[Featured Image Description: Book cover for ‘Why Johnny Doesn’t Flap.’ The rest of the images in this post are book covers from the preceding text].
This is the second in a three-series post: You’ll learn to recognize the insidious ableism children’s books about disability, and how to find stories that foster an inclusive society that respects and empowers individuals with disabilities. Click here to start at the beginning.
Uncovering the non-disabled supremacy of children’s stories
In our previous post, you learned the importance of reading books full of complex disabled characters with agency and power. Later in the series we’ll see the importance of normalizing disabled characters within stories not centered on disability, but first, and urgent message about the dangers of misrepresentation.
Stop silencing the voices of disabled communities
99% of books about disability are full of stereotypes and broad generalizations, and there’s a good reason why – can you guess what it is?
Almost all of these books are written by non-disabled makers.
When a maker with power uses their influence to boost the voice of an oppressed minority, that’s awesome.
When a maker with power uses their loud voice to speak about us, without us, that is a problem. It silences us – not just metaphorically, but pushes down our voices in news feeds, google results, and the queues of publisher manuscripts.
I can understand why an editor would choose to worth with a celebrity author with a lot of fancy degrees and a lab coat (Such an expert! So trustworthy!) over the unglamorous voice of a regular disabled person who works in the stockroom at Target.
Think about this for a second. That expert byline will sell more books and tell readers what they want to hear – but will they provide the insight readers actually need?
That expert hasn’t lived this experience every day of their life. They don’t know what it feels like to be poked and prodded and analyzed. They aren’t judged for having sensory meltdowns in the grocery store. They haven’t faced a million jokes about their prosthesis. They haven’t struggled to hold together relationships with family, friends, and partners when living with a disability gets rough.
Our publishing industry is supremacist.
Disabled people, even disabled academics and disabled parents, have to prove competence before we are believed over the voices of our non-disabled counterparts. That is completely messed up, and it’s justified by the idea that cognitive, physical, and intellectual disability renders us incompetent. Non-disabled voices, even D-list celebrities famous for farting on quiz shows, are literally accepted as superior.
We progressives get all huffy about white dudes writing legislation about women’s bodies, but I don’t see any fuss about non-disabled parents and ‘experts’ making decisions about the bodies of disabled people. What gives!? (Ableism gives!)
It’s so easy to make a quick buck with a series of cut & paste books about disability. It’s such a charity to write a book about the poor cripples, who cares if the book doesn’t fact-check or consult any actually disabled people before it goes to print? [SARCASM.]
The disability books we’ve been reading our children are violently dangerous.
These faux-science, innocuous books full of adorable illustrations and generalizations ‘other’ us in insidious ways. When we see someone as the ‘other,’ it’s easier to stop listening to them. It’s easier to downplay their pain and oppression. It’s easier to deny their rights. It’s easier to exclude them from classrooms. It’s easier to force them into institutions, sterilize them against their will, take their children away from them, selectively abort, abuse, and kill them.
When I talk about the urgent problem of misinformation in kids books, non-disabled people never understand why this is such a big deal. They don’t know the history of murder, abuse, and violence against disabled people since the beginning of humanity that continues today in our own neighborhoods.
This is urgent to me and this is why I am desperate to make you understand –
From the moment my son was born, I knew if I say the wrong thing, if I anger the wrong people – will they take my children away.
Those first days in the hospital with my newborn, I knew I would have to constantly be on guard. It would be so easy. I’m autistic. All it takes is one doctor, one teacher, one judge who doesn’t understand what autism is to declare me unfit.
Please, I’m begging you – this is urgent. We need to fight misunderstandings. We need to listen to disabled people.
Step 2 of 3: Listen to the voices of actually disabled people
- Disabled protagonists as the main character.
- Authors and illustrations who are actually disabled, or acknowledgement of disabled consultants.
- Neutral, non-pathologizing language.
- Data-based facts and refutations on common myths and stereotypes.
- Non-disabled protagonists with a disabled friend or sibling. There are a mind-blowing number of books narrated by service dogs – way more than narrated by a blind protagonist. [Problematic example: ‘Looking Out For Sarah‘].
- Pages written by non-disabled ‘experts’ or parents of disabled children with zero consultation credits for actually diabled people [Problematic example: ‘My Friend Has Autism‘].
- Negative, pathologizing, and condescending language [Examples: ‘Wheelchair-bound,’ ‘Suffering from autism,’ ‘Handicapable!’]
- Reinforces common myths and stereotypes with gross generalizations. [Problematic example: ‘My Friend Has Down Syndrome‘].
Captioned age ranges are for when my sons got ‘the gist’ of the story with discussion & alternative readings – most contain text for much older ages.
Boost the voices of real people
‘Amy, The Story Of a Deaf Child,’ although almost as old as me and out of print, is the single best book I’ve ever read both normalizing and educating a real-life girl balancing everyday kid stuff with typical accommodations for living in a primarily Deaf family. This book was published in tandem with Amy’s supreme court fight for inclusive school accommodations, which they lost, but set the path for later legislation like the IDEA.
