It is time that children with disabilities are given the literature which they deserve
Claire Pettman, Assistant Head of School, Lansdowne Primary Academy
‘A picture tells a thousand words’, or so the saying goes. But how does this happen? Perhaps to an even greater degree than we do with words, we make sense of images by drawing on existing knowledge and experience. If you have ever watched a small child reading a picturebook, you will know that young children are able to derive a great deal of meaning and pleasure from the activity, even when they cannot yet decode the letters and words. They can make connections between the pictures and the words of the story, which have become familiar when read aloud to them by adults and older children. These connections play an important role in helping children learn to read. They are also able to draw on their expanding knowledge of other stories, and of life in their culture more generally, to make sense of pictures that they have never seen before. However, is this the case for children with disabilities? Are they able to see mirrors of themselves and able to reflect on common themes in children’s literature?
The incorporation of disabled characters in children’s books is becoming more common; the majority are connected to books which retell disability issues, usually for younger children. This tends to refer to picture books that tell a story about a disabled child, purely to be used in an educational manner. Generally, they are written either with the intention of teaching able-bodied children about people who might be different from themselves, or otherwise created to enable disabled children to find a point of identity within literature.
Are there enough mirrors for the children to be able to reflect themselves in? Does our current selection of books mirror our society? I wanted to explore whether a negative representation in picturebooks can cause potential damage and more harm than good.
From studying the academic literature already published about disability, there are many areas which I foresee to be problematic in the writing and publishing of books showing characters with disabilities. The ways in which we think about ourselves and one another, and about our society - our images of how we should look, our homes, our lives, even our inner worlds, are given shape and distributed by the specialised work of people in schools, television, radio, newspapers, in advertising agencies, in book publishing, and other organisations forming the ideological apparatuses of the society.
In our society, I would argue that disability has become a social construct which can be used to oppress and exclude disabled people even if this is not intentional by authors, illustrators, and publishers. Disability can be a product of social, cultural, political, and physical environments. There does not seem to be a universal agreement as to the definition of disability and some disabilities are more accepted than others when used in children’s literature. I have observed that one problematic area of representing disability in children’s picturebooks is whether the characters are created to offer role models to disabled children. Children need to see themselves in children’s literature. How could children with disabilities mature into productive adults if they had no models? How could adults with disabilities participate in society if they were invisible? Power laden social constructions have resulted from the social and political discourses in which special education operates. They also argue that it is not that we perceive difference among people but what meaning is given to those perceived differences.
It is surely important for children with disabilities to be included somewhere within the contemporary landscape of children's literature. It is imperative that they can sometimes see backgrounds and families they can identify with. They need to feel that they belong, find reassurance that their situation is not anomalous and understand that there is no such thing as ‘normal' or 'abnormal’. It is important to show that 'difference' is normal. Books are so perfectly placed to dispel myths, challenge stereotypes, perhaps even reduce prejudice and bullying.
Effective inclusive books can simply include disabled children without comment, showing them playing alongside their peers. They can show that parents, siblings, grandparents can be disabled too. Books can ensure that the child who must wear an eye patch can find a literary role model other than a pirate. They can show that wearing glasses does not make you a ‘geek’ and that dyslexia does not mean you are ‘stupid’; it is simply a different way of experiencing the world. Books can show that someone who uses a wheelchair is not glued permanently into it and equally does not necessarily have someone glued permanently to the handlebars to push. Books can show that disabled people can have relationships and lead ‘normal’ lives. Books can show that people are not defined by disability, any more than they are defined by having brown hair or blue eyes. Books can do all this without comment, simply with a few clever inclusive images.
It is by the age of 5 that children begin to create their understanding of social constructs. Their awareness of differences then has the potential to be transformed into prejudices between the age of 7-9. If we can cultivate kindness in children when they are young, if we can truly make caring for others a priority and teach children what it means to be a good friend, we will set them up to be kind and moral adults. Our children are our future, so we should start investing in them now, when it truly counts. If we can instil kindness in our children, it will help to guide them and enhance understanding of the importance of being good friends to their peers in their classrooms and communities. Therefore, making sure picturebooks portray feel-good representations of disability.
