Renee Grassi led this informative session on serving children (and adults) with special needs. She started off by sharing the rationale behind expanding services to this population: To provide a supportive and inclusive environment for a traditionally underserved group in your community.
She also shared some startling statistics:
Nearly 20% of the US population lives with a disability- about 13% with a severe disability. Only 56% of students w/ autism finish high school, even though there are more than 1 million people w/ autism in the USA.
For those wondering where to begin w/ developing services for people w/ special needs, Renee suggests starting with conversations- get to know people and talk to them about what they need and want. One way to do this is by offering family tour services at the library. This can be available for any family- special-needs or just new to the community or library. They simply make an appointment and have a customized personal library tour with a librarian, just for that family, adapted to their needs and interests. Other ways to find out about community needs include surveys and focus groups.
Renee talked about where to find partners to help your library reach and serve families with special needs: parks, museums, disability organizations, therapists, health centers & hospitals, support groups, special educators & schools, and other librarians who are already working in this area.
Renee described her major partnership w/ her area special-education district- the spedial-ed teachers & specialists provided training and expertise to the library staff, and used their connections to get a community needs survey distributed to the families they serve.
Top 3 library materials requested in that community needs survey were:
- high interest/low reading level books & booklists
- chapter books paired w/ audio books
- more parenting books on special-needs topics
Top 4 services requested:
- storytime designed for children w/ special needs
- book discussion for teens & adults w/ special needs
- eReader & downloading demos
- social stories about the library- these are first-person stories used to introduce a person with special needs (especially autism) to a new concept or experience.
Next Renee discussed the concept of person-first language: Say “The child with autism” vs. “The autistic child” – or better yet, learn and use their name! It’s important to watch your language even when talking to fellow staff- you never know who hears you, and how disability has affected them.
We talked about ways to adapt existing programs to include children with special needs, and specially-designed programs just for this population. Libraries can offer integrated programs that are open to a mix of ‘”typically-developing” children and those with special needs, or programs that are just for those with special needs- there are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches, and what’s best to do depends on the needs and priorities of the families being served.
One great idea that Renee shared, that I hope to try at my own library, is for when you have a great big noisy program for a large crowd, like a magician or puppet show: ask the performer if they can offer a second, much smaller session that’s adapted to be sensory-friendly. This would mean keeping the lights on, turning the volume on the sound system down, reducing sudden loud noises, and allowing the audience to move around, talk, and fidget with toys. Publicise this extra session as “autism and sensory-friendly” and require registration or tickets to keep the crowd small.
There are many ways to make sure that your library services are accessible and welcoming to everyone, and Renee’s great ideas make an excellent starting point for doing just that.
Handouts from this program: