Leveraging partnerships is essential to supporting the development and growth of new programs and services for children with disabilities. One of the best things you can do when serving an undeserved population like families with children with disabilities is to collaborate with other local organizations to gather community feedback about people’s perceptions and experiences of your library.
Whether you decide to take a more formal or an informal approach in gathering information, performing a comprehensive community assessment is a necessary first step in growing this area of service. Assessing your community helps identify opportunities and gaps in service for different age groups. It can help you learn about what types of programs your library could be offering to families with children with disabilities. This process can also help you determine what the best and most accessible mode of communication is for families, or identify areas for improvement in your library’s children’s space. You may also learn about what type of training topics or learning is needed for front lines staff who interact with customers on a daily basis.
There are various approaches you could take in gathering this information. You can create an online survey that is shared with targeted groups and audiences. You could invite key stakeholders, special education professionals, and library patrons to the library for a Community Conversation or a focus group. You could facilitate a discussion with a built-in audience at a local special education district meeting. You could even distribute paper surveys at key community locations where families with children with disabilities often visit.
If you’ve developed a positive and trusting rapport with caregivers who already visit your library, invite them for a one-on-one or conversation with specific questions and discussion topics. Ask good questions, be authentic, and be transparent about why you value their insights. I always make sure to say something like “We realize that our library may not have always been welcoming, but we want to do better. Your feedback will help us do that.” Don’t forget to involve self-advocates to provide opportunities for people with disabilities to help guide and plan the direction of your library’s accessibility services. Whatever approach you choose, the goal here is to gather information from as many sources as possible to paint a picture of how your library is viewed by families with children with disabilities.
When it comes to your strategy for gathering information, make sure that you use your local partners and community stakeholders to your advantage. One way you can leverage partnerships is to ask local community organizations, such as your local special education district, to help you spread the word about what your library has to offer. Ask them to help you distribute your survey or questionnaires via their distribution lists, newsletters, or social media. This is especially key for gathering information from non-users of the library. If you have developed a successful partnership with a local community partner, consider asking what else that partner can do to help support this effort.
Developing a new program or service for children with disabilities and their families requires strategic thinking and research. It also requires time. The most successful library services I’ve seen libraries develop for children with disabilities are services that had a comprehensive plan with time set aside at the beginning of the project for developing partnerships and building an audience. Whatever your goals are in this area of library service, don’t forget to keep an open mind. We may think we know what our families want from our library, but we never really know until we ask.
This blog post was inspired by the discussion during this week’s ALSC Community Forum about inclusion and accessibility in children’s library services. Click here to download the Resource Handout from the forum presentation. ALSC Members can access the archived Inclusive Spaces and Services for Children of All Abilities Community Forum, which was presented by Jason Driver, Renee Grassi, Eva Thaler-Sroussi, and ALSC President Nina Lindsay on January 10, 2018.