On Diversity: Disability in Children’s Literature

The recent posts I’ve done about diversity got me thinking about how the diversity of ability is portrayed in kids’ books. As a special education teacher, I tried to incorporate books with characters that my students could relate to and found that (perhaps no surprise here) the identities of my students with disabilities were as varied as their disability classifications.

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Teaching students with learning disabilities, the book that was most reflective of my students’ experience was Eleven by Patricia Reilly Giff about a boy who struggles with reading. I’ve also seen middle schoolers engage with the theme of identity and disability by reading Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper. Still, I wonder if diversity and disability in children’s books follows a similar pattern as ethnic and racial diversity—when a book features a character with a disability, the disability is the main focus of the book or character. 

“Perhaps no group has been as overlooked and inaccurately presented in children’s books as individuals with disabilities,” wrote Joan Blaska in Disability Studies Quarterly in 2004. She points out that children with disabilities were either left out, or included as pitiful or burdensome characters. A 1992 study that reviewed 500 books for young children, found that 2% or ten books included people with disabilities, and only six of those books featured kids with disabilities who were central to the story. In comparison, according to the U. S. Census 19% of Americans report having a disability in 2010. 

Blaska also identified ten criteria that we can use to assess how children with disabilities are incorporated into children’s literature. We should promote books with characters that:

  1. Promote empathy,
  2. Depict acceptance,
  3. Emphasize success,
  4. Promote positive images,
  5. Promote an accurate image of a disability,
  6. Demonstrate respect,
  7. Promote an inclusive “one of us” attitude,
  8. Use people-first language,
  9. Promotes a realistic portrayal of a disability, and
  10. Provides realistic illustrations.

Essentially, characters with disabilities should reflect the actual life experiences of kids with disabilities—they’re friends, students, math-afficionados, video gamers, artists, future chefs, and a myriad of other identities and qualities in addition to having autism, ADHD, a learning disability, or a physical disability. 

It occurs to me that reading about multi-dimensional characters who have disabilities in children’s literature, is important for a variety of reasons—literature serves as a mirror and a way for children to understand the world, it also helps students develop empathy, and normalizes experiences. For children, reading about dynamic, robust characters who are more than their disability, can help them gain an understanding of what it means to have a disability, and how to befriend and engage with children who have an obvious difference. Reading helps children “act out” how to handle situations that are uncomfortable or out of their normal experience, and quality characters with disabilities can help set the stage for children to befriend and engage with the people they meet who have disabilities.

That said, there are books to turn to that address disability in deep, meaningful ways. Rules by Cynthia Lord and Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine feature characters who have autism. Joey Pigza Swallowed a Key by Jack Gantos addresses ADHD. And, Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick combines image and text to tell a story about a character who is deaf. The next step is to publish more books that feature these engaging, memorable characters with disabilities, and to incorporate children with disabilities into children’s literature for who they are rather than because of the disability they represent.

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(For more, here’s a list of books that address diversity and ability from the ALA. And,

Susan Nussbaum also reflected on how disability is represented in literature for The Huffington Post.)

 

 

 

 

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