A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Welcoming Patrons with Developmental Disabilities

by on May 14, 2014

Does your library receive regular visits from adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities? Often, community-based groups of adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities from organizations, such as The ARC,along with their program staff, visit public libraries to find respite and retreat.  The “Library Insiders” programs at Contra Costa County (California) Libraries provide Insider experiences–monthly programs that welcome and encourage full participation and use of the public library.

Eva, and the group with which she visits, have been Library Insiders since 2008. Eva and her friends feel confident using the library because they have been welcomed with inclusive, fun, and educational monthly programs. Navigating the library boldly, Eva uses self-service machines, explores the collection, and self-assuredly asks questions at the Information Desk. It wasn’t always like this. For years, Eva and other adults in the group who visited the library, flew under the radar, kept to themselves, and rarely explored beyond their comfort zones; some fell asleep from boredom. They simply did not feel welcome or included enough to explore on their own. It took a planned effort by library staff to reach members of the group, inviting them to participate and training them to use the library.

Today, Library Insiders enjoy logging onto public computers, participating in Wii tournaments, and attending monthly programs. Participating in Adult Summer Reading, they join with others in the community, reading and completing activity logs. They not only participate in library activities that provide lifelong learning, but they also attain life skills such as borrowing, using, and returning materials, and managing a library account—essential skills that can be utilized in any public library setting.

With the trend toward independence and the fall of institutionalism, public libraries have quite naturally become the destination of choice for people in community groups who rely on public spaces to meet, learn, and explore their community. Approximately 7– 8 million people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) live in the United States, and the number of those living within our communities has grown. It was the intent of President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to bring adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities “out of the shadows.”[1]  Over the past 45 years, the number of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who were institutionalized dropped from 187,000 to 34,000.[2] As a result, adults with I/DD live, and have new opportunities to participate in the community. The majority of these adults live with family members, and others in out-of-home residences. Library Insiders programs expand learning opportunities in the positive and welcoming environment of the community library.

People with I/DD meet in public libraries every day. Library Insiders programs have grown beyond Contra Costa County Library, California to several locations out of state. It’s amazing what a personalized library tour, scavenger hunt or staff introductions can do to start positive interactions and add to the overall library experience for visitors and staff. Any number of additional monthly Insider programs can be presented, based on feedback from Library Insiders like Eva, who are eager to share their ideas. The majority of people with I/DD gain their education through public schools and want to continue to join opportunities for life-long learning.

Public librarians are in the position to provide those essential lifelong learning opportunities for adults with I/DD who visit our libraries every day with a message of inclusion and acceptance. Thousands of people like Eva visit public libraries with a community-based group every day. Let’s welcome them inside.

“Thank you for inviting us inside”– A note from Eva to library staff.

1. http://www.jfklibrary.org/JFK/JFK-in-History/JFK-and-People-with-Intellectual-Disabilities.aspx
2. The ARC. Still in the Shadows with Their Future Uncertain: A Report on Family and Individual Needs for Disability Supports (FINDS), 2011.p. 2.