The lifeways we avoid. The role of information avoidance in discrimination against people with disabilities

Publication Date08 October 2018
Date08 October 2018
AuthorKeren Dali
SubjectLibrary & information science,Records management & preservation,Document management,Classification & cataloguing,Information behaviour & retrieval,Collection building & management,Scholarly communications/publishing,Information & knowledge management,Information management & governance,Information management,Information & communications technology,Internet
The lifeways we avoid
The role of information avoidance in
discrimination against people with disabilities
Keren Dali
Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Purpose In the context of increasing interdisciplinarity in academia and professional practice, the purpose
of this paper is to focus on the contribution of information science (IS) to education and practice in social work
(SW), specifically in the area of disabilities at the workplace. As a case in point, a work environment of
academia and faculty members with disabilities and their managers are chosen. The paper also stands to
improve interdisciplinary understanding between IS and SW.
Design/methodology/approach Combining SW and IS perspectives and building off selective exposure,
cognitive dissonance and uncertainty management theories, the paper looks at one of the root-causes of
continuous workplace discriminationagainst and bullying of people with disabilities information avoidance (IA).
Findings The paper conceptualises discrimination and bullying as an inherently information problem, for
which an SW solution could be proposed. Two types of information are noted to be avoided: information
about disabilities and information about the effect of discrimination and bullying on employees with
disabilities. The paper distinguishes between defensive and deliberate IA, each of which poses different
challenges for social workers who are likely to intervene in the cases of bullying and discrimination in their
capacity as workplace counsellors and advisors.
Originality/value It is the first known paper that explores the intellectual and practice-based synergy
between SW and IS in application to change-related interventions and preventative plans that counteract
discrimination against people with disabilities at the workplace. It proposes creative solutions for
intervention, including bibliotherapy. It also opens up a broader conversation on how critical the knowledge
of IS is for social workers.
Keywords Academia, Bibliotherapy, Bullying, Client assessment, Discrimination, Employees with disabilities,
Information avoidance, Information science, Management, Social work, Workplace
Paper type Conceptual paper
An information problem with a social work (SW) solution: instead of an
The subject of disabilities at the workplace has garnered increasing attention and has been
examined from the standpoint of inclusion and social justice; policies and legal and
administrative regulations that facilitate community and civic participation; specific types
of disabilities (e.g. visual disabilities, mobility limitations and hearing disabilities); the
accessibility of information, services and technology; accessible design; and attitudes
towards people with disabilities in governmental organisations, educational institutions and
everyday social interactions. Yet, one of the most contentious and still unresolved issues is
continuous discrimination against people with disabilities on various levels and reasons for
this discrimination: from weak policies to the unsuitable design of physical environments,
from inaccessible technology to the exclusion from workplace settings and social
events. Researchers and practitioners from multiple disciplines, as well as governmental
agencies, have chimed in with studies and findings that place a source of discrimination in
deficient policies, historical factors, lingering stereotypes and misconceptions, cultural and
personal attitudes, and types of disabilities, to name just a few.
Now and again, low levels of knowledge and awareness about disabilities possessed by
managers and colleagues have been brought up by sociologists, psychologists, and
information and education scholars as a reason for discrimination against people with
disabilities. However, thereis no solid body of evidence in either research literature or fields of
Journal of Documentation
Vol. 74 No. 6, 2018
pp. 1258-1273
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/JD-04-2018-0057
Received 15 April 2018
Revised 9 June 2018
Accepted 21 June 2018
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
practice that this discussion has been taken to the next level and that the following question
has been seriouslyinvestigated:Why indeed, in the age of easily accessible, diverseand clearly
presentedinformation about disabilities, do so many people possessa very limited knowledge
and understanding of disabilities, including people tasked with decision and policy making?
It is clear that without empirical proof it is not possible to conclusively answer this
question. However, the first step towards empirical exploration can be a conceptualization of
the problem. Such a conceptualization is at the heart of this paper, which positions the
limited knowledge and awareness of disabilities among the decision and policy makers as
an issue of information avoidance (IA), a paradoxical phenomenon whereby large groups of
individuals do not possess information about disabilities not because it is not accessible to
them but because they choose to remain in oblivion.
The paper also makes strides towards highlighting the power of collaboration between
information science (IS) and SW by focusing on the contribution of information theories to
education and practice in SW. Methodologically, the paper utilises a theoretical integration
approach (e.g. Coady and Lehmann, 2016, p. 18), that is, an approach that combines the IS
theories of selective information exposure (including IA) with cognitive dissonance and
uncertainty management theories frequently utilised in SW scholarship and practice and
allied disciplines.
As a case in point, the paper focuses on the working environment of academia; academic
faculty and staff with disabilities; and managers in academia. It positions discrimination and
bullying as an inherently and essentially information problem, with very intricate and complex
dynamics involving human information behaviours and human psychology, and seeks to
achieve an in-depth understanding of these dynamics. A practical purpose of this understanding
is to create an effective and feasible intervention plan in academic workplaces in order to
counteract a root-cause of discrimination experienced by faculty and staff with disabilities.
Social workers are well-positioned to deliver such an intervention in their capacity as
health, well-being and disability counsellors or advisors, working with both those who
suffer from and those who perpetrate discrimination and bullying. This paper, however,
focuses only on those who are responsible for bullying and discrimination rather than on
victims/targets. It proposes that discriminatory attitudes and behaviours are, to some
extent, a function of managers being uninformed or poorly/selectively informed about the
nature of disability and the lifeways of disabled people.
This low level of knowledge and awareness can result from two types of IA: defensive
(anxiety-driven) IA, whereby information about disabilities is likened to health information
that causes anxiety, fear and psychological disequilibrium; and deliberate IA, which is a
conscious, strategic, and ill-intentioned behaviour and management practice; anxiety here is
secondary and provoked by the potential for remorse, self-criticism, shame and damage to
the managers self-image. Two types of information are noted to be avoided: information
about disabilities and information about the effect of discrimination, harassment and
bullying on employees with disabilities. The type of avoided information will determine the
type of intervention on the part of social workers.
The paper discusses the need for social workers to be aware of the foundations of
informationbehaviours(andIAinparticular)toinform their client assessment and intervention,
be it a change-related intervention or a preventative plan. It also opens up a broader
conversation on how many structural, behavioural and attitudinal problems are informational
in nature and how critical the basic knowledge of IS is for social workers. Accounting for the
fact that social workers/workplace counsellors will be working with highly intellectual and
academically oriented clients, trained in critiquing and argumentation, the paper proposes the
use of creative approaches, such as art- and bibliotherapy, as a basis for intervention.
The knowledge and understanding of information behaviours and the informational
nature of discrimination and bullying will be essential to prepare social workers for
Role of
avoidance in

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