Naperville library launches sensory app to be more accessible to visitors

An app that brings the best practices of special education classrooms to public spaces now is available in a form that helps people with autism or sensory disabilities navigate the Naperville Public Library.

The Sensory NPL app includes detailed maps of each library branch with pictures, a schedule to help users plan their visit and know what to expect, a tap-to-communicate feature for those who are nonverbal or have speech difficulties, a voice-over feature for people who struggle with vision or reading, even games to play as a way to take a break from sensory distractions.

The Naperville library is the second to offer the app for iPhones and iPads by Chicago-based developer Infiniteach, which uses technology to help people with autism and intellectual or developmental disabilities access places where they otherwise might face barriers, Infiniteach co-founder Katie Hench said. Chicago Public Library was the first.

Naperville Executive Director Dave Della Terza said he wanted to offer the app after seeing how popular it was with versions Infiniteach developed for the Field Museum and Shedd Aquarium.

“We said, 'That'd be really interesting for us to try as well,'” Della Terza said, “especially since Naperville is a community that a lot of people move to for the resources for people with autism.”

So Ellen Fitzgerald, children's services supervisor at Nichols Library, led a team of library staff members who worked for six months with Infiniteach to develop the new app, which users can download for free at the App Store. She said the app helps meet a goal in the library's strategic plan to enhance services to people with disabilities, in part by creating some sort of map so they can see the library before they visit.

“This is exactly what we were looking for and even better,” Fitzgerald said about the app, which has been available since last week. “Not only does it have a map, but then it also identifies the areas where there might be sensory overloads — it might be loud — and then other areas of the library where people can go and they can take a break.”

Design elements of the app help those with disabilities, too, Fitzgerald said. An open dyslexic font is available to make reading text within the interface easier for people with dyslexia, and the color scheme can be flipped so it has a black background instead of white to assist people with visual difficulties.

“We're taking a lot of strategies and supports traditionally found in special education classrooms and just translating those to more of these community spaces,” Hench said.

Interest in the Infiniteach model — in which the social enterprise company partners with institutions and charges them a licensing fee for use of the app — is beginning to grow among suburban libraries, Hench said.

Naperville is paying $10,000 this year for app development and support, with $5,000 coming from a grant, Della Terza said. The licensing fee for future years will be $5,000.

“We love when places like Naperville Public Library think about access and inclusion more broadly,” Hench said. “Similar to how they might consider wheelchair access, we also want all of these places to be thinking about people with intellectual and developmental disabilities as well.”

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  The new Sensory NPL app for iPhone and iPad contains a feature that allows people with autism or other communication difficulties to tap an icon on the screen to express what they need. Marie Wilson/
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