JJ Pionke | Movers & Shakers 2020–Advocates

When disability and accessibility advocate JJ Pionke arrived at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2014, he found the literal environment unwelcoming: he not only had difficulty finding a bathroom in the library building to accommodate a person of his size, but also encountered poor wayfinding and signage, a ramp without a handrail, etc.

Sidsel Bech-Petersen

CURRENT POSITION

Applied Health Sciences Librarian, Social Sciences, Health, and  Education Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

DEGREE

MSI, University of Michigan, 2013; MA, English, Truman State University, 2003

AWARDS

Illinois Library Association Crosman Memorial Award, 2019; Arnold O. Beckman Research Award, 2017; American Library Association (ALA) Carnegie Whitney Grant, 2016

FOLLOW

@jjpionke; guides.library.illinois.edu/alacwgdisabilitytoc

Photo by Ben Tschetter

Accessibility for All

When disability and accessibility advocate JJ Pionke arrived at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2014, he found the literal environment unwelcoming: he not only had difficulty finding a bathroom in the library building to accommodate a person of his size, but also encountered poor wayfinding and signage, a ramp without a handrail, etc.

"This experience did two things for me: I decided that my research would focus on accessibility in libraries; [and] I campaigned hard to get all of the issues I found corrected," he says. Beyond his own needs, Pionke is motivated by "injustice, unfairness, discrimination, and my desire to see those things eradicated."

Nicole Cooke, associate professor in the School of Library and Information Science at the University of South Carolina, says she nominated Pionke because of his empathy for others. "His ability to understand the needs of people and reach them where they are is what makes him stand out."

Pionke takes a holistic approach to disability, interviewing people with cross-disabilities and evaluating their responses in terms of both library spaces and services. He has written numerous papers on disability and improving accessibility in libraries for employees as well as patrons, including one on his experience seeking accommodations for PTSD, and he has given multiple presentations at national conferences. Recently, he used a $25,000 University of Illinois grant to survey library and information science graduate students, graduate programs, and library employees nationally about how well they interact with people with disabilities and what kinds of training would help. Now, he says, he’s writing up a secondary analysis of his survey data. "After that, I will start working on creating a training intervention using emotional intelligence to improve how library employees interact with people with disabilities."

Using a 2016 ALA Carnegie Whitney Grant for $5,000, Pionke also created more than 20 LibGuides highlighting various disabilities, some of which are not covered well by other sources, such as chronic illness and limb difference. Meant to be a broad introduction rather than a comprehensive overview, they. have been adapted widely by other libraries. In addition to his work on disability, Pionke has created a series of library exhibits on veterans that have gotten national media coverage as well as inspired similar projects elsewhere.

Pionke moved into his current role after a decade as an adjunct professor of English in the Chicago area. "The librarians at one of my schools consistently told me that they felt I would make a great librarian. It turned out to be one of the best moves I’ve ever made," he says. 

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