As we prepare for summer reading season, there are so many questions that run through our librarian heads. “Are the reading logs completed?” “Do we have enough prizes?” “Did I remember to book the meeting room for our kick-off event…?” Getting the details in place for our annual SRPs can sometimes be a grueling task. Amidst the craziness, I think there’s one question we should always find time to ask ourselves: “How am I reaching underserved populations in my community with this year’s program?” No matter what type of library you work at–large or small, urban or rural–there are families with children with special needs who are looking for ways to be a part of their community this summer. What better way than to visit the library and sign up for the library’s summer reading program!
The truth is, though, many families with children with special needs may not see the library’s summer reading program as an inclusive option for their child. It may not be because of anything we librarians have done intentionally–it could just be that public libraries haven’t make an extra effort to say “Hey, this program is for all children–including your child with special needs.” Sometimes, we need to make a conscious effort to switch mindsets. Try asking yourself questions like “Are there any barriers in our summer reading program that might deter families with children with special needs from participating?”and “What accommodations can I make to serve my community more fully?” Evaluating your library’s program from a different perspective may help you improve your services.
- Sign-up requirements: Are the summer reading programs at your library structured by age? If so, consider making exceptions for those patrons that might be older chronologically, but younger developmentally. If you are approached by a family with someone who has a lower developmental age and that person wants to participate, is there flexibility in your program to accommodate the request? Also, consider having both in-person registration, as well as online registration for those families who may find it more difficult to make an in-person visit to the library.
- Expectations for participation: If your program requires children to read, does it also allow for children to be read to? The ability to read may not be a skill that a child with special needs has yet acquired, so giving parents or caregivers the chance to read to their children would be more inclusive. What about listening to books on CD or reading animated books on an iPad or Kindle Fire? Many children with special needs utilize different technologies for better accessibility, so promoting different reading options will open up the scope of your program to a wider audience. In addition, many of our programs expect children to read a certain number of books, pages, or hours. If you speak to a family with a child with disabilities, start up a conversation with them about their child’s needs and abilities and consider making an accommodation about how many books, pages, or hours are required.
- Reporting: How do you track participant progress throughout the program? Are children encouraged to come to the desk and talk to a staff member about the books they’ve read? While this is, of course, a great skill for children to practice over the summer to help improve their comprehension, reporting requires a certain set of social expectations–not to mention the ability to communicate verbally with another person. Giving children the option of writing their thoughts down on paper would be a great accommodation for those with social anxiety. But if a child with autism, for example, is non-verbal, how could he participate? Some libraries offer communication boards created using Boardmaker to give non-verbal children the chance to communicate. Children could point to words and images to communicate their thoughts and feelings about something. A board like this could incorporate images and phrases like “mom,” “dad,” “I/me,” “read,” “book,” “home,” and “library.” If you’re interested in creating a board like this for your library, contact one of your local special education teachers. I’d bet they would be happy to give advice and even help you create one.
Many of us can get bogged down by the range of details and rules that are created for summer reading programs. Don’t get me wrong–structure and consistency is a good thing in my book, especially because those details and rules help our programs to run smoothly all summer long. But when we structure our summer reading programs, we are often catering to the masses to create a set of rules that target the general public. If we want to reach out to those underserved patrons with special needs and provide them with opportunities to participate more fully, it might be okay to bend a rule. Or two.