Teens strive for independence, branching out to explore new interests and behaviors. They depend on their friends for support and feedback, leaving their parents in the dark about what they’re doing, thinking, and feeling.

Teens with disabilities often don’t have the same opportunities to test their independence. They might depend on their parents or caregivers for help getting around or being understood. Their parents might prefer to stay close, in case their teen has a behavior or needs special medical attention. “Inclusion and integration of children with special needs is based upon a strong collaboration between the parent and the librarian” (Feinberg et al. 20-21). Parents know their children best, and librarians can watch that interaction to learn how to effectively work with teens with disabilities in the library.

As a librarian, you can offer inclusive programming that welcomes all teens, with or without disabilities—and also includes parents! By encouraging family fun, you’re getting families to explore and enjoy the library together, regardless of ability level. You’ll also be giving teens with disabilities a place to let loose and be themselves around peers, but to still have their parents close by without looking childish to others.

One tried-and-true program idea is Family Fun Movie Night. Invite everyone to the library to watch a family-rated movie together. When it’s over, take suggestions and vote for the next Movie Night selection to encourage participation and involvement.

Family Book Clubs. A few options for family book clubs gives you flexibility to see what works best for your library’s patrons.

– Teen book clubs that meet at the same time as adult book clubs. This way, teens are in the library with their parents, but can be at a different table or in a different room. Both book clubs will have the freedom to choose titles that interest them from age-appropriate selections.

– Joint book clubs for families where everyone reads the same book. This will bring many different points of view to the discussion. Reading classics or required books for school might help teens with disabilities keep up with their classes, but check with your school system first to see if this would be allowed.

– Joint book clubs for families where different versions of the same book are read. For example, teens could read the graphic novel Animal Farm by Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham, while adults read the classic by George Orwell. In this case you could also show the movie and the book club meeting could compare and contrast all three versions of the story! You can relax the parameters so that “different versions” include spin-offs of books or retellings of classic stories.

Family Game Nights. Game nights can be just as flexible as the book clubs. Set up tables for board games and a room for video games, and families can rotate around to what catches their attention. Encourage partnerships and teams where parents work with their teens for some games, then play against their teens for others.

Family Makerspace Competitions. Host maker events where teens work with their parents to design the tallest—and sturdiest—building or create the fastest car! Mix it up with the next activity by having teens work against their parents! Find great maker resources here.

Make sure that any program your library hosts can be made inclusive by adapting physical access, crafts, snacks, and instructions for teens with disabilities. Remember that it’s okay to ask the parents or caregivers when you have a question about a teen’s disability, but above all, address the teen directly whenever possible. They’ll let you know how to help them have fun!

Explore this issue further by finding and sharing resources on YALSA’s wiki to support your efforts in serving teens with disabilities.

Works Cited

Feinberg, Sandra, Barbara Jordan, Kathleen Deerr, and Michelle Langa. Including Families of Children with Special Needs. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc., 1999. Print.

About Allison Renner

Allison recently graduated with her MLS and is a new teen services librarian in Memphis, Tennessee.

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