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Heard on The LDA Podcast

We talk to Carrie Banks, a supervising librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library, about the Inclusive Services Program, community-building opportunities at the library, and their universal design for learning approach. Carrie, who was once told they couldn’t become a librarian because of their dyslexia and dysgraphia, shares how they’re working to make sure the library is a place that kids with LD can find success. 

Read the Transcript:

Lauren Clouser, Host

Welcome to the LDA podcast. a series by the Learning Disabilities Association of America. Our podcast is dedicated to exploring topics of intro to educators, individuals of learning disabilities, parents and professionals to work towards our goal of creating a more equitable world. Hi, everyone. Welcome to the LDA podcast. I’m here today with Carrie Banks. She’s a supervising librarian with the Brooklyn Public Library. Carrie, thank you so much for being here with us. Thank you for having me. So could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Carrie Banks, Host

Sure. I grew up in Pittsburgh where you’re based, and, When I was sixteen, I was diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia, which explains so much of my life. It was a real relief. But it was a very long time ago, and it was unusual, and people really didn’t know what to do with it from there going forward. And I don’t know why, but I’ve had all kinds of… I grew up with family members with disabilities. And it was just sort of always a part of my life. There’s a saying in the disability community: disability is natural, and that was certainly how I grew up.

But, when I went to library school, I became a children’s librarian because it sort of pulled together all of the interests in different aspects of my life. And then, I worked as a librarian for a while, and then I found this little tiny program in Brooklyn, which I was at the time with the New York Public Library, called the Child’s Place for Special Needs. And it was basically a preschool program for children with disabilities. And, I fell in love with the program. And when the job opened up, I applied for it, and went into the interview with a newspaper article about some of the work I’ve done on Staten Island, including starting a deaf story hour and bringing national theater for the deaf to Staten Island, and some other things. And, I said, well, this is my job. So here’s why. That was my interview. and I’ve been here ever since, and that was in 1997, and I’ve really enjoyed it.

Lauren Clouser, Host

That’s fantastic. So could you tell us a little bit more about the Inclusive Services Program that’s going on at the Brooklyn Public Library?

Carrie Banks

Yes. Brooklyn Public Library. We have 3 of them in New York City. Well, we have 3 library systems in New York City. Brooklyn Public Library has over sixty locations in Brooklyn.

Lauren Clouser, Host

Gotcha.

Carrie Banks:

So that little small program, Child’s Place for Children with Special Needs is now Inclusive Services. We have a sort of center at one of our branches and now 5 satellite sites. And we do inclusive programming. So all of our programs are designed to meet the needs of children and youth with disabilities, but they are all open to children with a regard to disabilities. We use disabilities very consciously. Too many of the euphemisms go in and out of favor. They’re sometimes…many of the ones I grew up with or even used early in my career are now offensive, like special needs.

And I find in talking to adults with disabilities that that’s what they use. That’s what they want to use. So we go with disabilities. So the programs are designed to meet the needs of children with disabilities, but it’s open to everybody. For so many reasons, but it kind of goes like this.

We have a program called Read and Play, and that’s for babies. For birth to age five. And I sell it to funders sometimes as a job readiness program. The thing is I got my first job because my best friend’s mother’s cousin was opening up a frozen yogurt store, and she needed somebody to work at that yogurt store. And she knew I was looking for a job, so she connected us, right? So it was through those friendships and neighborhood that I got my first job. Kids with disabilities, particularly in a large city like New York, don’t always have the opportunity to make those connections. They tend to go, you know, they go to their specialized school. They go to special services. They go to after-school therapies. And at that point, everybody’s exhausted.

So we need…I wanted to create, and we have created, neighborhood programs where kids can just come together and be kids together and get to know each other. And that leads to those sort of connections, with the community as opposed to the isolation that’s sometimes seen. So that’s why it’s a job program for five-year-olds. And we do programs for children and youth from birth up to age twenty-two when they age out of the school system. And then we have some things for those young adults too, all along that same model.

From those early story time programs to makerspace programs, which I think are really, really important, particularly for people like me with learning disabilities who sometimes are hands-on learners, so we wanna provide that opportunity. We’ve done sewing programs, We did dissection programs. We dissected squids and we had a virtual option for kids who had issues with fine and gross motor skills so that they could do it on their iPads and and like that. So we do the makerspace programs. We do adaptive gaming programs. We’ve done sensory-friendly movie nights. We do sensory-friendly concerts, 4 or 5 times a year. We work with schools, self contained classrooms, as well as inclusive classrooms, but really mostly the self contained classrooms because they don’t have the same opportunities, again, in the community that some of those inclusive classrooms have.

