Blogger Library Service to Underserved Children and Their Caregivers committee

Three Ways to Connect with the Disability Community in 2024

Make 2024 the year that you solidify your library’s support of families with disabilities. Many library staff want to reach out to disabled children and caregivers, but become overwhelmed trying to pick their first step. Before you plan a new sensory storytime, revamp your large print collection, or look into making your children’s programs more accessible, reach out to one of these three groups in your area to find out what your community really needs.

There are three great resources that you can find widely across the U.S. that support children with disabilities: your school district’s special education team, your nearest Early Intervention provider, and local online support groups.

Your School District’s Special Education Team

There are three main ways to approach making a connection in special education:

  1. Reach out to one of the schools you already visit and speak with the special education staff there. Some students with disabilities will be in general education classrooms, and some will be in special education classrooms. Some will spend some time in both.
  2. Ask a school’s library staff (if the school has them). Find out how they’ve been supporting the special education students, get their feedback on what might be missing.
  3. Connect with your district office or county office of education – they may have a special education team that can tell you about bigger programs and initiatives beyond your nearest schools.

You might assume that special education classrooms are always included in events your library might be coordinating with the school, from all-school assemblies to joint author visits, but in some areas the special education students are not invited to participate in these events, or they may find them too overwhelming to access. Many special education classrooms struggle to get volunteers to visit their classroom, and they may appreciate a librarian visit planned just for their students.

Your Nearest Early Intervention Provider

Early Intervention is a federal program that provides therapy and services to children with disabilities or delays from ages birth to three. Although it is a federal program, it is administered by the states, and each state organizes their services differently. The CDC has a listing of each state’s program you can consult, and you can narrow your search down to the administrators, centers and providers closest to you.

Early Intervention providers can be wonderful partners, because they are so knowledgeable about families with very young children who have disabilities. Providers working in your area might include anything from physical therapists to sensory gyms to speech therapists. Staff can also point you towards local nonprofits, disability-friendly preschools, and in-person support groups that may want to partner with you for outreach services like off-site storytimes or book distribution.

Your Local Online Support Group

In underserved areas, there are far, far too few services for children with disabilities. One of your best bets in this case can be an online support group. Some support groups are designed for parents and caregivers of children with disabilities. Others are for adult disability advocates who can speak from their own lived experiences. Both groups have valuable information to share. You can find these on Facebook, through established parenting groups who also meet in-person, or through a PTA/PTO organization. Some are organized by nonprofits, but you’re also likely to find groups that have been cobbled together by families who can tell you what supports they need.

An online group can help you answer questions like: what are good days for programs? What barriers are families encountering when they try to come to the library? These are also great places to distribute library surveys or recruit for focus groups, as long as you clearly identify yourself as a library representative.

Be Persistent, Be Respectful

Professionals who support children with disabilities are often completely slammed. Don’t be discouraged if they don’t pick up the phone or if your first email (or first five emails) goes unanswered. When you do have a chance to talk, let your main priority be listening. Instead of telling a provider all about the library’s services, learn more about what they offer, the kids they serve, and what kind of unmet needs they see. Stay within your library’s defined role – it isn’t up to you to provide speech therapy, for example, but you might be able to partner with a local speech therapist training program to put on an AAC device storytime. Remember that talking to someone who works with the disability community is not the same as listening to a disabled person themselves, and when we make connections with educators, therapists, or non-profits, it is ultimately in service of connecting with the disability community directly.

When you make connections across the disability community, your number one reward is strong relationships. Relationships with children with disabilities, who benefit from supportive community spaces just like any other child. Relationships with their families, who may struggle to find any place outside the home where they feel welcome. Relationships with experts, who can offer advice on library initiatives and bring families to your door. At the end of the day, families with disabilities need to know one thing more than any other: that the library isn’t just tolerating them, but actively welcoming them into our spaces.

Today’s blogger is Chelsey Roos, writing as a member of ALSC’s Library Service to Underserved Children and their Caregivers. Chelsey has also been a member of ALSC’s Advocacy and Legislation committee, and is a children’s librarian for Santa Clara County Library. .

This blog relates to ALSC Core Competencies of I. Commitment to Client GroupV. Outreach and Advocacy, and VII. Professionalism and Professional Development.

One comment

  1. Maria Cahill

    Chelsey,
    Thank you for this important post! I especially appreciate the advice messages in the final section. I am fortunate to be working with a team of scholars on an IMLS-funded project [LG-246297-OLS-20] that explores ways that libraries are serving families of young children with disabilities. As part of that project, we held focus group interviews with early intervention service coordinators to capture their perspectives on ways that libraries are doing particularly well serving children with disabilities and their families. We reported findings from those conversations in an article published in Public Library Quarterly (and we wrote a translational piece based on that study was published in Winter 2023 issue of Children and Libraries). I’ve included the full citation for the PLQ article below.

    Daskalakes, D. T. M., Stormont, M., Adkins, D., Gooden, C., Long, B. S., Russell, C., & Cahill, M. (online first). How can we better serve children with disabilities? Public library accessibility recommendations from early intervention coordinators. Public Library Quarterly. https://doi.org/10.1080/01616846.2023.2267961

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