Serving Children with Diverse Abilities, a Minnesota Library Blazes a Trail

Summer activities at the Dakota County Library will include a sensory-friendly petting zoo and music, American Sign Language initiatives, and programming in the new Calming Space.


The new Calming Space at the Galaxie branch of Dakota County Library.

A Disability Services Grant Yields Programming for Diverse Abilities at a Minnesota Library

This summer, the Dakota County Library will host sensory-friendly petting zoo and music activities, American Sign Language initiatives, and programming in a new sensory calming space.

As the first library in the state to receive the Minnesota Department of Human Services Disability Services Innovations Grant, in April, 2018, the Dakota County (MN) Library (DCL) began offering programs and services specifically tailored to families with diverse abilities. According to youth services manager and 2012 Library Journal Mover & Shaker Renee Grassi, the two-year, $100,000 grant funds events including an American Sign Language celebration, and a series of programs for summer 2019, including musical offerings and a sensory zoo.

“This is a journey for our library,” says Grassi. “With adaptive programming, we are giving families a space to do what works for them.”

Program how-to

Live animal and music-based programming are both popular offerings at public libraries, especially in conjunction with summer reading initiatives. “A lot of these programs are so big, with hundreds of people attending,” says Grassi. “It’s loud and [physically] overwhelming; we wanted to adapt these great experiences for a different audience where everyone, regardless of ability, is welcome.” These activities cast aside some traditional expectations, such as young patrons sitting still and listening for extended periods of time.

Grassi uses three key strategies while planning these events:

● Require advanced registration in order to maintain smaller groups of 30 people per program.

● Plan two times of the same event, which allows families to choose one that works best for them.

● Use specific marketing language to let families know that these programs are designed for inclusivity. For example, a Sensory-Friendly Congo Music, presented by Congolese musician and teaching artist Siama Matuzungidi and his performance partner, Dallas Johnson, has a roving-type format, with kids and their families singing and playing along with percussion instruments. The program description includes the following verbiage: “Listen to singing, guitar, thumb piano, and more in a program that welcomes people of all abilities including those who have difficulty in large groups, are on the autism spectrum, or are sensitive to sensory overload. Noise-reducing headphones and other sensory supports available.”

This summer, the library’s Sensory Friendly Zoo Animals program, a partnership with the Reptile and Amphibian Discovery Zoo, will be organized into stations “open house” style with animals including frogs, turtles, lizards, snakes, and a small alligator. This movement-based adaptation allows families to set their own pace through the event, which could include spending more time with an animal that is particularly enjoyable to a family or avoiding one that isn’t. Sensory supports will include nose and ear plugs, in case any smells or noises overpower an attendee.

Sensory-friendly music programs are intentionally designed so that “families will be able to interact with the musicians and get a chance to play instruments themselves,” says Grassi. She works closely with presenters to gain mutual understanding of the scope of these adapted programs.

A display related to American Sign Language Programming.

Staff training and a culture shift

“We want to increase staff awareness regarding the needs of this community, and be intentionally welcoming,” Grassi says. “When the grant is finished, we will see a cultural shift and increased capacity for service across all levels of our organization.”

In addition to providing programming funds, the DHS grant supports staff training, such as bringing American Sign Language trainers to the library’s staff day. “We had almost 200 people move through [this session],” she says, which means staff now has the ability to use basic library-related ASL. The session was presented by a member of the local Deaf community, and staff was able to ask questions about what it’s like to be in a library as a Deaf person. “The more we can provide staff training on breaking down barriers as to what is ‘different’ in our communities, the better,” says Grassi. Now, employees are expressing more interested in learning ASL, and Grassi is investigating the possibility of running an ASL storytime.


In addition to using specific language with buzzwords recognizable by the accessibility community, Grassi leverages the reach of community organizations serving these families to spread the word of DCL’s new offerings. Fraser Minnesota, a 501(c)3 organization serving the autistic community, is a key partner that shares DCL’s inclusive services information. Programs can internally cross-promote as well. The DCL Galaxie branch now has a new calming space just off the children’s area, thanks to a recent renovation. This space is a natural home for inclusive library programs and provides an opportunity to spotlight relevant community organizations.

“These families are so appreciative and excited to be a part of the library when they haven’t felt welcome in the past,” Grassi says. “We are changing expectations in the community of the library. We want to know how we can do better, every day—how can we make an impact. That’s what it’s about.”

April Witteveen is the community librarian at the Deschutes (OR) Public Library.

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