[Featured Image Description: Book cover for ‘Not So Tall For Six.’ The rest of the images in this post are book covers from the preceding text].
This is the first of a four-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 for more BFL books fighting for disability rights.
If you’re new to the disability rights movement and a social model of disability, let’s get oriented. Say this with me.
Disabled lives are lives worth living.
Disabled lives are lives worth living.
Out loud, please;
Disabled lives are lives worth living.
Disabled kids deserve the same rights to life, autonomy, and respect as any non-disabled child. So why are our school and library bookshelves still full of inaccurate stereotypes and condescending bigotry against disabled characters?
Be An Accomplice – Make Mistakes And Offend People
I’m not physically disabled, so I struggle with being helpful – but also respectful to those who face challenges I don’t have.
Do I offer to hold a door for a wheelchair-user, or would that be insulting? Do I need to write image descriptions for blind users on my photography page, or is that just performative allyship? Do I review books on Down syndrome, or will I mess it up because I can’t possibly understand the nuances of DS without having it?
Worse – staying silent is not an option. Our society – even within the most progressive pockets – is hostile to the disability community. When we pathologize violence and bullying, calling our adversaries d-mb r-ards, or argue that one individual or community deserves rights and freedom because at least they’re not [insert your flavor of imperfect people here], that’s trampling one community to boost another, and that’s not how equality works.
And yeah – we’ll make mistakes. Someone you’re trying to advocate for will let you know when you’re actually hurting them. Lots of someones will complain you’re making a big deal out of nothing. Pretty much everyone will ignore you when you advocate for the rights of disabled people.
Speak up anyway.
How We Build An Inclusive Community
- Help everyone.
Disabled people want you to treat them the way you treat everyone else – so expand your thinking. Build inclusive environments and products that everybody can access. Every non-disabled person can walk up a ramp, but not everyone can walk up stairs.
- Ask first.
Don’t put your germy hands on someone’s wheelchair and start shoving. Would you touch a non-disabled person like that? Ask if they want help. Sometimes you’ll get a grouchy response (especially if you’re the 20th person to ask that day), and this discomfort is a small price to pay for your non-disabled privilege – it’s not their fault when you read the situation wrong.
- Listen & believe them
Don’t insist on helping even when they say ‘no.’ Don’t argue about the best way to help them when you disagree. Accept a person’s lived experience. You’re allowed to ask for advice, but remember, google is free, and they don’t owe you time and energy to personally educate your or justify why they need accommodations for employment and survival.
- Check your assumptions.
Pay attention to how you talk to people and your own biases. Speaking from experience – the tone of a conversation changes immediately once I tell someone I’m autistic. Oh hey – did that last sentence make you want to go back and re-read this whole thing through a new lens?
- Remember no one was born knowing everything.
It’s okay to make mistakes as you learn. If you truly want to learn about the experiences of disabled people and create inclusive future for all of us, move forward and speak up, even when you’re afraid. Be prepared to get corrected when you’re wrong. And don’t lash out at us when you make mistakes. Remember this mantra: “Creating an equitable future is not about me.”
Step 1 of 3: Read Empowering Stories Featuring Disabled Characters
Later, we’ll discuss two more vital types of books that we need to read with our kids to foster compassion and fight ableism. But first – let’s draw a line between empowering books featuring disabled characters with agency and condescending inspiration porn that feeds into stereotypes.
- Competent multi-dimensional disabled protagonists represented with diverse races and genders.
- Open discussion of disability without shame, including downsides and upsides.
- Thoughtful, inclusive language, well-crafted, images of characters with integrity, and plot lines.
