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Turning a page at Queens school

Student-driven changes make library accessible for disabled
New York Teacher
Turning a page at Queens school
Erica Berger

Jess deCourcy Hinds, the library director at Bard HS Early College in Queens, and two students in the Abled-Disabled Alliance use the “reading cove,” which was added to the library in September based on student recommendations.

The library at Bard HS Early College in Long Island City, Queens, is getting a makeover to make it more accessible for students with disabilities, thanks to a partnership between Jess deCourcy Hinds, the school’s library director, and students in the school’s Abled-Disabled Alliance.

They tackled how to make the 1,500-square-foot space easier for someone in a wheelchair to navigate, but the team also looked for ways to make all the library’s users feel welcome.

The library project is emblematic of the cultural and pedagogical shifts the 14-year-old school has made since it began serving students with Individualized Education Programs seven years ago, said Chapter Leader David Price.

Bard students have risen to the occasion and embraced inclusive classrooms, said special education teacher John Grauwiler, one of the faculty advisers of the Abled-Disabled Alliance. “I like to think that through all of these efforts, we are going to get to a place where disabilities are normalized,” he said.

Students at Bard take two years of a college preparatory high school curriculum in the 9th and 10th grades. In what are the junior and senior years in traditional high schools, they are enrolled in the early college program. They graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree. Approximately 15% of the school’s 650 students are students with disabilities who are entitled to special education support.

Like other schools, Bard began to focus more on social-emotional learning in the aftermath of the pandemic. Members of the Abled-Disabled Alliance and their faculty advisers — deCourcy Hinds and Grauwiler — broadened their focus to consider the needs of students who are “neurodivergent,” meaning their brains work, process and learn differently than is typical. Autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia and depression are examples of neurodiversity.

At the request of the Abled-Disabled Alliance, deCourcy Hinds taught a course in the 2021-22 school year called “Disability and Equity in the Library.” Her 13 students, many of whom identified as neurodiverse or disabled, developed proposals to redesign space and services in the library, and students in the Abled-Disabled Alliance also contributed ideas.

“These students, they’re experts in disability advocacy,” deCourcy Hinds said. She says she brings inquisitiveness “and my research skills and grant writing” to the process, “and then I advocate for them.”

The first changes were straightforward. The library furniture was pushed toward the walls to provide chair-free space at communal tables.

In September, the library added a “reading cove,” a space with nooks and short, curved bookcases that include works by and about people with disabilities. The level of the banquettes in the cove also allows for a student in a wheelchair to sit next to a friend.

The team plans to turn a library conference room into a multisensory space with lava lamp tubes, rocking and sway chairs, and a soft “crash pad” area for anyone who needs to decompress. Students have also suggested dimming the fluorescent lights and providing fidget toys, noise-canceling headphones and floor cushions or bean bag chairs.

“What we hope to do is to create safe places that aren’t too overwhelming within school for students who need them,” said Nava Bahrampour, a Bard senior who was deCourcy Hinds’ teaching assistant for the “Disability and Equity in the Library” class and serves as the student representative on the Citywide Council on Special Education.

Nava and deCourcy Hinds cowrote an article about Bard’s work in the library for the November issue of the Library Association of the City University of New York’s Urban Library Journal.

Senior Suhama Saniz co-leads the Abled-Disabled Alliance with senior Isadore Weitzman, who founded the club in 2020 with his older brother, a wheelchair user, to help change the school culture and reduce stigma around disabilities. Suhama said the school’s plans to provide an audiobook equivalent for every physical text in the library will help students who need or prefer to listen rather than read a book. There will also be an audio corner with iPads and QR codes for audiobook websites.

“People learn in different ways, and we would rather that they have the resources to engage with the content and bring their ideas into classroom discussions,” she said.

Grauwiler said the changes in the library are part of a broader set of changes being propelled by the students. The alliance, he said, has worked to expand visibility and create conversations by running poster campaigns with slogans such as “Disability is not a dirty word.” It also has worked with deCourcy Hinds to bring more texts into the curriculum that are written by, about or for people with disabilities.

“There’s been tremendous movement in terms of disability rights and visibility at our school since the pandemic,” Grauwiler said. “This year we’re focused on really dismantling the different types of ableism that exist at our school.”