By Natalie Romano
Last fall, I was approached by a teacher at Asbury Elementary, a public, K-5 school in my library’s service area, about bringing library resources into his special education classroom. As someone with almost no training in special education, forming this partnership has given me a greater awareness of how to best meet the needs of children who experience disabilities, both in the context of school outreach as well as in a traditional public library setting. I’m inspired to gather and share resources with my colleagues on how to effectively reach and serve children who experience a range of developmental, emotional, and physical disabilities, and how quality intersectional literature can aid educators and caregivers in understanding complex identities.
Enacted in 1975, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) establishes the provision of a free and appropriate public school education for eligible students ages 3–21. According to the the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 13 percent of public school students received special education services in the 2015-2016 school year (2018). Given the significant number of students receiving special education services in our public schools, now is a critical time for both school and public librarians to evaluate how we can better serve this population in every context. More importantly, now is a critical time to examine intersectionality and its role in the perception and portrayal of minority and traditionally underrepresented groups of children who also experience a range of disabilities.
Intersectionality and Literature
Librarians and educators know the importance of children seeing themselves in the books they read. In their recent paper delivered at the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), Pun and Nguyen (2018) name several excellent examples of intersectional children’s literature, each of which recognizes the multifaceted experiences and status identifiers of children living with disabilities in different ways. Their choices for exceptional intersectional children’s books include Featherless/Desplumado (Herrera and Cuevas Jr., 2004), Granny Torrelli Makes Soup (Creech, 2003), A Fish in a Tree (Hunt, 2017) and El Deafo (Bell, 2004). How can we share and promote materials that present a positive visual representation of ability diversity and its intersectionality with other status identifiers? Sharing these resources with classroom teachers, as well as parents and caregivers in public library communities, is a powerful way to advocate for these students.
Asbury Elementary’s Multi-Intensive (special education) enrollment represents approximately 13% of the school’s overall population and is comprised of two classroom teachers and several paraprofessional staff who support the classrooms’ dynamic needs. The students in this program are living with a range of disabilities and represent a variety of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds and status identifiers. Our partnership is still relatively young: There is still a lot of time to explore more opportunities for growth and exploration as the students’ needs change. In creating this new relationship between my branch and Asbury, I’ve identified a few key questions that others might consider as they approach a potential partnership of their own:
- What are the specific disabilities experienced by children in this classroom? Identify, assess, and understand the specific disabilities experienced by each child. How can I meet their needs and foster positive relationships within this school community?
- What role will I play in our partnership? Initially, my role was to observe and follow the lead of the special education teacher. Over time, as I have become more confident in serving this classroom, my role has become a more proactive one. Short classroom visits will hopefully grow into longer visits and, ideally, a field trip to our branch library.
- How can I make this partnership consistent and sustainable? As with any public-school library collaboration, consistency and sustainability are critical to any partnership’s success. Setting goals and evaluating progress on a regular basis are important elements of any successful program.
- What are the implications for public library programming? Think about how an outreach partnership can inspire an on-site public library program, such as those offered by library systems leading the way in the area of disability services and outreach.
National Center for Education Statistics. April 2018. Children and Youth with Disabilities. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cgg.asp.
Pun, R. and L.T. Nguyen. 2018. Disabilities Represented in American Children’s Books Today: Case Studies and Lessons to Learn to Promote Library Outreach Services for Children with Special Needs. Retrieved from http://library.ifla.org/2330/1/s06-2018-pun-en.pdf.
Natalie Romano is a librarian at Denver Public Library (CO) where she coordinates programs for children and teens. She has been a member of the AASL/ALSC/YALSA Joint Committee on School/Public Library Cooperation since 2017. She holds an MLIS from the University of Denver (2011.)