9 Unhelpful disability tropes in kids’ books

There are 9 disability tropes we’ve found coming up repeatedly in illustrated children’s books – all unhelpful for various reasons. As disabled people working in children’s publishing, we’re pointing them out in the hope we can all move on from them.

We’re very aware that books including these tropes will have been created with the best of intentions – from writers, editors, publishers, everyone involved. We’re not trying to throw anyone under the bus.

But we feel that disability needs to be taken seriously. There’s been a tradition of going light on research, and prioritising disability adjacent experts. The industry moved on from adjacent experts for other marginalised groups a good while ago, and we hope disability will catch up.

We don’t think disability representation needs to lag behind – as it does at the moment.

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, after all 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.
  • Disabled characters obliged 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 befriends them. The onus shouldn’t be on any child to convert someone 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.
  • 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. (We’ve written about it here.)
  • 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!

There’s some great representation of disabled characters out there. You can find a short list of our favourites in the post below.

– Lucy & James Catchpole

[Image descriptions:

Image 1: Mainie, our 6yo daughter, is pretending to be a teacher. She’s holding an apple and pointing at her blackboard with a stick. She’s wearing James’s old academic cap and gown. (Truth be told it fell off constantly and I am amazed we got this one shot.) Our text, on a cream paper background, reads: ‘Disability and kids’ books: some tropes’. On the blackboard are the words ‘teachers!’ ‘& editors & writers!’. (If you look very closely, Mainie has written the word ‘teachers’ too. It’s gloriously lopsided.)

Image 2: All subsequent slides use the same background photo, with a larger cream paper background over the top. Our text reads: ‘Unhelpful disability tropes: A parent shown grieving the birth of a disabled child. Births aren’t always uncomplicatedly joyful. But in picture books this only comes up with disabled children. Trope 1.’

Image 3: Our text reads: ‘Disabled characters obliged to answer questions & educate. We shouldn’t expect disabled people to be living teachable moments. Unhelpful disability trope 2’

Image 4: ‘A non-disabled central character who explains the disabled character to the reader. Eg books with titles like “My Sister has Autism”. A disabled character’s perspective is preferable. Unhelpful disability trope 3’

Image 5: ‘A child bullied for their disability proves bullies wrong & befriends them. It’s not a child’s responsibility to convert their bullies. Unhelpful disability trope 4’

Image 6: ‘Surprise! Disabled! Disability isn’t a punchline. While revealing a character is disabled on the last page might intend to humanise, the effect is the opposite. Unhelpful disability trope 5’

Image 7: ‘Disabled characters for comic effect. Disabled characters have been the butt of jokes for centuries, we think it’s best not encouraged. Unhelpful disability trope 6’

Image 8: ‘Disabled children being rejected or discriminated against by adults. Realistic? Maybe. But is it appropriate for young kids? This could be a painful reveal for disabled readers. Unhelpful disability trope 7’

Image 9: ‘Books cataloguing disabled people by diagnosis. When non-fiction starts with diagnoses instead of the individual, the book can feel like a medical textbook with real life examples. Unhelpful disability trope 8’

Image 10: ‘Inspirational! Disabled characters often come with ‘never give up!’ messages. But every disabled person has things they can’t do. We do not exist to inspire! Unhelpful disability trope 9′]

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