‘There’s success for all abilities’

Bloomfield Township librarian honored for work with kids who have special needs

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published April 4, 2016

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BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP — It doesn’t take a fancy award to recognize that Jen Taggart is an advocate changing the lives of countless families in Bloomfield Township.

But she got one anyway.

Taggart, the assistant department head of youth services at the Bloomfield Township Public Library, was recently honored with an Advocate Award in Library Journal magazine’s 15th annual Movers & Shakers campaign. The national award was given to Taggart for her extensive work growing the library’s collection for children with special needs.

The publication announced that Taggart had won the award in mid-March, so Taggart is still riding the high of the very recent honor. But the team at the BTPL has known for some time that their co-worker is someone special, with a drive and a mission that goes above and beyond her job description.

“Jen is an incredibly modest person, but I firmly believe she has impacted public libraries in the state of Michigan and across the country,” said Marian Rafal, department head of youth services. “Because of Jen, special-needs sections have become the norm for libraries. She’s changing how we work.”

Taggart started working at the BTPL in 2001 as a part-time librarian. It didn’t take long for her to establish herself as an integral part of the library’s team, but it wasn’t until 2007 that she proposed an innovative idea.

“My son was receiving speech and language therapy, and I was looking at these teeny, tiny copies of black-and-white speech and language worksheets,” said Taggart, of Troy. “I proposed a multimedia special-needs collection, and the Friends of the Library very generously gave us seed funds to build the collection.”

The massive special-needs area in the youth services section of the BTPL is larger than some small libraries in total. With more than 2,000 items, there’s a little something for every visitor and every need. From the story boxes that include picture books with manipulatives, to “sign kits” with books that come with DVDs that tell the story in American Sign Language, the collection includes a huge variety of resources for young visitors who have special needs.

“For students with visual impairments and learning disabilities, the tactile aids give more meaning to the words in the story,” Taggart explained as she sifted through the story box for the classic book “The Rainbow Fish.”

The collection is easy to navigate for parents, with books and toys that come with special cards to indicate which skills the items will foster. When it’s time to go, everything is available to be checked out and taken home.

“That’s important, because a lot of these tools can be expensive, and taking them home gives families and therapists the opportunity to try things out and see what works,” she said.

But Taggart admits that she didn’t have formal training in the field of special education when she set out to stock the section. She earned her bachelor’s degree in art history, and her master’s degree is in library and information science. She had to look to the experts to find out exactly what would benefit a learner with special needs, and luckily she didn’t have to look far.

“We work with the special education teachers in the Bloomfield Hills Schools district and occupational therapists,” she said, adding that the educators donated their time to the effort. “We’ve got a great relationship with them, and they’ve referred parents to us if a student in the district is diagnosed with (a learning disability).”

District workers are happy to promote the collection when they believe a student could benefit, and Taggart often attends parent/teacher meetings and other school functions to spread the word. When little ones are diagnosed with a special need or disability, parents aren’t always directed to all the resources available to help.

“When I started this collection in late 2007, the incidence of autism was one in 107. Last year, it was one in 45,” she said. “There’s definitely a need out there for this. There’s between 20,000 and 25,000 children in Oakland County who receive special-needs services.”

The library’s efforts don’t stop in the stacks, either. Taggart has worked to make much of the youth services program offerings more inclusive for visitors with special needs, including yoga classes and theater workshops. And her influence has seeped into the adult services section, where staff is working to create a collection for adults with special needs.

While the BTPL has, thanks to Taggart, a rather extensive special-needs section, other libraries around the country consult her so they can start to build even a small collection of their own. She teaches webinars and special workshops across the country, including presentations for the Michigan Library Association and the American Library Association.

She also helped to found the Special Needs Services Roundtable for Michigan librarians serving patrons of all ages with special needs. The group meets twice a year to share notes on what they’re doing at their own facilities.

But the original project continues. Taggart and Rafal just submitted a proposal to the Friends of the Library for a technology station for people of different abilities that would include a desktop computer and specialized software. There’s a wish list request for an iPad devoted to users with special needs and active seating options for visitors who need help channeling energy in order to focus.

Taggart hardly seems tired when speaking about the collection that took her years to build — and at a time when budgets were being slashed due to the recession. Instead, she’s always thinking of what could be added — what to do next. She knows from experience that it’s all worth it. Her son is a freshman in high school now, boasting A’s and B’s on his report card and a spot in the school’s marching band.

“I like to say there’s success for all abilities, and it’s up to us to help (visitors) find the tools they need to find their success,” she said.

To learn about all of the options available in the special-needs collection, visit www.btpl.org.

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