Burlington Public Library creates an accessible space for people with disabilities
The Burlington Public Library takes a step towards inclusivity by becoming one of the first sensory public libraries in Iowa.
“When we started making our library inclusive for the whole community, it all started from scratch,” said Allison Richert, Youth Services Library Assistant.
The initiative is based on four specific dimensions: physical space, programming and sensory activity, circulation of materials and staff training.
Richert is a former paraeducator who worked both in a mainstream setting helping children with disabilities who could stay in the regular classroom and children in special education classes. She said parents might be hesitant to take their autistic child somewhere that might not be sensory.
Her hope is that by offering more sensory events, word will spread that the library is making all of its events open to all children.
Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means that a number of different levels of functioning are affected and two people with autism can have very different symptoms.
For example, some people with autism may be sensitive to sound, requiring the use of headphones, while another person may be less sensitive to physical sensations, for which a weighted blanket may be helpful.
As part of its project, the library consulted with parents and educators working with the Great Prairie Area Education Agency to find out what works and what doesn’t. In some cases, Richert said, she would be excited about an idea, but a parent or someone who works with GPAEA explained why it might not be the best option.
Library staff are actively training to be better equipped to help all users, but especially children and adults who may have autism or other disabilities. Richert said the training is part of making the library accessible to everyone.
“There is no final destination,” Richert said. “We are continually looking for ways to serve the whole community.”
A welcoming physical space
Richert hopes that making library events more accessible to people with autism will convince parents to feel comfortable bringing their neurodivergent children to events there.
Part of this plan is to block out some of the fluorescent lighting in the kids’ space with light blockers. The library-controlled blockers, which will have images of clouds, will reduce light enough to decrease sensory stimulation while still leaving enough light for the space to use.
Another step is to create a quiet space in the library. These quiet spaces are used for children and adults with autism – or any other condition that can cause anxiety or sensory overload – to take a break when they feel the need. Sensory overload can cause or exacerbate meltdowns in autistic children.
For now, the Storytime Room is designated as the Quiet Space when not in use for Storytime, but plans are underway to create a permanent space.
Since the plans are preliminary, there is no clear indication of where this space might be located. There was also a discussion about adding a quiet space outside the children’s section so adults with autism have a place to take a break without needing to go to the children’s space or to have to ask the library desk to unlock one of the study rooms.
Another consideration is to have a time period where the library is exclusively designed for those with sensory needs in mind.
Provide a channel of communication
An important part of communication for people with non-verbal autism is finding another way to communicate. Richert says he saw it when she was a paraeducator. Children with autism may find it helpful to have a grid or board with words on it, which allows them to communicate by pointing to words.
Richert sees two options to achieve this: either hang a communication board or designate a space for communication technology.
The library has smaller boards that can be browsed, but the goal is to have more options, including potentially a large board hanging on the wall with velcro for the words.
At one time, the library had tablets with words on them that allowed children with autism to communicate. That space has since been reallocated, but the technology could come back into play.
Programming for children with autism and sensory disorders
The library will also strive to have both autism-specific programming and to make all activities autism-friendly. In discussions with parents, the library learned that some parents like to have activities just for children with autism.
Richert said part of that effort will be making sure parents know it’s okay if their child is having a sensory crisis.
Instead of making parents feel like meltdowns are something they’re ashamed of, the goal is to let parents know that their kids won’t be told to leave if they have a meltdown.
Expand to more inclusive collections
For some people with autism, a series of repetitive movements or noises called stimming can be helpful.
According to Car Autism Roadmap, part of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, stimulation is a way for some people with autism to deal with overstimulating environments, regulate their emotions, or stay focused.
Many toys and other items in the library were already sensory, but the library has spent money investing in different types of stimulating toys for children to view and use in the library. However, what the library lacks are toys that can be taken home. The hope is that the library will be able to raise funds to purchase more sensory and stimulating toys to enable the purchase of more items that can be taken home and used.
According to Iowa City Autism Community, the purpose of sensory kits is to allow people with autism to experience different types of stimulating toys so that they or their parents can purchase these toys.
The library only has a few sets of stimulation kits and stimulation toys, all of which are intended for use only in the library. There is a hope that grants and donations will buy more kits, thus having them on hand.
Increase accessibility and representation
An additional goal of the library is to add Braille to books for young children. The raised bumps would be placed on the page and could be used to help blind children learn to read the stories as a sighted child would.
Not so long ago, the library was working on a collection audit to identify what kind of diversity is needed.
By doing this study, the library learned what kinds of books should be ordered for the children’s section. A big part of that is buying books whose main characters come from marginalized communities.
Richert said that in the past, these characters have often been pushed into the role of supporting characters whose personality is predominated by their identity.
However, in some of the more recent books, these characters are brought to the fore. Their stories incorporate their identities as part of the story, but their personality isn’t just about one of their identities.
An example that Richert showed is the book “Dancing with Daddy” by Anitra Rowe Schulte. In the book, the main character recounts his daily life as a wheelchair user, including going to a father-daughter dance.
“A book about a black child and his experiences is not just for black children,” Richert said. “It’s just as important for white kids to read it. Books about kids with autism are just as important for kids who don’t have autism.”