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Serving Adults with Special Needs in the Children’s Library

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about serving adults with special needs as a children’s librarian. I work at a large urban library and we have the luxury of having a specific children’s library area. Our policy states that you must be with a child or using children’s materials to be in the children’s library. This policy makes it clear that an adult with special needs can come into look for materials, but does allow for some grey areas. Here are a few related questions I’ve been pondering…

  • What if an adult with special needs doesn’t feel comfortable in the adult parts of the library and would rather hang out in the children’s area?
  • What if they want to attend a storytime that might be developmentally appropriate, but not age appropriate? How about registering for a developmentally appropriate summer reading program?
  • Should we let them use our children-only internet computers or play on our iPads and AWE touchscreens?
  • What happens if an adult makes a caregiver or child uncomfortable?

Serving adults with special needs can be difficult in many situations because the individuals without guidance are often in the most need of programming and services. In addition, some may be experiencing homelessness, adding another layer to the equation. Other barriers to providing targeted programming can include transportation, variety of developmental abilities, and marketing.

All of this makes me wonder…

  • How does your library handle the information and service needs of this special population?
  • How do you balance the needs and comfort of children/families with those of adults with special needs?
  • Do you have a designated person who provides programming for this population?
  • Do you have programs targeting this special population or do you make your regular children’s offerings more inclusive? (For an excellent example of targeted programming, check out the Sensory Storytime for Special Needs Adults provided by Durham County Library, NC.)

I don’t have the answers to these questions, as they are community-, library-, individual-specific. But I’m interested to hear how you handle situations such as these in your children’s areas. What other kinds of challenges or successes have you come across? Any words of advice for other librarians?

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Amy Seto Musser Amy has her MLS from Texas Woman’s University and is a children’s librarian at the Denver Public Library. She is always on the look out for creative ways to incorporate the arts into children’s services and programming to extend books beyond the page. Check out Amy’s blogs: http://picturebookaday.blogspot.com/ & http://chapterbookexplorer.blogspot.com/

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.

13 comments

  1. Renee Grassi

    Amy, this is a great post starting a very important conversation. We as children’s librarians are often called upon to help serve adults with disabilities because they are not welcomed in the adult departments in our libraries–or adult services is not equipped with the right skills and knowledge. This is always a good opportunity to advocate for full-library accessibility, getting our partners in adult services in board to be trained about inclusive customer service. It can be a hard conversation to start, but a valuable one at that!

    1. Amy Seto Musser

      Renee,
      I agree, it’s a difficult conversation, but an important one to have between patron, librarian, and often several departments. Have you had experience having these conversations? What kinds of questions/ideas do you put on the table to get things going?

  2. Suz

    I see quite a few people with mental disabilities using my children’s library. For the most part, these individuals are accompanied by an aid that assists them with finding books, using computers, getting around, etc.

    The few who come in on their own present a variety of small issues. We generally know them by name, as they are frequent visitors. One or two are completely unobtrusive, but a few others can take up quite a bit of staff time. One man in particular comes to the children’s library to find books about LEGO or cars and usually monopolizes quite a bit of staff time. He doesn’t understand when we tell him that all the LEGO books are out, so he keeps coming back and asking again. Another woman with a severe physical disability needs help from staff to set up her DVD player or computer, get her a drink, adjust her blanket, etc. Most staff members don’t seem to mind, but when the library gets busy it can be problematic.

    On the whole, though, I would say that many adults with special needs are benefiting from the children’s library and I hope we can continue to meet their needs.

    1. Amy Seto Musser

      Suz,

      I think you touch on one of the other challenges – communication – of working with this population. When we work with children there’s is often an adult who can help them understand what it means when we say there aren’t any LEGO books left on the shelf. As you point out, it can take up quite a bit of staff time to help some adults with special needs because they don’t have a caregiver to help explain in familiar terms.

  3. Abby Johnson

    We have just been talking about this at my library. We have a few adults with disabilities that are frequent visitors and almost always they come in with an aide or an aide is somewhere nearby (in our adjacent department using the computers, etc.). We also have some groups that stop by to read picture books. Our media department shows movies every week and one of our local facilities brings groups to the movies almost every week. One thing some of our adult patrons with disabilities like to do is listen to our picture books on CD and we’ll bring out our boombox and set up headphone splitters so they can do this with a group.

    1. Abby Johnson

      I should say, too, that I think adults with disabilities tend to come into the Children’s Room because that’s where they are finding the materials that interest them, not because of any lack of service they might get in other departments. We have not really had any incidents where adults with disabilities have made children or families uncomfortable, and I tend to look at it as a learning experience for the children in our room, too. They see that there are many different types of people, that people with disabilities are not people to be scared of, even though they may act different or make different sounds than other adults they know. From time to time, staff members may step in just to reassure families or occasionally to distract an adult with disabilities who is maybe getting a little too intrusive. But that happens pretty rarely at our library.

      1. Amy Seto Musser

        Abby-

        I think that it’s great that your staff members are in tune with your customers to start conversations or provide diversions as situations arise.

        I agree, the majority of our adults with special needs come into the children’s library because they love our materials and the chance to see a familiar, smiling face.

  4. Bina Williams

    My library used to have a high school special needs class that came every Friday. One week, we showed them movies–they loved Wishbone…we also showed some Lucille Ball, Rabbit Ears movies and others. The other week, we did a craft with them…one that would be fun and not too tricky.
    After a while, funding for transport changed, teachers changed and the program fell off. But for those two years, it was terrific. We still see some of those students in the library.

    1. Amy Seto Musser

      Bina,

      It sounds like this was a great partnership, I’m sorry to hear the situation changed. I think a collaboration with a school or organization is a good way to not only gain a large target audience for a program, but also to gain insight into information needs of a population. Maybe one day your library will be able to team up with the high school again.

  5. Rosemary Kiladitis

    Thanks so much for this post. I’m a children’s librarian at Queens Library’s Pomonok Community Library, and I have my first special needs adult class coming for a visit next week. I’m not sure what I should do for a first visit, so any feedback here would be greatly appreciated!

  6. Brooke Rose

    Hi,
    This is a topic I am very interested in. Do you know of any articles or journals on the subject?
    My library is in a rural area, but we have several special needs adults that come in to check out books, use the computers, and just hang out playing cards. I’ve been thinking of putting together a regular story time for them or some other kind of program.
    Brooke

  7. Dr. Nancy Hartman

    We have a unique situation in that we are a public library branch (in San Antonio, TX) that exists in a high school library (the high school and public library share the facility). As the adult services librarian, I am currently in charge of our SNAP (Special Needs Adult Programming). Currently, this programming consists only of monthly workshops where for an hour and a half we do a simple craft or easy/fun science experiment, I read aloud and we have a check-out time. I have noticed in my short time at this library, though, that we have multiple special needs adults who simply ride the public transit bus around town, going from library to library every day. Some of these adults have library cards and are able to check out items, some do not. A couple of times, we have had to intercede on the behalf of our teen patrons to keep the adult patron in-check with personal space and boundary issues, especially when students are in a class in the library and the adult patron is disruptive.

    Any insight in working with these special patrons would be greatly appreciated!!

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