Everyone Can Be at Home at EPL
Part of the mission of the Evanston Public Library is “to serve as a third place for the Evanston community”—an environment other than home, school, or work where Evanston residents can spend time.
“Our gentle, open librarians create a welcoming environment for all people,” said Head of Children’s Services Jan Bojda. In order to best serve patrons with disabilities, the library works with community organizations to employ neuroatypical residents and helps connect parents of children in the community with disabilities. The Library strives to provide inclusive programs for all and to make library infrastructure more accessible.
Storytimes and Legos for Students with Special Needs
Since 2006, Children’s Librarian Assistant Martha Meyer has been collaborating with Park School, District 65’s self-contained special education school, to create programs at the library that are engaging for its students. She runs monthly storytimes from September to June. The program appeals to students of all ages; Park School serves Evanston Township High School District 202 as well as District 65.
“The kids like it if the teachers are enjoying themselves,” Meyer said. She’s found that taking longer stories and putting huge expression into them helps the students become more engaged. Meyer said this storytime is her favorite because it is the most fun and is a great opportunity for the attendees to interact with different members of the Evanston community.
Children’s Outreach Librarian Laura Antolin set up Lego groups at the library for children with special needs in November of 2015 and 2016, and she hopes to hold the group quarterly in 2017. To facilitate, she brought in Beth Weis from Brickology, a certified Lego professional.
Weis and Antolin’s Lego program is open to all who would benefit from an environment that is friendly to all abilities. The Lego groups are a tactile experience for independent or collaborative play. Antolin finds the groups especially valuable because the children are engaged with what they are doing, giving the parents an opportunity to connect with one another.
In 2015 and 2016, the Library held special needs service fairs, and there are plans to develop new programming around these issues in the upcoming year. The service fairs aimed to bring together the parents of children with special needs with clinicians and service organizations that provide services for special needs families. Among those participating in 2016 were the Dyslexia Buddy Network, Cherry Preschool, Moran Center, the Institute for Therapy through the Arts, Wee Speech, and Evanston/Skokie School District 65.
Jill Skwerski, EPL’s Community Engagement Librarian, worked with Katie Smith, the parent liaison for the District 65 Special Needs Parent Group, to set up the service fairs. Smith also works for the Citizens for Appropriate Special Education (CASE) in the development and outreach department. Skwerski has worked with Smith in presenting library programs such as “How to Advocate for Your Special Needs Child at School” and “Dyslexia: Evaluation, Best Practices, Advocacy Strategies and the Law.” Smith and Skwerski are collaborating on future programs that focus on the transition from school to the workplace for people with disabilities.
Every other Friday, Park School brings students who are older than 18 to the Teen Loft to do crafts, play video games, browse the collections, and use the computers.
Head of Teens Services Renee Neumeier said, “It’s a great outing for them, and they get to experience the library as a safe, fun hangout space, not just a school space.”
Special Needs Volunteers
According to Volunteer Coordinator Mary Kling, some of the library’s longest-serving volunteers are young adults with special needs. She works with the Have Dreams program, an Evanston-based nonprofit serving children, teens, and young adults who are on the autism spectrum. Currently there are five volunteers affiliated with this group who visit the library. Each week, they come with job coaches and shelve books in the Loft, as well as deliver books to the library’s free book sites.
“Because these volunteers work best with routines and schedules, they are extremely dependable,” said Kling.
EPL also partners with Options for College Success, an Evanston-based organization for young adults with special needs who are seeking work experience. Options for College Success sends six volunteers who work in circulation.
Other helpful volunteers come to the Library from the Transition House at ETHS. The Transition program provides young adults ages 18 to 22 with moderate to severe disabilities, an opportunity to meet their integrated education plan (IEP) transition goals in a community setting. The program empowers participants through independent skill development and participation in vocational, social, recreational, and daily living activities. Students in the transition program can work with staff members at the library to gain work experience.
Library Resources for Those with Special Needs
Beyond organized programs, the library also features resources for adults and children with special needs. On the third floor, there is a computer workstation that adjusts for wheelchairs and has large-type display capability. It can run the software ZoomText, a screen magnifier. An accessible keyboard is available on request. According to Lesley Williams, Head of Adult Services, demand for the library’s accessible station has decreased as more patrons have begun to bring their own tablets or laptops, which can be adjusted to their personal needs. However, some users continue to request the station regularly.
The Library of Congress Talking Books program was once an essential service for library patrons with low vision, but now, thanks to the increased availability of e-books and digital audio books, there is less demand for the Talking Books Service.
The Library also offers the Books on Wheels program, a volunteer-run book delivery service for Evanston residents who can’t easily come to the library, whether due to permanent disability or a temporary condition.
Williams said the librarians are planning to start a book discussion group for adults with cognitive delays in conjunction with the local organization Center for Independent Futures, a non-profit dedicated to helping individuals with disabilities live full and more independent lives. Co-leaders from EPL and CIF will work with Next Chapter Book Club, a national program that helps people organize reading groups for people with special needs, including adults with Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, and other intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“We try to address each person as an individual, not as part of a group,” said Williams. “Our goal is that anybody coming through the doors gets what he or she needs. We try to make things more accessible for them, no matter what they need. We recognize that all people want to contribute and be useful.”