- Helpless supporting characters with disabilities who exist only to support the non-disabled protagonist’s story (victims, villains & burdensome disabled family.) [Problematic example: French Toast, My Brother Is Autistic, Netflix’s Atypical]
- Characters worthy of love only after they overcome disability, act non-disabled, or go above-and-beyond to make up for them. [Problematic example: My Friend Maggie, My Brother Charlie]
- Disabled characters expected to ‘suck it up’ or keep up with non-disabled people despite pain and abuse, or disregard the real challenges and dangers of living in a world without accommodations. [Problematic example: Armond Goes To a Party, Dylan the Villain]
- Non-disabled saviors and idealization of magic cures as a the only acceptable happy ending, suggesting no disabled person can be content as they are. [Problematic example: Peter Nimble, Walking Through The World Of Aromas]
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.
Empowering Stories Featuring Explicitly Disabled Characters
In ‘We’ll Paint The Octopus Red,’ a big-sister-to-be helps her parents recognize that her new baby sibling with Down syndrome will be just as valuable a family member as any other child. ‘Mama Zooms‘ is the story of a boy and his wheelchair-using mother and the great life they have together.
In ‘All My Stripes,’ Zane’s mom lists the things she loves about his unique autistic mind. A few caveats: This book contains a foreword by a leader of the reviled autism-exploitation group Autism Speaks, and the book is clearly illustrated by a non-autistic illustrator for non-literal (re: non-neurodivergent) kids, as the ‘stripes’ listed aren’t literally on the zebra, which irritated both me and my 4yo.
‘Fish In A Tree’ is the story of a clever girl with diagnosed dyslexia who has been labeled as a troublemaker in her attempts to hide her disability. Caveats: One character is presumably autistic and wears a ‘Flint’ T-shirt, but the author swerves away from addressing either social disabilities or the Flint water crisis, which seems kinda cowardly. This book has also gotten criticisms about being unrealistic because of the lack of adult resources for bullied children. To read more on the intersection of poverty and lack of adult intervention with bullying, click here.
Empowering Stories About A Social Model Of Disability
‘The Red Lemon‘ is an allegorical tale that highlights the social model of disability, where many of our disabilities are seen as flaws, but are only a challenge within the context of an environment that isn’t built for us. ‘Red: A Crayon’s Story‘ is another universal allegory for children growing up with the wrong label. It works for LGBQTI+ youth, but as a young autistic girl growing up undiagnosed and confused, this story hits me in the gut. It is one of my top five favorite books teaching compassion – and we’ve read thousands. ‘Finklehopper Frog‘ is picked on for not jogging like everyone else, until he realizes jogging isn’t the only fun way to get around.
Empowering Stories About Visible Differences (Frequently Bullied)
‘Not So Tall For Six‘ is the story of a resilient girl (never explicitly listed as a Little Person, but she and her her entire family are Little) who overcomes her bully with kindness and inclusion. ‘Abigail The Whale‘ uses mindfulness to tap into her strength and get past her bullies’ taunts. She eventually takes ownership and pride in her size with (very mild) revenge in the form of a cannonball splash.
‘Lovely‘ shows the many ways we can celebrate visible diversity with fantastic jabs at mainstream-media beauty. Celebrating birthmarks, age-spots, vitiligo, non-binary genders, athletes with prosthetic devices, heterochromia iridum, a wide range of heights, weights, ages and sizes, plus more stuff I don’t even know the names for.
Up next in part 2: How did the children’s book industry become supremacist?
Stay Curious & Stand Brave
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*Note on identity language:
If you are disabled/have disabilities and feel misrepresented in this post, your comments are welcome and I invite your perspective, as the community of disability rights advocates is not monolithic and your perspective matters.
Before any non-disabled folks chime in suggesting I switch to person-first language – please don’t pretend it’s just concerned advice. You’re smart, so I’ll leave it to you to google how assuming I’m not disabled because I’m eloquent, assuming I’m not disabled enough, tone-policing, and derailing my point is an act of supremacy.
The use of person-first language centers non-disabled status as superior. It separates us from our disabilities – as if our disabilities don’t affect who we are and/or we should be ashamed of them. You wouldn’t call me a ‘person with womanhood,’ ‘a person with right-handedness,’ nor ‘a person with mixed heritage.’ I am a right-handed, multiracial, autistic woman and I am not ashamed.