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New Literacy Materials for Parents of Children with Disabilities

Reach Out and Read

Imagine a young child with cerebral palsy who cannot walk or even sit up without help.  Now imagine what can happen if a loving parent reads to him every day. At first, perhaps, this is nothing more than a time to cuddle and look at pretty pictures together, or, if the child is young enough, to wag the cardboard pages back and forth, pat them, and chew them. It is a start.  After many happy hours, the child has come to know the names of all of the pictures in his books. 

Maybe he has never seen a hippo or even a horse, but he knows what they are, where they live, and what noises they make. Soon, he has stories to connect to these creatures and the rich language that makes stories come alive.  Reading time, which began as pure pleasure, now brings the joy of learning.

Why does this imagined child have cerebral palsy? It could just as well be Down syndrome, or spina bifida, or any number of other medical and developmental conditions.  Or, it could be a child who doesn’t have a particular diagnosis. The point is, reading aloud holds a promise for children, a promise that parents can deliver.

Still, parents may need help doing it.  For more than 20 years now, pediatricians and family doctors all over the country have been offering guidance to parents about how to make reading aloud a joyful part of their children’s lives.  Along with the advice, we’ve created literacy-rich waiting rooms with books and readers, and have backed up our message with beautiful, new, developmentally- and culturally-appropriate books at every visit from 6 months through 5 years. We call this approach Reach Out and Read.

Now Reach Out and Read is reaching out, specifically, to children with complex medical and developmental conditions.  A newly published guidebook for parents and doctors offers insights into the special challenges faced by children with a variety of conditions, and ideas for overcoming them. The guidebook, created in partnership with CVS Caremark All Kids Can, is colorful, beautifully designed, packed with information. 

But its main purpose is to serve as an invitation to parents and doctors to have a discussion, and as a challenge to old ideas about disabilities in children’s lives. Our new guidebook is part of an educational process: doctors teaching parents – and at the same time learning from them – how to best support their children’s emotional and intellectual development.

Robert Needlman, M.D., F.A.A.P. is the co-founder of Reach Out and Read and has published studies on early literacy promotion.  He is also a member of the Mom Congress Advisory Board.