And we have internship programs for young adults with their disabilities. We’ve had lots of interns with learning disabilities, we’ve had lots of interns with ADHD and also autistic interns, interns who use wheelchairs, and these are, again, young adults who are building up their resumes in the way that, typically developing young adults, it sort of comes naturally. But there aren’t nearly as many options for young adults with disabilities like that.

Lauren Clouser, Host:

I really like how it starts with a community that a lot of times individuals with disabilities don’t necessarily have the opportunity…

Carrie Banks:

That’s what’s important to all, you know, that’s in the long run, that’s what gives us joy and pleasure in life. Having friends is the strongest predictor of longevity. And if you’re not doing that when you’re young, it’s harder to do as adults.

Lauren Clouser:

Definitely. Well, and has your experience with dyslexia and dysgraphia impacted the way that you approach the Inclusive Services program?

Carrie Banks:

Absolutely. Yeah. From day 1, I was in library school, I didn’t want to take 2 cataloging classes that were required at the time. Now you only have to take 1. I didn’t want to take the 2 of them at the same time because I knew they were going to be difficult for me. And I went to the head of the department, the head of the department was out that week. And the person who had to sign off on my course selection was the assistant or interim head, and I told her, and she said, ‘Well, you can’t. You have to take those 2 in the same semester.’

And I said, Well, this is why. And she said, Oh, well, you just can’t be a librarian because you can’t have learning disabilities and be a librarian. Anyway, I had to make a big stink. This was before the Americans With Disabilities Act was fully being enforced. It was in the late eighties. So, you know, I had to make a big stink and whatever else, and of course I graduated. And, I did pretty well. I got, like, 4th or 3rd in my class, so I sent her my transcripts, and I have never, never donated to that school because of that.

But what that did in that very early stage was show me not only the stereotypes and the bias, which I knew was out there, but also the fact that at every level, people saw libraries and people with learning disabilities are just polar opposites. So now I’m proud to go around and say, I’m probably the only librarian you know that will admit to not reading or writing well. And I only mostly read audiobooks, and since I came here, I’ve made sure that audiobooks are available for use here, as well as things like large print books, which are not traditionally considered for the young, but you know, for those teens with learning disabilities, sometimes it works well for them.

We were the first department to really have graphic novels in a big way and graphic formats. And that was for the same reason. This visual supports can be useful to some people with dyslexia. So it’s really informed almost everything I’ve done here, not consciously, though, not like I think about, oh, what would work for me? Because we’re also here looking at all types of disabilities. So, yeah, it informs just about everything I did.

I’m really good at working a crowd in a way that sometimes librarians aren’t. And I’d always think back to, you know, being the class clown in school, And the sort of research out there about people with learning disabilities, that’s a way to compensate. That’s a skill that we develop because we struggle with the other ones. I mentioned I’m an audiobook reader. I’m a ferocious reader, and I always have been. I’m also a writer. I have 3 published books, lots of articles, and I’m working on my 4th book right now. So I’m the writer who can’t write and the reader who can’t read.

Lauren Clouser, Host:

Right, that’s awesome. Just it goes to show. You know, there’s not necessarily limits.

Carrie Banks:

There aren’t. but there are supports in the community and supports from schools and I’m technology dependent.

Lauren Clouser, Host:

Yeah. Well and to talk a little bit more about those supports, what are some of those services that public libraries can offer that can be helpful to somebody with a learning disability?

Carrie Banks:

I think the first thing is it’s not a service. It’s a way of looking at everything that we do, and we need to be looking through universal design and a universal design for learning lens. We have, traditionally, like the rest of the world, designed our programs for the 60% of people who sort of function typically in the way that we expect them to function. Whatever that means. And the other 40% are left out.

The statistics vary, but between 12-21% of people have a learning disability. For children with all types of disabilities, we think 1 in 5, and over the lifetime we know it’ll be 1 in 4 people. So what does it mean to not design for those people?

It means that we’re losing out on a huge audience. We’re losing out on political support. We’re losing out on monetary support, but mostly we’re just discriminating against a huge swath of people. So we need to be thinking more about that as a profession, and looking at things like universal design and universal design for learning. So we’re doing a book discussion. Libraries do more than book discussions, but, you know, people often come back to us, ‘we’re doing a book discussion.’ Well the book that we’re offering for discussion, how many formats is it available in? Is it available in audio? Is there a graphic version of it with the original text? Is there a braille version? Is there a large print book version? Those are all really important things. Is the ebook compatible with screen reading technology?

And here at the library for many years we’ve looked at our summer reading list that way. And not all of them meet all those criteria, but we make sure that we say, okay, we know that these, these, and these books are available in these other formats so that we’re not just limiting our use to the print format. Which is critical. And then in the format of our book discussion, are we all sitting around and only talking to each other? Are we letting people express themselves by drawing with pictures, by signing, or by writing or typing? However it works for them. We’re making sure that we’re including communicators of all types.

