When libraries are looking to improve an area of service, such as service to children with disabilities and their families, it’s important to start with answering the question–why? It seems like a simple question with a simple answer. Libraries should serve children with disabilities because libraries are for everyone. It’s the right thing to do. It’s in the spirit of public libraries as public institutions, which are for all. All of these statements are absolutely true, but sometimes it’s not enough to justify the existence of a new collection, program, or service. So, let’s consider other reasons why libraries should serve children with disabilities and their families.
First and foremost, it’s the law. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in 1990. The ADA makes it illegal to discriminate against people with disabilities in jobs, schools, transportation, and all experiences that are open to the public. In addition, this legislation makes public libraries legally obligated to make their facilities accessible to people with disabilities. ADA also legislated the expectation that public libraries are to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities in their spaces and services. The Americans with Disabilities Act is considered the most important civil rights act for people with disabilities in recent history.
Another reason for this area of library service is because it improves outcomes for children, families, and library staff. In other words, there is added value and measurable impact for children, their families, and library staff when expanding inclusive library services.
Youth advocates, such as children’s librarians and youth services staff, always center their work first and foremost around the child. Naturally, the goal for any library in serving children with disabilities should be that the child feels more welcome at the library. Here’s a list of other positive outcomes for children with disabilities:
- They become more visible members of the community.
- They increase knowledge of library and resources as a lifelong user.
- They develop friendships with peers.
- They build a rapport with library staff.
- They practice and develop life skills.
- They establish a relationship with reading and learning.
- They develop sensory experiences to learn about their world.
Just as every child wants to belong, every family does too. The library is the perfect place where children and their families can learn and strengthen their relationships as a family unit and feel a stronger sense of community with their neighbors. In 2016, Public Libraries: A Vital Space for Family Engagement was published by the Public Library Association and Harvard Family Research Project. This concept of family engagement and family-centered programming applies to all families, including families with children with disabilities. Here is a list of positive outcomes for these families being included in the library:
- They increase knowledge of library as a lifelong resource.
- They acquire books for the home.
- They read more as a family.
- They develop friendships with other families.
- Siblings can meet other siblings.
- They have a greater sense of belonging in the larger community.
When working with children with disabilities, there is value and positive impact from the library’s perspective as well:
- Staff develop stronger relationships with diverse populations and community stakeholders.
- Library increases inclusive programs and service offerings.
- Staff obtain a broader perspective and deeper knowledge effective and ineffective library practices.
- Library has more opportunities for growth and improvement in serving their residents.
- Staff Increases confidence and knowledge of inclusive customer service.
- Library create a more positive workplace culture.
When serving children with disabilities in libraries, sometimes numbers don’t tell the whole story. That’s why outcomes are important. If youth services staff struggle with justifying inclusive programs for children with disabilities, they need to translate the value and impact of their work. Measuring outcomes will help libraries do that more effectively. After all, there’s no one size fits all approach for libraries. But what inclusive and accessible youth programs lack in numbers, they make up for it in heart and impact in the lives of children with disabilities.