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Universal Design in Storytimes-An Open Invitation to Play!

A mother and child read together.
Photo courtesy Reimagining School Readiness

Have you ever broken a bone?  Or accidentally injured your eye and needed to wear a patch?  If so, you may have unexpectedly developed empathy for individuals who navigate everyday life with disabilities. Using universal design to create storytimes events helps libraries plan for successful participation and play. By using universal design, all people are assured opportunities to engage at the library!

Wheelchair access between shelving, low lighting, small print, loud voices, cavernous spaces, and more impact people with and without identified disabilities. Accommodations that allow people with disabilities to navigate library spaces may not be necessary for everyone, but they can make life easier for all people. For example, someone using a cane, either permanently or temporarily will appreciate a wheelchair ramp and so will someone pushing a stroller or pulling a wagon holding children or groceries. Someone with visual challenges and someone learning to read both appreciate large print. Universal Design is planning that makes library spaces and programming accessible to an expanded section of the population. 

Accessibility is not only about the building itself but also applies to services and staff preparedness, including during storytimes.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments of 2008 prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities. According to these laws, no otherwise qualified person with a disability shall, solely by reason of his or her disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity of a public entity. 

“Person with a disability” means “any person who has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities including walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working, has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment.””

(Section 504, Rehabilitation Act of 1973)

In Practice

To include all children in storytime, considerations must be made to make sure everyone feels welcome, everyone is able to find and use accessible entrances, and opportunities to communicate needed accommodations are offered during registration.

Universal Design Principles

CAST is a multifaceted organization with a singular ambition: Bust the barriers to learning that millions of people experience every day.”  A group of experts convened by the CAST organization developed the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Guidelines.  Libraries can use the guidelines when considering Multiple Means for: Engagement, Representation; and Action & Expression.  These three areas break down into additional considerations that correspond to considerations for temporary or more permanent disabilities.  For instance, can accommodations be made for someone who needs to use multimedia to communicate?  Or, what strategies might need to be in place to reduce anxiety-producing stress in children and families?

Universal Storytime Considerations

When designing storytimes, below are some example considerations.  Remember, universal design should be variable and may be, “…essential for some, but good for all.” (https://libguides.ctstatelibrary.org/ld.php?content_id=66204008)

  • Access to print:  Consider, is it possible to use a big book, will the storyteller walk around the room to show pictures up close to participants, or will copies of the book be made available to families?
  • Expectations for Behavior: Child Development research tells us that each child develops at their own pace.  Experts in child development use guidelines for each stage of development are to help identify children needing additional supports.  Knowing what to expect of children at each stage of development helps staff, and families, set expectations for participation and behavior.  Use housekeeping announcements to begin storytime. This helps alleviate anxiety families may experience and assure them their toddler is not expected to sit through the entire event. Announce that wandering around the room is fine. This can help families understand their child’s developmental stage. Also invite families to come and go, as needed.
  • When things get loud: Some children (and adults) may have issues related to loud noises. Providing headphones can help children successfully participate in activities where children are practicing communication and vocabulary. Consider giving noise-canceling headphones from computer stations a second life by cutting off cords when they no longer work and repurposing them into storytime accommodations. Also, remind families it’s alright to step out of the room to take a break if they need one.
  • Fidgeting: Some children may need more kinesthetic engagement when learning.  This might include walking around, playing with a toy, rocking, or moving in some other way, and helps them to focus. Consider placing toys such as tangles on a table in the room for children to use as needed.
  • Schedule: Did you know that some children work best when they know what to expect? Consider creating a picture schedule with images of the outline for each storytime. Perhaps a picture of a stack of books when you’re going to read, or an image of a music note when you’re going to do a song. 
  • Identifying children: Offer all accommodations to all children in the room.  Some children may find headphones useful without ever having been identified as having a disability. Some children may be feeling the need to wiggle and find a fidget helps them one day but not need help other days. Don’t worry about monitoring accommodations. By allowing use of any accommodations by anyone who needs them you are helping reduce any stigma associated with a named disability.
  • Customer Service: How welcoming is your staff?  Welcome and address each family that comes into your library.  Smiling and greeting each person demonstrates they are seen and welcome and also provides an opportunity to find out if they are familiar with the space, programming, and services.

What other accommodations can you think of that makes it easier for children and families to participate in storytime at your library?  Read further on this important topic at the links below!

Resources:


Photo supplied by Tammie Benham

Tammie Benham is Youth Services Consultant for Southeast Kansas Library System and the co-chair of the ALSC Library Service to Underserved Children and Their Caregivers committee.  She is one of six children and the first generation in her family to escape poverty.

Photo supplied by Kymberlee Powe

Kymberlee Powe is the Children/ YA Consultant at the Connecticut State Library, a 2023 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, and a member of the ALSC Library Service to Underserved Children and Their Caregivers committee. She loves reading, crochet, crime shows, and Animal Crossing. The opinions in this article are her own.

This post fulfilled ALSC Competencies I, III, and V.

2 comments

  1. Alex Bell

    What a great article, Tammie and Kymberlee! I love it all and especially agree with this tip – “Use housekeeping announcements to begin storytime. This helps alleviate anxiety families may experience and assure them their toddler is not expected to sit through the entire event. Announce that wandering around the room is fine. This can help families understand their child’s developmental stage. Also invite families to come and go, as needed.”

    Another accommodation is using microphones for any medium to big event (and speaking clearly and loud enough at small events too or using a microphone at all times).

    I needed the reminder to greet every family as they come in. Thanks!

    1. Tammie Benham

      Thanks, Alex! Great tip!

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