The book I analysed was Max the Champion by Sean Stockdale, Alexandra Strick and Ros Asquith. I have been a huge fan of the work which Alexandra Strick has completed for Book Trust and developing Inclusive Minds www.inclusiveminds.com. She refers to inclusive minds as an umbrella name for all the exciting things that she (and others) are doing in this field - a collective bringing together all those with an interest in equality and diversity in children's literature. Strick states that it is also about working with appropriate partners in exploring opportunities for new projects which we hope can help to encourage the production of more inclusive books.
Max the Champion is about a boy who is obsessed with sport. Every double spread shows Max at school on the first page and the second page shows Max thinking/dreaming (using a thought bubble to share his thoughts) of him and his friends playing sports. There is no mention of disability in the text, but woven into the artwork are dozens of small, subtle visual messages about inclusion. The illustrations are explicit in telling the story of Max.
On the front cover we can make predictions that Max is the main character in the centre of the page. He does not appear to have a physical disability - the perception being that he loves sport and becomes a champion. If you look at the other characters behind Max,
There is a mixture of all different kinds of children. This front cover would appeal to many children who enjoy stories about sports. Illustrations can often be an integral part of literary texts for children and can convey important aspects of the meaning of the text. In some instances, the use of illustration is mostly decorative, but in Max the Champion it adds more detail and atmosphere. It adds an additional storyline, subplot, and a back story which you are only aware of if you look closely at the images. The first few pages of the book support Max’s love of sport but only upon close inspection on page 3 you can begin to see images which support that Max is deaf. We see a picture of an alarm clock which is making a ‘clang, clang’ sound suggesting that it is vibrating to allow Max to be woken up.
The next few pages of the story show Max getting dressed and ready for school, eating his breakfast, cycling to school and surrounding himself with his friends. The story does not indicate how you make friends, it just shows children supporting each other and friendships through the images and words. Children’s books are a powerful means for fostering children’s identity and understanding different cultures. At this stage in the book Max’s identity is showing his personality; many readers will not know he is deaf, just that he is getting ready for school, that he loves sport and is getting ready for an exciting adventure. This story does not show the protagonist Max as being limited in personality and lacking depth of character. Many children disabled and non-disabled would be able to reflect themselves as the character of Max.
The book depicts a typical classroom environment which many children would be able to relate to and this image mirrors the setting for many classrooms throughout the world and a familiar setting for many child readers.
After closer inspection, you can see that the teacher is wearing a voice box to help amplify the sound in the classroom (although Max’s hearing aids have still not been seen). It also shows other children with disabilities in the classroom. We also see a few children with disabilities taking part in a sports event. It is still not explicitly clear that Max is deaf, even by the time we reach page 10.
It is not until page 11 that we first see an image of Max’s hearing aid alongside him holding an asthma pump and again showing him with his friends. The book continues with many images of friendship
and sporting opportunities for all the children depicted with disabilities. This allows all readers to identify with the characters; when characters appear to be real and are true to their nature (which Max is) and roles in thoughts, words, actions, language and expressions then it provides an accurate representation of disability and a storyline which does not have disability as the main focus.
Max the champion would appeal to many children as the story could stand alone without the disability being the focus. There should be enough books available for all our children to acknowledge that both our differences and our similarities jointly together are what make us all human. There is outstanding evidence of positive illustrations throughout the book which include delicate drawings of hearing aids, wheelchairs, tactile paving, people communicating in British Sign Language, someone with a guide dog, as well as forms of disability that have rarely if ever appeared in the pages of children's books before. These include a child with an oxygen tube, someone with Cherubism and a powered chair with a communication aid, offering mirrors and positive representations for the children to relate to.
Picturebooks have the potential to challenge negative images and prejudices that children inevitably encounter, ultimately leading them to be more aware, understanding, and accepting of difference, diversity and disability. Readers are able to identify, true understanding of, empathy for, and meaningful connection with individuals with disabilities that requires a deeper level of engagement than awareness and knowledge. The messages conveyed by the picturebooks share important messages with relevance for children’s attitudes to disability. In different ways, each book has the potential to increase awareness, knowledge, understanding and acceptance of those who are different. The messages included are that everyone is unique; we are all like others in some ways and different from others in some ways; each person has his or her own strengths and weaknesses.
If we respect others by valuing, implementing and celebrating uniqueness, we will enrich our own lives and the lives of others; even if we all look different, underneath we are the same. It is time that children with disabilities are given the literature which they deserve.