Disability tropes in children’s books – some thoughts for teachers

We’re not teachers – we’re parents, and we work in children’s publishing. But because we’re disabled and write about children’s books and disability, teachers often ask if we have any tips for the classroom. (Our picture book What Happened to You? now also has a lesson plan, created with us by an actual teacher.)

A lot of people presume that if a book has been traditionally published, the messaging must be pretty much ok. This is perhaps particularly the case with picture books for young children.

But from our perspective, disability is lagging very far behind other marginalised identities when it comes to public understanding. The starting point here is very, very low. Most books featuring disabled characters have not been written by disabled authors, and though they will have been written and published with the best of intentions, they’re often unintentionally entrenching stereotypes that many disabled people find deeply unhelpful.

This can put teachers in a difficult position. Most teachers are not specialists in disability, and probably don’t have unlimited time to read up on it. We’d suggest that before reading or teaching a book to your class you check it out online, and try to find reviews by disabled reviewers. But we know from our own research that these reviews can be pretty hard to find. (We’ve started a hashtag on Instagram, #KidLitCripCrit, which may provide a starting point.)

And when there are so few disabled characters in children’s books at all, there’s a temptation to see any disabled character at all as better than nothing. This is an imperfect comparison, but may be worth considering – if, for example, the only book you had access to featuring Black characters was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Gone With the Wind, most people would probably decide that no representation is actually better than bad representation. Unpleasant, inaccurate and distressing stereotypes about Black people are not helpful for pupils of any race.

We’re not able to list every children’s book we think is unhelpful in its depiction of disabled characters here, and explain why. For one thing, this blog post would become a thesis, for another, as we work in publishing, negative reviews of our colleagues’ books are something we choose to write very rarely. (We’ve only written one critical review, of Just Ask! by Sonia Sotomayor – above.) The books in our KidLitCripCrit list are all books we recommend, and we have an individual review of each.

What we hope might be helpful for teachers is a list of some of the stereotypes and tropes we see coming up again and again in children’s books.

Particularly unhelpful tropes to watch out for:

  • A parent shown grieving the birth of a disabled child. Not all births are a time of uncomplicated joy, eg many pregnancies are unplanned. But we’ve never seen this shown in a picture book except when the child is disabled. For a disabled child who’s never considered this possibility, it could be a traumatic revelation.
  • The message that disabled characters have a duty to answer questions & educate non-disabled people. We’ve written about this extensively, and it’s the theme of our picture book What Happened to You? Some disabled people may be fine discussing their disability, many are not. But disabled kids especially should be allowed to be kids, not living teachable moments.
  • A non-disabled central character who explains the disabled character to the reader. Eg books with titles like “My Sister has Autism”. If you imagine we were talking about characters of different races, you can probably see why this isn’t ideal. Stories told from a disabled character’s perspective are preferable.
  • A child being bullied for their disability, who proves the bullies wrong and changes their minds. The onus shouldn’t be on any child to convert somebody bullying them.
  • Surprise! Disabled! Disability should not be a punchline, in which eg the last spread reveals the character’s disability. The intention is to say ‘disabled kids are real people too, just like you and me.’ But the effect is de-humanising – can’t we set the bar higher?
  • Disabled characters for comic effect. Eg D/deaf characters misunderstanding certain words. Disabled characters have been the butt of jokes for centuries, we think it’s best not encouraged.
  • Disabled children being rejected or discriminated against by grown-ups. It may be realistic, but is it appropriate for the youngest readers? Again, if a child hasn’t considered their disability might make them unwelcome even with adults, this can be an unnecessary and painful reveal.
  • Inspirational! Disabled characters often come packaged with a “never give up!” motivational message. Realistically, every disabled person has things they can’t do. And we don’t exist to inspire!
  • Books that catalogue disabled people by diagnosis. There are good, collected biographies of disabled people that start with the individual, like I Am Not a Label. The problem comes when they start not with the individual, but with the diagnosis – the result can feel like a medical textbook with real life examples.
  • Books that avoid words like “disabled” and “disability”. The broad consensus in the disabled community is that these are simple, neutral words, preferable to eg “differently abled” or “special needs”. Either identity-first or person-first language is fine.

A theme running through much of this is that disabled characters are rarely at the centre of these stories, and they should be. By seeing the world through the eyes of an actual disabled person, like in El Deafo, children can really learn about the experience of disability.

Something we found enormously helpful when deciding which books to recommend was to imagine reading each book to a disabled child. These books are often not written with disabled children in mind, and contain messages which could cause them a great deal of distress. This is even more important in a school context, where they’re likely to be surrounded by non-disabled peers.

Realistically, we know many teachers are going to teach or read their classes books we consider problematic – for lots of reasons, including a lack of access to other books. We’ve chatted to lots of teachers who intend to use a book as a teaching resource by, for example, explaining that not all disabled people do want to be “just asked”.

We’ve thought about whether there is any advice we can offer a teacher in this position. We came to the conclusion that though we absolutely understand individual teachers’ situations, without designing a lesson plan for each problematic book, there’s not much universal advice we can give. We feel that stories have a real power to them, and swimming against the tide of a story – by for example questioning its central message within the lesson, is asking a lot of both teachers and pupils.

This isn’t all down to teachers, or publishing. Society just has a very long way to go when it comes to attitudes to disability. People often hear what they expect to hear. When we’re used to inspirational “never give up!” messages, books which emphasise kindness to disabled people rather than equality, and avoiding language like “disabled”, questioning that takes quite a lot of effort. What we need is better books! And we hope to be part of a wave of better disability representation in children’s literature.

– Lucy & James Catchpole

This post was prompted by a question from the U.S website weareteachers.com. They contacted us to ask if we had any advice for teachers, and we didn’t!

If you’re new to our blog, you might be interested in our KidLitCripCrit list of our favourite children’s books featuring disabled characters, and a What Happened to You? lesson plan.

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