Making Room for Inclusion

Create an accommodating environment when sensory programs may not be possible

January 2, 2020

Youth Matters by Tricia Bohanon

For a decade, I have led sensory storytime programs at libraries in North Carolina and Ohio and trained many staffers across the country in this specialized service. But one theme recurs: Attendance at these programs is hit or miss.

Despite interest from the communities I have served, numbers have been consistently low—usually one to two families attend the monthly program. Recently, Akron–Summit County (Ohio) Public Library, where I work, made the decision to discontinue these storytimes.

When sensory programming may not be feasible—whether because of low attendance, inadequate staffing, or lack of administrative support—we may take steps in all programming to create a welcoming environment for those with different abilities. In doing so, we are practicing inclusion despite an absence of dedicated programs for these families.

The first step, I tell staffers, is simply to be aware of and respond to differently abled individuals. At storytime, that may mean not insisting everyone sit down during reading or stand up during dancing, instead allowing individuals to take in the event however they choose. It may also require recognizing that some participants do not return eye contact or give verbal responses or cues, as some peers might in the same situation. It’s critical to respect these differences and understand that individuals absorb information in a variety of ways.

We can practice inclusion despite an absence of programs for differently abled individuals.

We can also take measures to ensure that our programming meets a variety of needs. Using a visual schedule board helps participants know what is happening next, reducing anxiety and providing comfort as they see which activities are upcoming and how long the program will last. Making efforts to reduce distractions in the programming room can improve focus, as can offering adaptive seating—sitting wedges, Educube chairs, or at minimum, an area defined by carpet squares. Reading a book while sharing the story on a flannel board, or doing a second reading to repeat the story, can enrich the literacy experience.

Another way to be more inclusive is to relax programming age restrictions to “family” or “all ages” so that individuals who are developmentally outside their physical age can attend and enjoy. Also consider limiting registration numbers. Having smaller, more manageable program sizes welcomes those for whom a large number of noisy, active participants would be overwhelming.

Many of us may already incorporate motor-skills exercises in programs via hands-on activities with objects such as beanbags, felt pieces, scarves, and stick props. Additionally, try using sensory integration equipment such as a tactile balance beam, sensory stepping stones, sensory beanbags, TheraBands, and textured balls. Other sensory-friendly items that may provide accommodations include weighted snakes and blankets, fidget toys, or noise-dampening headphones. Adaptive technology, such as the speech-generating device BIGmack, can allow a nonverbal person to participate.

Adding a social period or playtime directly after your program has value for all involved. This time allows parents to connect with one another, children to practice their social skills, and staffers to act as a resource for families and put a friendly face on the library.

Finally, marketing and networking are important parts of assuring the families we are trying to attract that we are working to create an inclusive atmosphere. Libraries have been historically viewed as quiet places, so let your users know that attitudes have changed and that stigma is not representative of today’s libraries. The responsibility falls on us to show our community that all abilities are welcome and served and that we are proactively adding elements to foster an easy and pleasant experience for everyone who enters our doors.

Adapted from “Bringing Elements of Sensory Programming into All Programs” (ALSC Blog, Oct. 2, 2019).


Librarian Carrie Rogers-Whitehead (pictured) created Salt Lake County (Utah) Library’s sensory storytimes with special activities to engage kids on the autism spectrum.

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A Louisville (Ohio) Public Library patron uses an LED softie, a large beanbag cushion with an integrated light source and fiber optics, that produces a calming effect. (Photo: Michael Damron)

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