‘The People You May See‘ boosts the voices of people kids encounter in the real world to dispel myths and create compassion. Click here for more images from the book in our exclusive Maker Spotlight with Lisa Koehler.
‘I Have Cerebral Palsy‘ includes photos of a real little girl named Sydney. Her narrative acknowledges that CP is different for everyone, and how this is her personal experience. This doesn’t seem like a big deal, unless you know that 99% of books paint everyone with the disability with a broad brush as if they are all exactly the same. Focusing on the many things kids with CP have with kids who don’t, it prepares friends for common behaviors (slow speech, muscle spasms) without painting them negatively.
Provoke intellectual empathy & a different perspective
‘I’ll Tell You Why I Can’t Wear Those Clothes‘ is a workbook helping kids with sensory processing disorders (SPD) and children without SPD empathize with them. It’s such a fantastic book I’m saddened that this same thing doesn’t exist for all stigmatized communities. The maker took great pains to use sensory-soothing paper, images, and binding, which results in a book so gorgeous you’ll hesitate to write in it.
‘The Autism Acceptance Book‘ is a workbook teaching non-autistic children how to understand and support autistic siblings and friends. Caveat: This is comb-bound, which can be painful for people with sound sensory issues. Sigh.
‘Why Johnny Doesn’t Flap‘ gives non-autistic readers a taste of what it feels like to be treated as inferior because of our neurodivergence. Intended to be a tounge-in-cheek parody of popular kids books, I suggest you avoid reading it to non-autistic kids, because it will make them feel like crap. I’m conflicted on this, but this book really did help my son be more patient with the challenges his non-autistic brother. Still, the condescending tone should be a learning device for adults and older kids, and not a good thing. And no, reverse-ableism isn’t a thing – non-disabled people aren’t being systematically abused, selectively-aborted, murdered, and forced into institutions because they don’t fit in.
Ages 4+ (see caveats!)
Explore lessons with engaging stories
‘Moses Goes To A Concert‘ introduces simple signs in a field trip story while dispelling myths on what Deaf children can and can’t do.
‘Dixie wants an allergy‘ introduces us to a few common allergies. As a side note, it’s also great for introducing how appropriating something that endangers marginalized people for our own entertainment is a jerk thing to do.
‘Keep Your Ear On The Ball‘ centers a non-Deaf protagonist, but addresses common frustrations with the presumption of incompetence, and sets examples for how non-Deaf friends can aid inclusive environments for everyone.
‘My Three Best Friends And Me, Zulay‘ is all over the place (the book has nothing to do with her three friends and tries to cram in three plot lines into one, which is confusing at best), but at least it centers a Blind girl of color.
Didactic lessons (kinda boring, a little helpful)
‘Don’t Call Me Special‘ gently addresses a few of the. most common ableist practices that harm disabled folks in ways even a preschooler can understand. I’m not a huge fan of the other books in this series, but this one is solid.
‘Eating Gluten Free With Emily‘ shows us how isolating it can feel to be segregated from social activities because of dietary restrictions (Celiac disease). We also learn how her disability doesn’t define her, it’s just a part of who she is, like freckles and her sense of humor. We also see how adults who don’t take her disease seriously put her in danger.
‘I Know Someone With Down Syndrome‘ Despite the title centering people without Down syndrome (why must non-disabled people constantly center themselves?!), this was a surprisingly inclusive and respectful intro to the lives of people Down syndrome and takes care not to generalize. Bonus points for photographs instead of illustrations to help kids accept that kids with Down syndrome are regular people.
‘The Great Katie Kate Explains Epilepsy‘ centers on a non-disabled super-hero but offers more facts and figures for kids who are into stuff like EEG and MRI machines (non-comprehensive, featuring just a few types of seizure disorders). This book is still terrible, and it’s not for kids with epilepsy but it’s the least awful one I could find educating classmates on how to remain calm and compassionate for friends with seizure disorders.
‘Taking Diabetes to School‘ offers an introduction to Type 1 diabetes and shows kids how to identify signs of high or low blood sugar to better support diabetic friends. Caveat: The author ends all of her books with “After all, nobody’s perfect!” which is completely unnecessary and implies that diabetes is a personal flaw.
‘I Think I Have The Wiggle Fidgets‘ is the least-terrible books I found on ADHD, but it still focuses on negatives rather than the benefits of ADHD neurodivergence (of which there are many). The maker uses pathologizing language like ‘cure’ (which is a 4-letter word that translates to training similar to gay-aversion therapy, abuse, and selective abortion among disability rights advocates), but in the context of the book the word ‘cure’ is for appropriate accommodations like fidget toys. Because the author has ADHD and I do not, I’m letting this one through.
Up next in part 3: The supremacy of tropes
Stay Curious & Stand Brave
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