April 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Talking Shop About Special Needs and Inclusive Services | 2015 ALA Midwinter

Children's librarian Ashley Waring.

Children’s librarian Ashley Waring.

In the past two years of attending American Library Association (ALA) conferences, I’ve had the pleasure to meet many librarians who, like myself, have an interest in programs and services for children with special needs. At ALA Midwinter in Chicago, I wanted to meet with them again but also open the conversation up to anyone who may be interested in programs and services serving this population. So I booked the Networking Uncommons for an hour on January 31. What consists of an area with temporary walls surrounding it and a pod of tables, chairs, and basic AV equipment, the Networking Uncommons can be informally or formally used by ALA conference attendees. At previous conferences, I’ve enjoyed using the Uncommons as a place to take a break and charge my phone or attend Guerrilla Storytime sessions. This time around, I shared my experiences and ideas—and crowdsourced from others.


No label is perfect

My Uncommons meetup attracted about 15 people, ranging from those who are already doing a lot of work with special needs families in their communities, to library staff who are just starting out or curious. One of the topics we discussed was actually whether or not “special needs” is a phrase we, or our communities, want to use. No label is perfect, because all labels are limiting. But there is a need to use labels when we are trying to reach and serve specific community members. Aside from special needs, alternative phrases discussed were: children with disabilities or differently abled. Of course, if you are targeting a very specific audience, you can simply use the medical term associated with it—for example, “children with autism spectrum disorders.”

How do you measure success?

Another fruitful discussion was about success. How do you define and measure a successful program or service for families with children with disabilities? Those at the meetup who have been doing programs for a long time agreed that success with this population simply cannot be measured by attendance numbers alone. If you are drawing a family into the library that has never been there before, then even if they come only once, you have done your job by making them aware of what the library can offer. This is an area of service where anecdotes are as important as statistics. If you get positive feedback from a parent, write it down! I use a survey at my sensory storytimes which has resulted in some great quotes and useful data.

Special needs programming

Aside from sensory storytimes, some libraries are offering inclusive programs like sensory-friendly family film viewing, LEGO building clubs, and therapy dog programs. We discussed the question of registering versus dropping in for these programs. Drop-in programs can be useful, because these families are very busy, and often the health and temperament of the children vary from day to day due to a wide variety of factors. Drop-in programs allow families to wait and see if a program will work for their child on a particular day.

A few librarians at the session shared that they ask for families to register, but that registration does not require attendance, and drop ins are also welcome. These librarians use the registration process as an opportunity to gather contact information, explain the program, and ask questions about the child(ren): Are there any strong likes or dislikes I should know about? What can I do to help make this visit successful?


For librarians just starting out, we recommended they check out the “Special Needs Awareness” category at the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) blog where they’ll find over 80 posts filled with instructions, ideas, and links. We also discussed the importance of making connections with your local Special Education Department or Early Intervention Office. These local experts can help you design, market, or even run a program.


Regardless of what type of program you offer, or how often it occurs, we all agreed that the families you will be reaching will be grateful and engaged. Parents of children with disabilities are used to being highly involved in everything their child does; they will often actively participate in the program with their child. Many are also practiced advocates and networkers who will share their positive library experiences with their community. Making connections with parents helps you learn about what your community wants and market what you are offering.

Providing welcoming and inclusive programs and services is professionally and personally fulfilling work, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to learn from peers at conferences. Through this networking I can continue to improve what my library offers to our community. I’m already looking forward to another Uncommons meetup at ALA in San Francisco this summer!

Ashley Waring is a children’s librarian at the Reading Public Library in Reading, MA. In addition to her Sensory Storytimes, she enjoys doing baby lapsits, and technology programs with older kids.




  1. Hi Ashley,
    I just wanted to invite you to check DCMP program at http://www.dcmp.org
    They are a wonderful resource of accessible media. I am sure you will find ways to collaborate.
    Thanks on behalf of childre with disabilities for your interest, support and hard work.