Disability in children's literature

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Disability in children's literature is a subject that has been the focus of changing attitudes in broader society since the 1970s. The movement to include children and youth with disabilities into mainstream society has led to new approaches on the part of authors, as well as educators.

In the United States, 10% of the population has a physical, cognitive, mental or health disability, a rate that is consistent worldwide. Disabilities may also include sensory or learning difficulties, and may range from severe to mild. The approach of children and youth literature (collectively called "juvenile literature") can have a significant impact on the children reading it, whether they personally have experienced disability or not; literature "has proven to be an agent capable of influencing attitudes and acceptance of impairments".[1]

Perhaps no group has been as overlooked and inaccurately represented in children's books as individuals with disabilities. Most often they were not included in stories and when they were, many negative stereotypes prevailed, such as characters who were pitiful or pathetic, evil or superheroes, or a burden and incapable of fully participating in the events of everyday life. Often the difference or disability was the main personality trait emphasized to the reader, not a balance of strengths and weaknesses. Blaska, 1996.[2]

From 1940 to 1970, around 311 books for children were published in the United States that included characters with disabilities. Some of these books romanticized the disability, some were infantilized, while others portrayed the disabled characters as avoiding the world.[3] One example is the classic children's book Heidi. It portrays the character Clara as a spoiled and insulated child, who regains the ability to walk after befriending Heidi and overcoming a vague and unexplained psychological problem, the apparent cause of her physical paralysis, which in reality would be medically unlikely. Another oddity is that the portrayal of blind individuals was in excess of their actual numbers in the real population.[4] Blindness was noted as being the most common disability among African-American characters in children's fiction, used as a plot device to represent the ability to see beyond racial prejudices,[5] making the disability secondary to its significance as a plot device.

Beginning in the 1970s, the United States Congress passed several Acts to legally protect the right of children and adults with disabilities to be included in schools and the workforce, first with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and then the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975. In 1986, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) was put into force in the United States, which ended the exclusion of children with disabilities from publicly funded school systems. With the integration of children with disabilities into public schools, educators, librarians and publishers took a new interest in children's literature that dealt with disability in a balanced, accurate, and constructive way. An overall growth in public awareness of disability and its portrayal in media has supported a trend towards more detailed medical descriptions of conditions in juvenile literature. Barbara Holland Baskin and Karen H. Harris conducted influential research into the portrayal of disability in children and youth literature in the late 1970s. They published the seminal study Notes from a Different Drummer (1977), followed by More Notes from a Different Drummer (1984). Today, disability in juvenile literature is a standard topic included in bibliographies, research, criticism, and review sources. Several bibliographies and studies reviewing fiction and non-fiction have been produced in the years since.

The evolution of the portrayal of disability can be seen in the books written since the 1970s. Judy Blume shows the experience of a teenage girl diagnosed with idiopathic scoliosis in Deenie (1973). The protagonist, Deenie, faces the challenges brought by having to wear a body brace during her treatment, which impacts her perceptions of herself and those of her family and fellow students. Deenie does not overcome the disability by the end of the story, nor is she defeated by it; the conclusion more realistically shows her continuing to face challenges and learning to adjust to them.

A trend in current juvenile fiction is the portrayal of characters with "hidden disabilities" that have become more common diagnoses in recent decades. Examples include Petra Mathers' Sophie and Lou, about extreme shyness that is an emotional and social disability, and Caroline Janover's The Worst Speller in Jr. High (1995) about a boy with dyslexia. In fiction for older youth, disability has recently been dealt with in complex situations with nuanced techniques such as multiple-perspective narrative; an example is Erika Tamar's Fair Game (1993), about a group of male students who repeatedly sexually assault an intellectually disabled girl at their school.[6]

Bibliographer Debra Robertson, who wrote Portraying Persons with Disabilities: An Annotated Bibliography of Fiction for Children and Teenagers (1992), pointed out in the early 1990s that not every disability has to be a "metaphor for a protagonist's development", and the tendency of writers to romanticize or stigmatize medical conditions in this way is a persistent problem in juvenile literature.[7]

More recent studies have indicated that educators may improve student understanding of disability with "follow-up discussion or activities and stories that portray characters with disabilities accurately, realistically, and positively".[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Denman-West, Margaret W. (1998). Children's Literature: A Guide to Information Sources. Libraries Unlimited. p. 38. ISBN 9781563084485. 
  2. ^ Salem, Linda C. (2006). Children's Literature Studies: Cases And Discussions. Libraries Unlimited. p. 69. ISBN 9781591580898. 
  3. ^ Salem, Linda C. (2006). Children's Literature Studies: Cases And Discussions. Libraries Unlimited. pp. 69–70. ISBN 9781591580898. 
  4. ^ Salem, Linda C. (2006). Children's Literature Studies: Cases And Discussions. Libraries Unlimited. pp. 69–70. ISBN 9781591580898. 
  5. ^ Keith, Lois (2001). Take up thy bed and walk: death, disability and cure in classic fiction for girls. Women's Press. p. 199. ISBN 9780704346512. 
  6. ^ Bernice E. Cullinan, Diane Goetz Person (2005). The Continuum Encyclopedia of Children's Literature. Continuum International Publishing Group. pp. 238–9. ISBN 9780826417787. 
  7. ^ Salem, Linda C. (2006). Children's Literature Studies: Cases And Discussions. Libraries Unlimited. pp. 69–71. ISBN 9781591580898. 
  8. ^ Salem, Linda C. (2006). Children's Literature Studies: Cases And Discussions. Libraries Unlimited. p. 73. ISBN 9781591580898.