Inside the children’s section at the main Oak Park Public Library, by the front desk, there hangs a giant chart, each box depicting words like “can” or “but,” symbols to indicate direction, or a stick figure eating, pointing or reaching for a red box to show “want.” The colorful life-size poster is meant to encourage the use of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) among families with disabled members, staff and other patrons, if an electronic device is not handy. The poster’s pictures are often featured as a program or app on a tablet, laptop or cellphone to help people unable to rely on speech to communicate.
“The most important thing is you want to be able to communicate wherever you are,” said Shelley Harris, a children’s librarian, about the large poster. “And sometimes you don’t have your tablet with you.”
The poster is just one of the ways the public library works to provide access for disabled Oak Park residents, an effort that adheres to a larger mission of creating a space “for everyone.” On one of the glass walls of the Idea Box, a makeshift museum space near the library’s main entrance at 834 Lake St., Harris showed smaller AAC posters in Chinese, Dutch, Spanish and Arabic. In the center of the display, there was the Communication Bill of Rights, which outlines disabled people’s rights to refuse, make choices, to be informed and express their preferences.
Those images were all part of an exhibit Harris created for Disability Pride Month, which is celebrated every July to commemorate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Signed into law on July 26, 1990, the act prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. Chicago held its annual Disability Pride Parade just last weekend.
Harris, who studied speech therapy, told Wednesday Journal she’s “big” on the Communication Bill of Rights because it promotes support.
“A lot of times when kids are learning an AAC device for the first time, therapists are like, ‘OK, do you want a sandwich? Yes or no?’ And you practice saying ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” she said. “How much fun is that? Is that what you want to talk about?”
The bill acts as a reminder that disabled people are still people. Harris added the bill says, “I need real choices. I need to be able to say ‘no.’ I need to be able to be with my peers. I need to know all these different things that are just so important to be part of the community.”
For Harris, the bill remains top of mind, as she and her colleagues alike try to offer more programs and resources at the library for disabled residents and their families and create a safe, welcoming place. This type of work is personal for Harris, who made it a goal to cultivate a place where her family would be comfortable to come to. Harris’ younger brother has Rubinstein-Taybi syndrome, a rare genetic disease that causes developmental delays. Inside their home, there are AAC posters displayed in the kitchen, the bedrooms, the bathroom – even on fridge magnets and embroidered on pillows.
“You can embroider a glow-in-the-dark [one]. It’s so fun,” she said. “Because if it’s [the AAC tablet] charging, and he has something to say when he wakes up at 3 in the morning, he needs to be able to talk immediately.
“It’s important to me to have language everywhere so that people can always communicate what they want to.”
On another wall of the Idea Box, Harris turned to a poster about “identity-first language,” which places a person’s diagnosis up front. An example of that is when an individual says, “I am autistic” or “I am deaf,” she said. Harris told the Journal this language has evolved, as in years prior, the disabled community turned to “people-first language.” That meant saying something like “people with disabilities,” she added.
“It’s always shifting,” Harris said. “It’s very personal like every identity is. So, the best thing you can do is just ask a person: ‘What are you comfortable with me saying?’”
On another wall, Harris spoke about how disabled people are portrayed in books and the need for readers, parents and children alike, to be critical and spark a conversation. There are some popular books that feature disabled characters as helpless, a “burden” and that the characters’ friends or family are “saviors,” she said. Over the years, Harris said she’s compiled a list of questions to help families analyze those texts and pick apart the messages, giving them the chance to talk. She’s also beefed up the book selections to include more disabled authors.
Beyond that, Harris said the library continues to look into putting up more items for disabled patrons to use. Cardholders can check out an iPad that has seven different AAC apps or Braille books, including ones that have been published in Braille or with added Braille translations. Readers can also use scanner pens to scan the text and hear the words aloud. The library also has Ubi-Duo, a communication system for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
“We are here to support them,” Harris said. “We want to include them. It goes past ‘you’re welcome here.’ It goes into ‘we want you here.’”
To learn more about the accessibility resources at the Oak Park Public Library, visit www.oppl.org/about/accessibility.