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61st IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 20-25, 1995

Library Facilities for the Mentally Challenged

Gloria Dinerman and Constance Hudock, The Library Co Op, Inc., Edison, New Jersey, USA


Library facilities for the mentally challenged adult are a rarity in the United States. Although educational professionals have proven beyond doubt that intellectual and physical stimuli can vastly improve the quality of life of the mature population afflicted with mental retardation, there has been a decided lag in the development of libraries and resource centers that energize the dormant potential of adults with learning disabilities.
There is so much supportive assistance for the retarded child and so much neglect of the retarded adult who has been shunted aside by a society whose dynamics are propelled by youth.
In June 1993, The Library Co Op, Inc., our consulting corporation specializing in projects and research for the library community, was commissioned to develop a library for the North Jersey Developmental Center (NJDC), a residential complex for adults with developmental disabilities. This paper is the story of our intense research for comparable facilities and our plans for the rehabilitation of a library setting that is now unique, serviceable, and very special to its users.


Under the guidance of Federal legislation, Dr. Robert Lowe, Director of the North Jersey Developmental Center (NJDC), applied for and received a $10,000 grant to establish a library and resource center for his facility that serves just under 500 mentally challenged adults. Our company had experienced marked success in the development of a special library for institutionalized adults afflicted with problems attendant to old age, and we were selected to develop Dr. Lowe's facility because of our past accomplishments. The unique opportunity to start a library for the developmentally disabled presented one of the major challenges that was ever faced by our twelve year old corporation.

Research in collection development took us through many areas of the country and varied functional settings. Suitable and adaptable furniture, furnishings, and interior designs were chosen from many sources. Throughout the first six months of learning and implementation we were inspired by the awareness that mental health can lead to the mastery of ordinary tasks and that needs and interests are the same regardless of developmental levels.


Our first action was to tour the NJDC facility, both the area selected for the library as well as the living, working, and school quarters. We then obtained a profile of the population from the school principal: degree of retardation, age range, sex, cultural background, and ambulatory level. This helped us evaluate the facility and determine what material in the existing collection to weed, what furniture and shelving would be needed, and what special equipment such as computers would be advisable.

When we first saw the 30 foot by 40 foot classroom (9.1 meters x 12.1 meters) that was designated for the library setting it was shabby, dirty and covered with the dust of disuse. Old equipment, outdated and inappropriate material, sagging shelves, overgrown plants, broken blinds, and dilapidated furnishings filled the space with depressing neglect. The room had been closed for library use for more than two years and the programs that once existed were now abandoned.

To begin our rehabilitation we appraised the area for size and location and we found that the space would adequately serve the needs of the school. We then weeded almost all of the books, all of the magazines, all of the cassettes, and threw away the faded decorations. What remained were two shelving ranges, one bulletin board and one librarian's desk.

The floor area was opened up and rearranged with wall stacks, a supply closet and magazine racks. Tables and chairs in white with primary color accents enlivened the atmosphere (see Appendix). New and color coordinated blinds, display areas, and a professional corner for the librarian were included in the interior design. Maximum floor space was allowed for wheelchairs and other mobility aids. American Libraries Association posters and flags blanketed the exposed walls. The walls were painted, the floors were polished, the lighting was enhanced. The new look was fresh and appealing and bid a warm welcome to the residents.

Collection Development

Collection development proved to be much more complicated than we had anticipated.

Our first problem was one of money. Out of the $10,000 total grant funds, only $2,000 was earmarked for the collection and $8,000 for our services. Although the allocation for professional consulting was completely unrealistic, we were excited by the prospect of this assignment and agreed to abrogate our standard fee and accept the contract proscribed by the grant.

Another requirement of the grant was that all of the residents had to be served regardless of the degree of their retardation. Most material in current use for the retarded population fell into two subject categories: a) instructional manuals for caregivers and parents, and b) children's books. For obvious reasons neither suited the needs of the targeted adult population in our project. We believed that interest and emphasis should be in multi media format, particularly since some clients had multiple disabilities and communication would be more successful through the use of two or more senses. The difficulty lay not only in trying to find suitable material, but in trying to spend $2,000 in collection development that could easily absorb $20,000.

The preparation of the opening day collection demanded a great deal of time. Our initial task was to search for a similar facility to be used as a model. We felt that if we found an established site that already had a library we would have a base on which to build. The immediate tri state area (New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania) was thought to be geographically broad enough to find at least one special library serving a handicapped population and a field trip to the site would be convenient for travel. We found no library in any of the facilities in our general geographical area and we expanded our search nationally.

