Volume 28, Number 3, Fall 2006

Come On In!

by Holly Jin, Skokie Public Library, Skokie, Illinois

The staff of Skokie Public Library prides itself on providing excellent customer service and striving to meet the needs of Skokie’s diverse community. Programs are plentiful, and the Youth Services Department serves thousands of kids each month. This is why, when my colleagues and I realized children with disabilities rarely visited the library, we were a bit surprised that we had overlooked such an important group of library users.

Sure, a few teachers of students with learning and behavioral disabilities occasionally brought their classes to the Youth Services Department to check out materials, but the YS Desk staff had minimal interaction with the children, and the interactions we did have led us to ignorantly wonder:

Why does one boy ask for the same Batman book every time he comes to the library?
How can we serve an independent, non-verbal teenager with whom we can’t communicate?
Are there activities we should offer children that would make their trip to the library a more meaningful experience?
Where are all these kids during our regular programs?
The answers to the above questions would surprise, inform, and inspire us. Unfortunately, these and other questions sat on the back burner while we dealt with the “more pressing” day-to-day issues of collection development, author visits, school puppet shows, and seasonal programming. Then, in the spring of 2004, the 2005 Library Services and Technology Act grant entitled "The Library: A Community Resource Without Walls" caught our attention. There was a gap between what the children needed and what we were providing, and perhaps more importantly, a skills barrier that prevented us from better serving children with special needs. We contacted our local special education school district, Niles Township District for Special Education (NTDSE), and asked them to partner with us in our endeavor to become a community resource without walls. After ascertaining the changes our library required, we applied for the LSTA grant through the Illinois State Library and were happily awarded $16,654 to fund "Come On In! The Library is a Special Place for Children with Disabilities."

Through Come On In! we sought to break down obstacles to serving children with special needs by focusing on five areas:

  1. Staff training to better understand and serve children with disabilities.
  2. Programming to welcome children of all abilities and raise disability awareness in the community.
  3. Collection development to add a variety of reading levels and types of reading materials to our current collection.
  4. Assistive technology and software training to accommodate children of differing abilities.
  5. Special toys, games, and manipulatives to be used for school and family visits and inclusive library programs.
Upon receiving the grant, we immediately formed a Special Needs Advisory Committee (SNAC) made up of parents, teachers, and administrators of children with special needs. In retrospect, it would have been wise to have a child with special needs on the committee. Nevertheless, the group, which met monthly for the period of the grant, was key to making decisions on when to plan programs, what services to offer, and what resources to purchase.

Breaking down the walls of knowledge and skills barriers began with staff training sessions (led by NTDSE professionals) on three topics: developmental disabilities and strategies for supporting children with special needs; autism spectrum and related disorders; and early intervention and early childhood services. Training continued with a tour of Molloy Education Center to see, firsthand, what children’s daily environments look like in order to get a better idea of how to adapt the Youth Services Department. Practical tips, such as those that follow, allowed us to easily make immediate changes to the way we interacted with children.

  • Offer a child only two choices at a time.
  • Be patient, and allow children a long time for their response.
  • Direct and respond with as few words as possible.
  • Use a lot of music in programs.
  • Add visual cues to library signage.
Staff were delighted when they had the opportunity to apply what they learned and see how easy it was to connect with a child. However, other barriers, (e.g. many parents of children with special needs view the library as a quiet place where their children, who may have outbursts, would not be welcome) would prove more difficult to conquer.

After training, we worked on material and technology selection as programs were planned to quickly get the word out that Skokie Public Library welcomes children with disabilities. Young adult author Terry Trueman was hired to speak to two groups of junior high students and one group of parents and teachers about his experience as an author and a father of a child with severe cerebral palsy. Child development specialist and musician Jim Gill magically engaged a group of two hundred at risk and special education, early childhood students and lent his expertise to visiting parents and teachers in an evening workshop. The International Center on Deafness and the Arts (ICODA) Story-N-Sign group treated a family audience to a visual explanation of how the ear works, taught some sign language, and debunked the myths regarding hearing impairments. These programs were crucial to letting the community know the library is a special place for people with disabilities.

Hiring presenters gave us a chance to purchase materials and prepare for programs and services of our own. We filled in our juvenile and parent-teacher collections with book and video titles recommended from the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities and other notable organizations, and then set out to create a new Special Needs Collection for children. The collection features Start to Finish Books, picture books adapted with Boardmaker symbols made by Rita Angelini of Leap Into Literacy, and a variety of classic and popular paperbacks and audiobooks from Saddleback Educational Publishing. The decision to separate these materials from the regular collection was not an easy one, in light of our desire to make the library an inclusive environment, but it was a good one in terms of marketing, accessibility, and the preservation of materials. The Special Needs Collection, in addition to our already existing Braille Collection, is much appreciated by teachers in a time of school budget cuts and increasing book prices. There is also an adult with cerebral palsy who never learned to read who now enjoys the privilege, thanks in part to the hi-low books purchased for Come On In!

The Special Needs Collection sits beside the new technology station in Youth Services, which together create an eye-catching Come On In! focal point. For the adapted computer, we selected an oversized monitor and added IntelliKeys and BigKeys keyboards, a switch, and trackball peripherals. Children now enjoy playing ,i>Shop ‘Til You Drop, Old MacDonald’s Farm, and Switch It! games and also have the opportunity to practice communication skills with programs such as Talking Verbs and Talking Nouns. Boardmaker is also available for parents to use, which has proven helpful to those who wish to make daily picture communication symbol schedules for their children. The addition of the children’s adapted computer to the existing adult computer, with Kurzweil reader, Braille translator/embosser and JAWS software, has helped bridge the computer literacy gap for differently-abled patrons.

Just as kids have different computer needs, we also learned that they have different play needs. The task of selecting toys, games, and manipulatives was the most fun part of shopping for Come On In! While we began school visit programs with merely stories and songs, the visits became even more exciting when switch-activated toys, lightning balls, lock boxes, lacing and construction sets, and a no-mess sandbox were added to the mix. Offering activity bins filled with engaging toys has changed the way parents and teachers interact with their children at the library. Understanding the differences and similarities among children when it comes to play has also changed the way we do programming. Twice a year, we offer a program called Kids Just Want to Have Fun, where children of all abilities are encouraged to come together for stories, games, and crafts. It’s a beautiful thing to see children acting out fairy tales, participating in drum circles, and having pretend snowball fights!

Come On In! has radically changed the way we serve children with disabilities. As a result, twice as many special education classes visit the library on a monthly or weekly basis. Skokie Public Library is the children’s favorite field trip destination –- some students have even been known to cry when they couldn’t come. Families regularly use the adapted computer on weekends, and more children with disabilities are attending programs. We’ve made a lot of headway, but we know there’s still a way to go.

Our Special Needs Advisory Committee is in the process of regrouping and mapping out the future services of Come On In! We hope to add a Lekotek Lending Library and continue annual performances for children and workshops for parents and teachers. This fall, a professionally designed Come On In! brochure will further promote the project. Come On In! has been generously s upported beyond the LSTA grant period by the ASCLA/KLAS/NOD Award and through grants and gifts from Kiwanis, Rotary Club, LoveSac, and individual community members. Thanks to these benefactors, Skokie Public Library truly is a community resource without walls.

For more information about Come On In!, including photographs, a bibliography, and a link to the CBS 2 Chicago special report video by disabilities reporter, Jim Mullen, visit the Come On In! Web page.