My parents raised me to be a voracious reader. Some of my favorite memories of growing up involve hearing bedtime stories as I drifted off to sleep, learning to read chapter books by myself, and filling my bookcase to the brim with my hauls from Barnes and Nobles. Because of this, I have always found joy and comfort in getting lost inside someone else’s reality, immersing myself in the lives of the characters unfolding in the pages of my book. Part of the fun came from finding connections between my lived experiences and those occurring in the stories I was reading. However, there was always a huge part of my life that was almost never reflected back at me in the children’s book characters I grew to know and love: having a disability.
So many of my favorite childhood books had morals and lessons about accepting people for who they are, but characters with disabilities were few and far between. It was always another reminder that I didn’t quite fit the cookie cutter traits used by so many children’s authors when I was growing up in the early 1990s. Themes of diversity were only just starting to gain momentum at that time. And even then, I can only recall seeing disabled kids in specialized genres.
In fact, the only two children’s books I owned that featured kids with disabilities, both of which I still have, are Andy Finds a Turtle and Patrick and Emma Lou by Nan Holcomb, published by Turtle Books. Emma Lou has spina bifida, and both Andy and Patrick have cerebral palsy. Each book centers on triumphing in the face of disability. And while I loved those books and read them until they were well worn, they were isolated instances of disability in children’s literature. A true sense of inclusion was missing.
Twenty years later, I notice that children’s book sections in libraries and bookstores are inundated with examples of diversity. The shelves are filled with titles promoting acceptance of all races, religions, abilities, sexual orientations, and family structures. It makes me wonder, though: why was I denied the chance to feel included when I was little? And is enough being to done to change that for disabled people now?
What concerns me is that disabled characters are often integrated in the form of tokenism, meaning one token character that could be considered “different” is included in the plot. And even then, such characters are frequently depicted in stereotypical ways, despite being created by authors who may have the best of intentions.
I find this not only in children’s books but also in adult literature. I’ve spent so much of my life missing accurate reflections of my reality in the books I read. From the bedtime stories of my younger years to the ever-growing collection of novels I’ve amassed in my adult years, disability is rarely represented well, if at all. After so many years of reading, I’ve grown weary of this.
There is an incredibly misguided and oversimplified assumption made by many authors that disability is negative, so they either use it as a literary device or avoid including it altogether. Once, I was asked why I’d even want more disability representation in what I read if I choose to look at reading as an escape or a relaxing break from reality. I don’t see my disability as something unfortunate that I want to escape. Perhaps I may want to escape emotional or physical issues related to my disability, but it is inherently part of me – and I’m proud of it. So, to have disability reflected back at me as an unfortunate circumstance, as something that needs fixing, or to have it seem as though disability just shouldn’t exist in a perfect literary world, makes reading the opposite of an escape at times. Instead, it makes reading another reminder of the ways in which disabled people are still not accepted and included.
I’d love to see inclusion of disability in literature become less about morals or tokenism and instead become a seamlessly integrated aspect of literature for audiences of all ages. I know there are authors out there who work tirelessly to overcome misrepresentations and the lack of disabilities in both children’s and adult literature, and theirs is the writing I will continue to seek out to fill my bookshelves.