtown Lawrence, with me pushing my manual wheelchair and with him in my spare wheelchair. From the beginning, I struggled. It is hard for me to push myself on uneven sidewalks and my caregiver got extremely irritated with me because I could not get up curb cuts by myself and I was scared to navigate spots that I felt were too steep. So he spent most of the afternoon about 500 feet in front of me while I was slowly and awkwardly trying to catch up. It made me feel powerless, because it only emphasized the differences between us, highlighting the things that he could do that I could not. And the experiment did not have its intended result. He did not find out what my life was like.

Instead, he found out what it was like for him to spend several hours in a wheelchair. If he had a belt tied around his knees so that he could not use his legs for leverage, and he was dragging a 20 pound weight behind him so that he could not push his wheelchair with long even strokes, he might have gotten a bit closer to the kinds of things that I experience every day, but for me the whole afternoon was a disaster. Not something I am inclined to do again anytime soon.

It was only recently that I was introduced to the concept of human libraries. According to an article in the May/June 2012 issue of Public Libraries Online, “Human libraries function similarly to other libraries except that in a human library, people—rather than books—are available for checkout. Those who volunteer to be “human books” are “people with a particular personal experience or perspective on life” and have often been stereotyped in some way. The human books agree to converse openly with other members of the community, called “readers.” Anyone who wants to participate in the program can be a “reader.” After browsing through a catalog with a title and a description for each book, a reader selects a book to check out for a short period of time. The reader then meets the book for a one-on-one conversation. Readers are able to ask questions, seek advice, learn about alternate perspectives, and find common ground. The conversations have no prescribed direction and develop organically, making each loan period unique.”

I have read that the people who are “books” include people who are homeless, alcoholic, have a psychiatric diagnosis, single moms, people who receive government assistance like food stamps, people who are gay or transgender, and those who have open relationships, as well as many more whose lifestyles may not be considered incredibly common.

“Human libraries originated in Denmark back in 2002 but the idea has since taken off. The first human libraries in the United States were held in 2008 by the Bainbridge Public Library (BPL) in Bainbridge Island, Washington, and the Santa Monica (Calif.) Public Library (SMPL.)”

The reason why I love this idea is because it leaves very little up to chance. If somebody wants to learn about a person or a lifestyle they are unfamiliar with, all they have to do is ask. There are no assumptions. No misinformation. No fear of what they don’t understand. Any confusion can be clarified. And both the reader and the human book have the potential to gain from the experience. That is a win/win any way you might look at it.

So what am I going to do the next time a new caregiver expresses interest in how I live my life? I will gently invite him or her to ask any question they like, and I will explain my experience and my circumstances the best way I know how. As I do so, I will leave my spare wheelchair in the shed where it belongs.

And I will remind everyone I can to never judge a book by its cover.