Whether you know the teens that frequent your library or not, disabilities can be hard to see. If you’re lucky, teens and their parents may be open about disabilities and how you can help them get the most out of their library experience. And if you’re not lucky, well, sometimes you'll deal with behaviors or unsatisfying encounters that make you wonder if you helped the patron at all. Thankfully, making your summer reading activities seem inviting to teens with disabilities is easy to do. With just a few tweaks to what you already have in place, your program can be inclusive! This way, it doesn’t matter if you know what disabilities you’re dealing with, or if you’re just taking a wild guess. Check out these tips, and share your ideas and notes on what works and what doesn’t in the comments.
- Have a visual sign-in sheet.
Hang a poster in a prominent place that shows teens what to do to sign up for summer reading. List the steps in simple terms, like: wait for the librarian; sign your name; pick your challenge. Have visual aids printed next to each step, like a photo of the librarian in charge of summer reading and a pencil signing on the line. Make a similar poster to show how to log weekly progress. This will help teens with disabilities be independent when they come to the library to participate, rather than feeling like they always have to ask for help.
- Divide tasks by reading challenge rather than by age.
Instead of having elementary aged kids sign up for a certain challenge, and having teens sign up for another, let everyone pick their own challenge. Read three books a week, read for an hour a week, listen to two audiobooks a week— the possibilities are endless! This empowers teens with disabilities to challenge themselves on their levels, and also shows other patrons that reading can take on a variety of appearances!
- Expand your program to be a learning challenge.
Instead of a straightforward summer reading program, some libraries are hosting summer learning challenges by partnering with city attractions to promote learning and interaction all summer. Some learning challenges have a theme, like Explore & Roar at Chicago Public Library focusing on animals and the environment. Reading is still important, and patrons can read anything they want, but there is also an aspect of taking that knowledge and discovering things in the city’s museums, zoos, and historical sites. The City of Memphis offers free days to many city attractions to encourage involvement with the summer library program Explore Memphis. All of these experiences can tie back in with Makerspace programs at the library or other community centers.
- Collaborate with the school system.
Reach out to the school system, especially the special education department, and find out what books are required reading for the upcoming school year. Make sure your library has plenty of copies available, and ask how you can make this reading easier on students with disabilities. The library could host a book club meeting during summer reading to talk about one of the required texts, or plan a program based on a book or elements from the story. Reading the book in advance and being able to talk about it with others or relate to it in another way could help teens with disabilities stay on track in the upcoming school year.
- Make your program known.
After your library collaborates with the school system, make sure promotional materials are handed out to students before the school year ends. Make it clear that everyone is welcome to participate in summer reading so the special education teachers and students know they should join in! Also consider sending promotional materials to summer camps for teens with disabilities, therapy centers, and intramural teams, as well as any day centers for people with disabilities in your area.
- Encourage teen volunteers.
When teens are signing up for summer reading, ask if they’d like to volunteer to help with any aspect of the program. (This goes for teens with or without disabilities!) Teens can help their peers sign in or update their progress. Teens with disabilities might not want to be in the spotlight, so they can work behind the scenes, helping set up for programs or cleaning up after parties.
- Work in small groups.
A lot of Makerspace activities are individualized, but can easily be adapted to work in small groups. A teen with disabilities who might not be able to make something on their own can be part of a team and still participate. Break the activity into steps where the team has to plan their project before they build it, and then can present it to the entire group. Circulate often so you can offer help to everyone, without seeming to focus on the teens with disabilities, while making sure they know you’re available if they need you, and that it’s ok to get help. Check out YALSA’s Maker & DIY Programs for ideas.
- Eliminate distractions.
Let’s be honest, it’s easy to get distracted regardless of your age or attention span! Depending on their disabilities, some teens may get more distracted than others, and some distractions can quickly lead to disruptive behaviors. Teens with autism might not be able to focus on spoken words if there is also music playing, even if others just consider it background music. It can also be distracting to hand out too many items at the same time, or give instructions all at once. Start by talking slowly and outlining what’s going to happen at the event; it’s helpful to make visual charts, as mentioned in the first tip! This way teens know what’s going on and in what order, and can look back to it often, without interrupting the program flow.
- Schedule breaks.
Even if the program doesn’t seem long, taking a few short breaks will help everyone stay focused. Put these on the schedule so attendees will know they when they can go to the bathroom or grab a drink without having to interrupt the program. These breaks can also give teens with disabilities time to process what they’ve done and prepare for what’s coming next. It’s also a good time for you to check in with them and make sure everything’s ok, and see if anything can be done to help them engage more easily.
- Roll with the punches.
We know that nothing ever goes according to plan, but when you’re including teens with disabilities, things could get derailed easily. Instead of throwing away your whole schedule, make sure you have substitutes for each part of the program, and even changes you can make individually for the teen who needs a little help. If the music is too distracting, turn it off, even if it means scrapping a part of the event that involved dancing. If the art supplies are too messy, have some alternatives (or even gloves!) so all teens can be involved in the program in their own way. It can be a bit tricky when you’re adapting a specific activity for teens with disabilities: you don’t want to seem like a pushover, but you do want to be accommodating and helpful. For more information on this balance, check out YALSA’s resources on Serving Disabled Teens.