Strategies for Children with Special Needs: Accessible Library Programming

Presenters: Cynthia Fordham, Children’s Librarian, Woburn Public Library (Woburn, MA), Barbara Wysocki, Cora J. Belden Library (Rocky Hill, CT)

Monday, October 20, 2008; 8:30 AM

Barbara and Cynthia started by sharing how they became interested in this area.  Cynthia has worked for years with children with disabilities, and as an architectural librarian, when the ADA was implemented. She also has a hearing impairment. Barbara has also worked with special needs children, as well as has a personal interest in this area due to a visual disablity.

Knowing what type of disability someone may have is less important than knowing how you will accommodate the children in your programs.

There are children with obvious disablities, but also with invisible disabilities.  Invisible disabilities might include hearing impairment, visual impairment, seizure disorders, some forms of autism, ADHD (sometimes), Diabetes, dyslexia and other learning disabilities, diabetes, cancer, mental illness, developmental delays/failure to thrive.

ADA act – While libraries must comply, libraries in older buildings often don’t have easily accessible facilities – the act has a clause that says “reasonable accommodation” can be made to address those issues.

Barbara then went through the process of preparing a program she has developed that will accommodate special needs children.   Most of the children in this group are autisic.  It started with an evening Family Storytime.  They first went to teachers already working with special needs children and found out what might be important to monitor. For example, would they need more than one adult?  Then Barbara went to observe a class and found out how things were structured. She learned that often children need personal space, and need to know the sequence of activities. She also requested that one of the special needs aides from the school come and assist with the program.

One thing she learned in setting up her storytime room was to set up a circle of chairs – inner circle of children, outer circle of parents. Enough room was between chairs to make children comfortable and provides structure, as well as a sense of personal space.

Next, she printed up a list of “guidelines” for parents so that they would know what to expect and how to help out. Parents are told that if a child is having a difficult time it’s okay to take them out for a moment and come back in.

It is important that children know the routine and schedule.  She uses a series of cards that tell children that there’s a story, then a song, etc…

Storytime begins with a puppet and a simple song that she sings with each child as she walks around the circle so the child can say his name to the puppet.  This helps provide social interaction for those who have difficulty with this.

Materials used – she tries to have a mix of materials.  Big books are great, especially for those with visual needs.  She also makes sure it’s a book she knows well, so that she can concentrate on the group to see what’s going on and what she may need to do to help someone focus.  She also uses a lot of story kits that enable the children to interact with actual materials.  Stories usually have a lot of repetition and are often cumulative. Stories are also very simple.

Songs tend to be the familiar ones.  She often mixes them up – “Head, Shoulders, Knees, Toes” really, slow.  Makes variations on familiar tunes.  She writes out the words so parents can see them, and does lots of hand motions.

She closes with a “you can’t fail” craft.  This is good for parent-child interaction.  Uses a lot of stickers and keeps it very simple – little glue, which is controlled by parents.  She usually doesn’t have a model to encourage more creativity.

She’s still working on refining things.  She wants to develop a better ending, and to have more time to talk with parents.

The emphasis is to keep it very simple and very structured.

Cynthia then talked a bit about the ADA (1990).  “Children with disabilities not only face the inherent challenge of doing what everyone else does hampered by their disabilities, they may also be isolated from or ostracized by their peers because they are different.”  One of her goals is to make children know that they are welcome, no matter what.  One of her biggest successes is with her summer reading program. Many dyslexic children have difficulty with reading, writing, spelling, organizational skills, auditory issues, etc.  They are also very sociable.  For SRP she made a time goal of at least 1 hour/week (10 min/day, 6 days/week).  This is doable for most children.

“The library can be a neutral, emotionally safe place for children of all abilities to be themselves.”  The library is not a school, so we can give children the freedom to read where their interests lie.

The best advice they can give is “Simplify, simplify, simplify!” 

Summer Reading Program Advice:
Keep goals attainable; Chat casually and booktalk with children who resist reading or participating; Think outside the box when planning activities to reach the broadest audience possible; Offer to accommodate disabilites on an as-needed basis.

“Every child that enters our doors we owe the opportunity for inclusion, enrichment, and acceptance.”  One way to do this is to have in our collection books that address these issues for children.

She suggests an article on dyslexia from Fortune Magazine – May 13, 2002

Cynthia Fordham, Woburn Public Library, 45 Pleasant St. P.O. Box 298, Woburn, MA 01801, Phone 781-937-0405, email:


Q:Have you ever had a parent make a request for reasonable accommodation? A: Yes, on occasion.  One on one assistance to help children find materials; allowing a wheelchair-bound child using the staff restroom rather than using stairs to the public one.  Also, all publicity says that if necessary accomodations can be made if notified ahead of time. 

Q: What to do with a child who cannot sit during storytime, and runs around and screams.  The mom doesn’t respond – she’s tired, and overwhelmed. A: Maybe another parent in the group could sit with the older child while the mom takes the disruptive child out. Tell the parents that it’s okay to take the child out. It’s important to let the mom know that we care.

Q: What to do with groups of develomentally disabled adults who come to children’s area? A: Cynthia feels that wherever they’re comfortable is the best place for them. Parents do sometimes feel uneasy, but she makes sure to reassure them that it’s okay.  It’s important that they have books that they can enjoy.

Q: How to deal with staff people who are uncomfortable with special needs children? A: Cynthia: It’s a matter of educating them. Possibly at a staff meeting.  Maybe have some sensitivity training for the staff by an outside trainer.

Q: What to do with parents who talk to each other during storytime? A: One strategy is to address the parents, “Can you help me with _______?”

It’s important that parents know that we want them in the library.  Nobody has a life that doesn’t have issues.  We need to reassure parents.

Q: Does Barbara advertise her storytime for everyone or just the special needs group? A: They advertise to everyone, but do make sure that special needs groups are aware of the program.  They do preregistration (people seem more invested), but do not limit attendence (too many has not been a problem yet and they really don’t have space issues).

Thanks to Barbara and Cynthia for an extremely informative, interesting, and reassuring presentation.


One Response

  1. I may be preaching to the converted here, but please see the link >

    Many thanks.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: