Blogger Renee Grassi

Be Brave!

I had the absolute pleasure of presenting on a panel with three other sensational youth services librarians this week at the Illinois Library Association Annual Conference.  Representing small, medium, and large libraries, we talked about the development of programs and outreach services to children and young adults with special needs.  One librarian presented on using American Sign Language (ASL) in her storytime.  Another discussed how she led book discussions and reader’s theater programs with a group of high school students.  The third librarian talked about how she incorporates sensory-friendly crafts into her programs.  While each of our programs are vastly different from the other, I realized there was one common thread throughout: bravery.

At one point or another, all four of us were “newbies.”  We may have planned dozens of storytimes, booktalks, or book discussions, but there was a moment when we had to lead that program for the first time for an audience of patrons with special needs.  I’ll be the first one to admit that starting a new storytime terrified me.  I envisioned one of two outcomes.  Either no one would show up, or I would have a group of 12 children screaming, crying, and running around the room not listening to a word of my storytime–any librarian’s nightmare. True, I may worry more than the average person, but at the heart of it, I was nervous that all my hard work would go to waste. Let me tell you, this couldn’t be farther than the truth–it was a complete success!

But how do you measure success for programs for an audience of patrons with special needs?  And how do you know there will be an audience for your new program?  From a practical standpoint, librarians need to validate time and money spent with cold, hard statistics.  How many patrons are we serving?  Does this program have a return on investment (ROI)?  These are important questions, especially when advocating for funding in these financially trying times.  The truth is, I took a risk in developing a new program, but I knew it was a risk worth taking.  Even if I didn’t officially survey the community, I knew that many state and nationally funded programs lost funding this year.  I also saw there had been an increased number of patrons with special needs using our facilities.

If you would like to develop a new program for an audience of patrons with special needs, it’s important to assess the need first.  Observe who is coming into your space and what services they are using.  Have casual conversations with them or their caregivers to find out how else a library can meet their needs.  Connect with the special education teachers in your district and ask if the Library can support their classroom.  Maybe it means creating a survey about special needs services and evaluating the feedback you received from your community.  This can tell you a lot about what new services or programs you may want to provide.  Time and time again, I have been told by parents, teachers, and even special education administrators that the real achievement is just doing something.

A library has not always been a place where patrons with special needs are welcome, but that’s changing.  I see it in the excited faces of those that attended my ILA program, ready to bring a fresh perspective and new ideas back to their library. I see it in the increased number of parents registering their child with special needs for library programs.  I see it in the attitude shift of library staff after participating in a disability awareness training.  I see it in the increased number of webinars and other online learning opportunities for professional development now available through ALSC and ALA.  If there’s one thing that I hope you take away, it’s simply this:  be brave!


  1. Libby

    I only recently started tuning in to this blog but I love it for the inspiration it provides me, a not-even-newbie (still a student). I feel so much that I will be part of a YS family in my career and this blog reminds me of that time and again. So thank you… thanks for your ideas, support, and most of all for your attitude of inclusion!

    Would you say that there is merit (ROI) in creating special-needs-related programming for kids that aren’t necessarily special needs? My community is small and rather conservative and I think it could be valuable to expose local kids to things like ASL and different learning styles, but would it be supported by the people who pay the bills?

    1. Renee Grassi

      Thank you so much, Libby! We on the blogging team are glad to know that you find it so valuable!

      I think that’s a really interested spin on it–one that I like very much. That education piece is so valuable, especially to other children without special needs and their parents. One of my colleagues had a child with autism in her storytime, and because we provided addition support to the child with autism (schedules, speical seating), the other children were curious asking questions about why he had special accommodations made. What I love about the idea of using ASL in programs is that it provides the opportunity for awareness of different ways to communicate and tell a story. There are even professionals out there that can come in and run an ASL storytime for you, so that you do not have to learn and plan yourself. You could always try it as a one-time program, promote it heavily, and see if there is any interest in your community. I think it’s important to know your own individual community. It may be that the families with children with special needs are staying home because they haven’t been reached out to. So, yes! I do think there is merit. Hope this helps!

  2. Library Quine

    Thanks for your post! We are a very small library and only have 4 to 6 special needs visitors (that I’m aware of) per week. They are all different ages (4 to 14), and I don’t think their needs and interests would be similar enough to have a group program. I’d love to be able to have some literacy or library/book related resources to hand to use with visitors on an individual basis. Do you know of any rosources which could help me design or create these type of things (we don’t have a budget, so can’t purchase from a glossy catalog)?

    1. Renee Grassi

      I know that many libraries are pursuing the idea of more inclusive programs promoting them for the whole family, rather than specifically targeted special needs programs. This is just as great! The Libraries and Autism: We’re Connected website has a wealth of information on their “Strategies That Work” page, if you want to take a look at what other libraries are doing:

      I’ve had many parents ask me for graphic novel booklists for their children with autism. The engaging illustrations supported by simple text seem to work well for this group of children. And what’s nice is that there are graphic novels at all levels for all ages–picture book and early reader graphic novels through longer chapter books. My last post on Social Stories might be helpful to you, as well. If the child needs to learn how use the computer catalog, how to find a book, or how to ask a question, you can always create a story to walk him through that social situation.

      If it were me, I would just ask each of these families what the library can do to support their needs. Every child is different, so it may be that you are working together with the individual families to come up with ideas. I’ve also created a tip sheet for parents on how to use the Library with your child and adolescent with special needs. This is great for those that are interested in using the library, but haven’t yet stepped through your doors. Here’s the link:

      I hope you find this useful! 🙂

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