We contacted adult literacy groups, publishers, state and federal governments, organizations for the disabled, English as a second language (ESL) groups, Association of Retarded Citizens, school and public libraries, academic libraries and university research departments. We estimate that more than 200 telephone calls were made over a period of a month. One of the best sources of information came from individuals who were related directly or indirectly to a mentally challenged person. They informed us of materials that were suitable, adaptable, and stimulating to the handicapped adult. They shared their experiences, reinforcing our research that children's subjects were inappropriate for our audience and that adult themes could be understood and enjoyed if presented to the reader using a simple vocabulary and many illustrations.

After exhausting every lead made available to us, we finally realized that our contract was indeed for a pilot project. This meant that we had no proven source of information on which to draw and that our work would be an original effort. We then visited facilities within the state that catered to mentally challenged adults and interviewed directors and supervisors of education. Although none of the facilities had a library or resource center, the directors were expansive regarding what they would like to see in a library if they had one of their own. They were extremely interested in the outcome of our project with the hope of replicating some of our ideas should funding become available for their own resources.

One of the most successful field trips was to Montgomery County in the State of Maryland. Montgomery County has an advanced and highly successful English as a Second Language (ESL) program and we believed that much of their material might be suitable for our needs. One of the pleasant surprises encountered at our meeting was that we learned that some of the hand bound books in their collection had been written by the ESL students themselves. The subjects included sewing, nature, life skills, simple biography and were cataloged according to difficulty with different colored spine labels. We adopted and maintained this method of classification.

Many publishers were called first the major names such as Random House, Scribners, Houghton Mifflin, Viking Penguin. When we narrowed the search down to small specialty houses such as New Readers Press we finally achieved some results. Our inquiry was focused on two questions only, "Do you publish material with high interest and low reading ability?" and "Is it illustrated?" We requested catalogs and also looked for selection and reviews in Library Journal, Choice, Wilson Library Bulletin Booklist and various publications from international book distributors. Finally a bibliography was developed that was representative of the interests of our target population.

Appendix 2 shows a small sample of our collection titles.

The New Library

  1. Besides being aesthetically attractive, the new library now has regularly scheduled classes.
  2. The caregivers are being trained to assist in helping with material selection.
  3. We have been told that the residents look forward to their visits.
  4. The setting is the center for other types of activities, i.e., a new program of physical awareness has been instituted.
  5. The material is helping to broaden the interest of the clients.
  6. A new grant for an additional $10,000 has been received to expand the collection.
  7. Recommendations for a permanent part time librarian have been made.
  8. The facility will soon be opened to a non residential special needs school in the area that has no library on its site. We were especially pleased that our facility was recognized by another state service.
  9. There is now a computer for library use. With the many Windows applications and touch screen programs available, it is expected that the next major advancement will be in teaching fundamentals of simple automation to as many residents as possible.
  10. We are hoping that the special education teachers and therapists will now become involved with programs in the library setting.


A brief outline of our findings follows:

  1. Little or no money is budgeted for media centers in either private or public institutions that cater to the mentally handicapped.
  2. Grant money comes from the public sector. We found no private grants dedicated to this purpose.
  3. While the most specialized material adaptable to developmentally disabled adults is high interest/low ability, it may not always be appropriate. Selectivity is essential to appropriate library development.
  4. Very few publishers print material that covers subject matter of interest to retarded adults.
  5. Training in the distribution and selection of material should have the benefit of a professional librarian's knowledge and experience.
  6. Media centers for the handicapped should be model community environments, enhancing and expanding life skills which habilitate the clients. A crucial aspect is to normalize, humanize, and de institutionalize.
  7. Technological advancements have increased the availability of information to the handicapped. Assistive devices are in a dynamic state of redevelopment. Page turners, mechanized wheel chairs, magnifiers, and innumerable other aids are changing the lives of the handicapped. The technology of microcomputers, exemplified by touch screens and voice activation, allow for a wealth of physical and intellectual experiences heretofore unavailable.
  8. Anyone currently entering the field of special library development focusing on adults with disabilities is a pioneer.
The sociological theories of learning and mainstreaming propounded by the special outreach community really work when the user is given exposure to material that is understandable and appropriate. The effort to bring handicapped people into the body of the community and the teaching of acceptance of people who might otherwise be isolated because of physical or mental differences will eventually bring outstanding rewards. Improvements can be measured. Abilities can be tested and graded. Mental stimulation can brighten and reflect a positive attitude toward learning.

Publishers have not yet caught up with the high/low market. What little material that has been printed has not really been marketed. With the vast potential for sales, both nationally and internationally, marketing staffs are missing a huge opportunity. Publishers must open the barriers of their imagination and fill the void for very special libraries all over the world.