So taking that, again, universal design for learning, you’re gonna get tired of hearing me say that, approach it with all of our programs. And are they sensory friendly? I hope that you can’t hear this, but there is an air conditioner going in the background here. And it’s kind of quiet for an air conditioner, but every once in a while it catches my attention. But I know some of the kids I work with, if they were here and they heard that, that’s all they would hear. So making sure that we’re offering sensory tools in our libraries, like, we have here what we call sensory zone kits, and they have things like noise canceling headphones and fidgets…and loosely based on my, woah, basket of fidgets on my desk.

And there’s baseball caps that will block the overhead glare, whatever fidgets work for people. My favorite fidgets are universal fidgets, pipe cleaners, because they work for just about everybody. And if they don’t work for them the way they are, they’ll make them into something that works. And they’re cheap. So yeah, are we meeting those sensory needs? Are we making sure that we’re offering things, in multiple ways, multiple formats? And then are we integrating that into the services that we’re putting out there? And I think that’s important too because sometimes libraries have gotten much better at outreach, but sometimes we talk about outreach and we talk about what the libraries are doing, but how often are we also asking the questions: what do you want? What are we not doing? What do you want us to be doing? And that’s the critical question for me, or for any librarian at any library.

Lauren Clouser, Host:

No. I like how it filters into everything, not just a separate program that focuses on disability. It infiltrates every part of the library and makes everything inclusive. Just to follow-up, if somebody wanted, if a library wanted to make a new inclusivity program, similar to the Inclusive Services Program, what does that take? What sort of planning, what sort of resources?

Carrie Banks: 

It takes training and research. There’s lots of it available. Syracuse University has something called Project Enable where they offer free online training on inclusive library services, essentially, for all types of libraries, and it’s really good. And so even if you’re doing this on a shoestring budget or less, starting some place like that. And there are more and more books on the subject, including mine. And The American Library Association has some resources and some interest groups that work around these issues.

So the first and least expensive is to reach out to the free places like Project Enable and the American Library Association, but then it’s also working with groups like the Learning Disability Association and Down Syndrome Association, Autistic of Advocacy Network. But looking at what other organizations are doing and how we can incorporate their best practices going to their trainings. I send new staff here at Inclusive Services to Adapt Community Network, and that used to be United Cerebral Palsy training. So I sent them to Spinal Cord Inc trainings. I send them to DOE, Department of Education Training. I send them to every place I can that they’re going to learn about people with disabilities and what their needs are, and to be able to engage in those conversations about having library services.

So it takes the research and again, back to the community. They’re reaching out to the community and the disability networks and relationships with community members. That being said, we always focus on the individuals themselves. So sometimes a parent will come in to me and say, oh, my child wants this. And I’m like, okay. That’s nice. Where’s the child? I need to talk to that individual to see what they want. I need to ask them what was the last book you read and liked, because then I know what they’re comfortable reading, rather than, oh, he’s in 3rd grade and reads at a 3rd grade R level. That’s not helpful. And, plus, if he does have a learning disability, he’s probably not reading at that 3rd grade R level. That’s where you want it to be.

So from the time that they’re children…and with children that means not talking about the child in front of the child too. Parents, adults, teachers, we tend to do that way too much. And we don’t like it when people do it to us, and kids don’t like it when we do it to them. So starting with the children, but then as adults, again, what do they want? You know, and centering that experience. That’s how we’re going to learn. That’s how we’re going to develop strategies and programs and services that are going to work for them, work for everything.

But you asked about my experiences, and one of my really early experiences in libraries, not really early, but a few years in, that really made an impression on me was I was a branch librarian of the smallest branch in the New York Public Library System before I came here. And it was a storefront branch, and I was there one day, and a boy comes in and he asks for a 3rd grade book. He has to do a book report on it tomorrow. Okay. Well, that’s alright.

So I go through all my 3rd grade books that I found at the time boys tended to like. Didn’t want any of those. Went through all the 3rd grade books that I found at the time that girls tended to like. He didn’t want any of those. This was a very long time ago. And we’re going through things, and I’m getting frustrated. He’s getting frustrated. He just stopped and looked at me, and he says, it’s okay. It’s not your fault. I’m dumb. I have learning disabilities, and I’m dumb.

And I said to him, you know what? I have learning disabilities, and I’m not dumb. And I bet you’re not either. We just need to find the right book. So then I expanded my search. I’d been very linear in 3rd grade but then I expanded my search to things that might be more visual, things that were really on a 2nd grade level, things like that. And I gave him a whole range of books, and he took some, and he went home.

