AS YOUR AVERAGE (BORING!) ABLE-BODIED PERSON MYSELF, I CAN SAY THAT FROM THE MOMENT I BEGAN TO READ AS A CHILD, I COULD RELATE TO ALMOST ALL THE CHARACTERS IN THE BOOKS I READ (YES, EVEN DR. SEUSS’ FURRY LITTLE GUYS). LOOKING BACK, THIS HAD A LOT TO DO WITH THE FACT THAT MOST CHARACTERS IN THESE BOOKS WERE LIKE ME – THEY COULD WALK, SPEAK, PLAY, AND THINK IN THE SAME WAY THAT I COULD. A LOT OF THE PRINCESSES EVEN LOOKED LIKE ME (YOUR AVERAGE ABLE-BODIED CAUCASIAN GIRL WITH BLOND HAIR AND BLUE EYES).
But the world is an incredibly diverse place, and it has countless cultures and languages, and on top of that, we are all born unique. Something which adds to this uniqueness is that an estimated 10% of the world’s population is born with a disability. Taking that into account, you’d think that 1 out of every 10 books would feature a person with a disability, right? Think again.
An embarrassingly tiny percentage of books feature a character with a disability at all! Less than 1% of books, to be exact. This number doesn’t, by any means, cover the population born with any type of disability. This is practically the opposite of the experience that I had growing up and to this day.
What I want to do now is look back on my experience with books, and look deeper into why I have loved books from such a young age, and how relating to the characters within them helped me developmentally and emotionally; and how we could give this same experience to all children.
One of the first things I remember from reading is the trials the characters had to go through in the story, and how watching them go through them made me feel. I would get so nervous when Hansel and Gretel were caught by the witch and almost put into the oven, and I jumped with joy when Sam finally tried green eggs and ham and liked it!
This was basically me developing empathy. I went through what the characters were going through, and I began developing this empathy from a very young age through these stories. I personally believe that a lot of this had to do with me being able to identify with the characters in the stories. Of course, I’m not saying that being just like the characters in the stories was the secret, for I would have felt the same no matter who the characters were, but it was easier to relate to them because I saw myself in them.
I know this is the same for kids with disabilities. Every kid wants to feel included and represented in their different ways, and I believe that connection helps us all make a personal connection with characters, and helps readers fully absorb the messages these books hold for them. That feeling of inclusion and seeing oneself on the cover of a book is incredible, and every child deserves that feeling!
The next point that I want to bring us to is what diversity in books truly represents for us as a society. One of the main tools for teaching our children is books. We use books to teach children to read, to count numbers and identify shapes, and we teach them valuable life lessons through them too.
Books are arguably the most powerful tool we have as educators. So why not use them to teach kids about diversity and to implement compassion and understanding? And why not use them to raise our kids knowing that a) differences are just as important as commonalities and b) everyone has a place in this world.
Disability in books means representation. Disability in books means acceptance and respect. Disability in books opens the door to creating a world where we look past whatever physical differences we might have, and it raises generations of people who are aware of the importance of this inclusion.
If we raise our children knowing that people with physical disabilities are just the same as people without them are, and that they have the same needs as anyone else does, we are creating a society that fully embraces physical disability as part of life (which it is!), and we are setting everyone up for a future that caters to everyone’s diverse needs.
When we bring a book featuring a child in a wheelchair to our homes or to our classrooms, we can inspire our little ones to become the architect who creates inclusive building designs, the engineer who invents new innovative mobility devices, the lawyer who fights for more equality in all workplaces, the activist who speaks out against discrimination in schools…
Think of the difference it will make when our children see themselves being loved and embraced by society. Think of what a child might feel when they come across a book full of illustrations that look just like them. Think of what it will feel like when a teacher pulls a book about a girl with a physical disability and teaches a class with it. Priceless, right?
So let’s fight for more diversity in books, and let’s make it a point as educators and parents to support the (slowly) growing market of books that feature disability, and let’s change society one amazing story at a time.