We are now beginning to solve the mysteries of reaching the adult who is mentally handicapped. Our evaluations will tell us the positive influences that have produced even slight changes in the lives of the clients.

The Future:

This original project engenders a wish list of hopes, needs, and promises that could fulfill the aspirations of those of us who created the library. We realize that initial innovation must be followed must be followed by growth, improvement and accomplished goals to be classified as a success.

We have identified the need for continual professional staffing in this special group. The librarian will serve as a mentor, a trainer, a collection expert, as a program originator, as an intellectual developer of priorities for the new reader. And finally, wish to turn complacency into activity, turn the stereotype into diversity and turn the less fortunate adult into the awaiting recipient of tomorrow's technology. What greater thrill of accomplishment than to have one of the patrons grab my hand the day that we took our pictures and after shaking it vigorously and enthusiastically say in his halting and slurred speech, "Thank you for my book."

Appendix 1:

The following furniture was purchased for the new library:

Activity table with adjustable height from 21" to 30" in 1" increments. Table is 30"W x 60"L. Color to be Red or Blue.
PRICE (US Dollars): $262.00

Trapezoid table 30"W x 60"L same general description as above.
PRICE (US Dollars): $265.00

Kidney shaped table 48"W x 72"L same general description as above.
PRICE (US Dollars): 369.00

Stack chairs, adult height in red or blue.
PRICE (US Dollars): 53.00

Sections of steel bookstack 66"H x 36"W x 10"D. Each face of shelving complete with a base shelf and four adjustable shelves. Color to be selected.
PRICE (US Dollars): 225.00

Section of steel display bookstack 66"H x 36"W x 12"D. Each face of shelving complete with three flat shelves and three sloping shelves.
PRICE (US Dollars): 285.00

Appendix 2:

A small sample of our collection titles follows:

[Title & Media; Author; Publisher; Price (US Dollars)]

Audio Tape
The Talking Newspaper; ; Star Ledger; Free

Audio and Books
Lights Out; Cebulesh, M.; New Readers Press; 16.00

All About Series:
Birth and Growth; Digestion; Senses; Skin and Hair; etc.; Bailey; Raintree/Steck Vaughn; 14.00 each

Eyewitness Book Series:
Music, Money, Flag, Animals, Seashore, Weather, Fish, Desert; Borzoi Book, ed.; Knopf; 15.00 each

FYI Series:
AIDS, Eating Right, Getting Fit, Staying Well, etc.; New Readers Press, ed.; New Readers Press; 6.00 each

Great Series:
Adventures Heroes, Rescues, etc.; Raintree/Steck Vaughn ed.; Raintree; 7.00 each

Jet Powered Funny Cars; Young, J. ; Capstone Press; 13.35

Longman Photo Dictionary; Rosenthal, M. ; Longman; 14.00

MacMillan Visual ; Corbeil, J. ; MacMillan ; 45.00 Dictionary

Move Over, Wheelchairs Coming Through; Roy, R. ; Ticknor & Fields; 35.00

Meeting Needs of People with Disabilities: Guide for Librarians; Velleman, R.; Oryx; 38.00

People: A Picture Book for All Ages; Spier, P.; Bantam Doubleday; 15.00

The Polar Bears; Tibbits, A. ; Capstone Press; 13.35

The Quarter Horse; Tibbits, A.; Capstone Press; 13.35

The Snow Leopards; Tibbits, A.; Capstone Press; 13.35

Disabled Outdoors; ; Disabled Outdoors; $45.00

Life; ; Life; 30.00

Mainstream: Magazine of the Able Disabled; ; Exploding Myths; 45.00

People; ; People; 83.00

Photographic; ; Photographic; 12.00

Royalty; ; Royalty; 54.00

Sport; ; Sport; 10.00

Discovering Asia; ; Int'l Video Network; 25.00

The Human Senses Series: Hear/See/Taste/Smell/Touch; ; National Geographic; 284.00

Judd's: Their Final Concert; ; Ingram Library Svcs; 20.00

Money: Summing It Up; ; National Geographic; 79.00

Love Those Trains; ; National Geographic; 24.00

The Soviet Circus; ; National Geographic; 24.00

Trials of Life: Living Together; ; Ambrose Video; 30.00

We also included on our shelves free catalogs from department stores, garden suppliers, any catalog with bright pictures

Vertical File
Vertical file subjects were suggested such as sports nature, and food.
We expect to train the caregivers to assist the clients as soon as the work is funded.