Then he came back 5 minutes before closing. And he was doing that thing, you know how kids, they pull on their parents’ sleeve to lead them places. He’s tugging on his mother, bringing her into the library. He said, her. She’s the one. She has learning disabilities, and she’s not stupid.

And it just broke my heart that message that this child was getting, that he was stupid, wherever that was coming from. They knew that he had a learning disability. He’d been diagnosed. And he clearly wasn’t getting the support because he was still ‘dumb.’ But that really made me see how we could make a difference. and one of the things that we do is to make sure we’re providing opportunities for kids to have success.

So we do a fair amount of arts programming. We do a lot of visual art, a fine arts program, arts and crafts, sculptures, drawing, puppet-making, gardening, Again, those hands-on activities that are going to give success to our kids who don’t necessarily have it in other venues.

Lauren Clouser, Host:

So how can organizations like LDA be a partner to libraries, whether it’s through spreading information about their services or everything that they offer, what can we be doing?

Carrie Banks:

Going to the library and talking to the librarians, the library staff, adult services, children’s services, let them know that you’re out there, what services you offer, and look for those places where you overlap for where you can connect. And, of course, yes, please do offer to share our information out there because we need that. And it’s hard to reach communities sometimes.

But, yeah, just that personal connection, I’m a big believer in that’s what makes things work. I’d rather meet someone in person than get a notification from LinkedIn. And then, this is who we are. This is what we do. We can do this with you. We can offer a workshop on learning disabilities for your families, we could host one of our meetings here and you could tell them about the library and what services you have. We have these wonderful services and resources, take a look.

And where you do have free materials, share them with the libraries or offer to share them with the libraries because sometimes we can’t can’t always use everything, but, yeah. And then invite us where you are, to your meetings, even if they’re not happening at the library, they’re happening off-site, it’s virtual, invite us, invite us to your conferences. It’s good. I love the conferences, especially if there’s a swimming pool involved. So that’s, again, it’s just making those connections and seeing what both sides need and finding that synergy.

Lauren Clouser, Host:

Definitely. Well, Brooklyn Public Library is an LDA member, could you tell us a little bit about how you utilize that membership?

Carrie Banks:

All those things I just said. I look at the resources. I refer people often to LDA. New York City no longer has a local chapter. We haven’t had one for quite some time now. And our state chapter is very busy upstate. So I’m often referring people directly to LDA National for resources and support. So, you know, the websites and the help lines that you’ve had in the past. So, yeah, that’s one way we use it. And I know I could do that without being a member, but it helps me keep up on what’s going on, and sort of the research in the field sometimes.

And just knowing what resources are out there I think it’s really, really important. And as librarians that’s our job. So that’s mostly how we use it, again. But we share information about events. We only share information about events that have sliding scales or are free so we don’t do as much of that as I’d like to, but we do just some of it.

Lauren Clouser, Host:

No, that sounds good, we appreciate that. So just one more question to wrap up, either what do you wish that more people knew about libraries, or is there something maybe that I didn’t ask that you wanted to include and talk about?

Carrie Banks:

The thing that I wish people knew about libraries is we’re not all about books. We’re about communities, and connecting to stories, life skills. Brooklyn Public Library, for example, offers English language learning. We offer conversation groups in other languages. We offer job support and job training, job searches. We do some job training. We have a partnership with Bard College where you can get an associate degree for free.

We have reentry services for people who are coming out of carceral situations and back into society. We have a tele-visiting program where children can visit with their incarcerated parents through a video chat and read and share books together, and maintain those connections. We have services for new immigrants. We have legal services. We have programs for people who are unhoused.

We have a cycle project, which introduces information to the community about menstruation, and we have a shelf at a couple of our libraries now, but mostly at our central library, that has free period products, for children who can’t afford the price, or for non-binary users that don’t want to go to the drugstore and pick up a product that looks like it’s not appropriate for them.

So, we just do so much more than you would ever imagine. And yeah, we do story times and we circulate books and movies, in-person and online and, Thomas the Tank came to the library. I met Thomas the Tank in person. So, you know, when you think about libraries, please think about more than books. So we do everything but lunch. And over the summer, some of our libraries even do lunch by partnering with our schools and offering school lunches at libraries.

Lauren Clouser, Host:

That’s fantastic. Yeah. Like you said, it’s very community based. It’s very much about what individual people need and you’re there to fill that need.

Carrie Banks:

Yeah. And first we have to know about it so come and tell us.

Lauren Clouser, Host:

Yeah. That’s a great place to start. Carrie. Thank you so much for being on the show with us, and thank you so much for talking about how important public libraries are and how they can be resources to individuals with LD.

Carrie Banks:

Thank you for asking, Lauren. I really appreciate it.

Lauren Clouser, Host:

Thank you for listening to the LDA podcast. To learn more about LDA and to get valuable resources and support, visit ldaamerica.org.