When it comes to marginalized representation, visibility is important. There is incredible value in featuring covers with people of color front and center, or two boys or two girls kissing, and we need far more of those. It’s important for all teens to be able to see themselves reflected on book covers. We need to fight back against the common habit of minimizing any elements that might be seen as “risky.”
Unfortunately, that common habit is also present with disability.
Late last year, the cover of Robin Constantine’s The Season of You and Me was revealed. In the flap copy, the male lead is described as using a wheelchair as a result of paralysis, and being told he’ll never walk, surf, or slow-dance again.
In this case, the cover is not untrue to the book; there are several scenes where the character transfers out of his chair and onto the beach, and those scenes are quite meaningful to the central romance. It’s important not to ignore that the cover does reflect an aspect of the story. Additionally, while the use of a wheelchair is often thought of as all-or-nothing, there are many wheelchair users (whether part-time or full-time) who would be able to reach the position on the cover either alone or with assistance.
But it’s still notable that when the publisher had an opportunity to show, front-and-center, an attractive disabled lead / romantic interest … they didn’t. Even with so very few wheelchair-using protagonists in YA, even with the possibility of having a groundbreaking cover featuring a sweet scene between a girl and a boy in a wheelchair, they chose to make the character indistinguishable from an able-bodied character. There’s no hint for disabled readers that they might see themselves in this book—not even an unoccupied wheelchair off to the side where he would have left it. While we’re glad the book’s description doesn’t shy away from the character’s disability, a lot of disabled teens may never see that description without a cover that tells them they’re featured.
The discussion that followed the cover reveal prompted us to take a closer look at the state of clear, visible representation of disabled characters on book covers.
Firstly, we want to point out that many visible disabilities may only be visible in certain situations. Someone with a limp who doesn’t use any walking aids, for example, might well look able-bodied when standing still. When the cover features a close-up of a face, good luck recognizing someone as a wheelchair user. In these cases, the covers technically are showing disabled characters, but aren’t showing disability. There are also, of course, countless types of invisible disabilities, from chronic and mental illnesses to neurological and developmental disorders and far more. It won’t always be possible to visually indicate a disabled character … but it certainly is possible a lot more often than we see it happening.
Although there are ways to indicate invisible disabilities if so desired—we’ll give a few examples at the end—for the purposes of this article, we will be focusing primarily on the way characters with visible disabilities are depicted.
Wheelchairs are typically the go-to symbol for disability. (There’s a reason we have a wheelchair in our logo, after all.) Yet, there are few books featuring characters who use wheelchairs, and even fewer where their wheelchairs are visible on the cover. Here are some notable exceptions:
With Night Sky, Saffy’s Angel, and I Even Funnier, the disabilities are only indicated on certain publishers’ paperback editions. In fact, the original Night Sky hardcover showed the character without a visible wheelchair.
Other covers—for example Summer on the Short Bus—show wheelchairs, but without the actual wheelchair user present.
An interesting case is Colin Thiele’s Jodie’s Journey, which was published in both the US and Australia with very different covers. Two Australian paperbacks show the main character on the ground beside a tipped-over wheelchair; the US hardcover shows the character in her chair, looking tough as she holds a horse by its reins.
Another disability that’s often visible in real life is the loss of a limb. Usually, this disability is visible either in the absence of the limb, or in a prosthetic in its place. In contrast, here are some covers that prominently feature amputee characters, but with the affected limbs somehow hidden, obscured, unclear, or conveniently disappearing off the side of the cover.
In some cases, the publisher seems to have chosen to show the character before they become disabled. In The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly, the main character loses both hands, while the cover features very prominent hands; in Postcards to Father Abraham, the main character deals with a leg amputation, and the cover shows a girl running. While there may be logical reasons for both of these, they’re still instances of “they feature the character and could have easily shown their disability, but chose ways around it.”
There are several covers that prominently feature characters with albinism.
Covers like Golden Boy and Ghost Boy are clear and recognizable. We also appreciate the cover of The Badger Knight for not defaulting to an all-white theme, and showing a more realistic/subtle depiction of a character with albinism, although at the same time that might make the disability less recognizable.
There’s not always an easy solution; we’re not saying any of these covers did it wrong. We’re merely exploring the different paths publishers chose.
We found two books that clearly depict blind characters, one via the inclusion of sunglasses and a cane, and another via a guide dog.
A few books featuring little people do show the characters on the cover, although not always in a way that’s clear to an uninformed viewer.
We found several books which featured characters with mobility difficulties in the form of a limp, albeit not always in recognizable ways. The War That Saved My Life subtly shows the main character’s clubfoot, while Alchemy and Meggy Swann shows a girl holding her walking sticks across her lap. The male protagonist in The Peddler’s Road wears a brace on his leg because of his clubfoot, although the cover shows him running, and has his legs obscured by the bridge. Among Others features the protagonist standing in (possibly dancing through) a field; the character walks with a limp and uses a cane. We believe the cover is meant to show her before this happened.
An interesting case is Neil Gaiman’s Odd and the Frost Giants. When a book has multiple editions, you’re typically lucky for even one of them to feature visible disability representation. If the other editions use the same cover, it’s a win. Heck, if none of them decide to outright erase the condition, it’s already a win. For different publishers to go out of their way to create new illustrations, almost all of which show the condition, is practically unheard of. Odd lucked out, as many of its foreign depictions prominently show the character’s walking aid:
Other visible disabilities
When we stray away from the above categories, the pickings become slimmer. El Deafo shows a girl with a bulky, old-fashioned hearing aid; Tall Story shows someone with gigantism; the illustration for Wonder hints at the main character’s facial difference. Deenie’s protagonist—who has scoliosis—studies herself in the mirror. The protagonist of Vessel has burns on one side of her face, which aren’t visible on the cover; one side of her face is blurry, which could be to either obscure or hint at her scars.
In some of these cases, the condition is obvious straightaway. In others, although it may be technically visible, you might only recognize it if you knew about the disability already.
It’s necessarily going to be trickier to show invisible disabilities on covers, but it’s certainly not impossible. Several books dealing with eating disorders, for instance, imply the condition through the title and/or suggestive images, while covers like those of Of Sound Mind and T4 show sign language.
Titles are perhaps the easiest and most common way to indicate an invisibly disabled character. Sometimes this means including the actual condition (OCD Love Story, Deaf Child Crossing, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, Schizo), while others are somewhat less explicit (Me & Earl & the Dying Girl, Crazy). This approach is particularly common for titles featuring blind characters: The Blind Guide to Stinkville, Love Blind, Blindsided, Blind, Blind Spot. (Some blind readers are becoming weary of this trend, which is often paired with covers featuring non-functional braille and eye-related imagery.)
There are good arguments to be made for and against including disabilities in these ways. On the one hand, these titles make it easier for disabled readers to find books that include them, especially when there’s no visible representation on the cover. When disability is relevant, why not be bold about it?
On the other hand, if disability is incidental to the story, highlighting it in such unsubtle ways could be seen as one more way to sensationalize disability.
We don’t want to suggest all covers must show disability at all times. It can be difficult–even impossible–to depict certain disabilities, and doing so via hints or symbolism may not always fit the story. Nor is it always desirable: how would one even visually suggest a condition like autism or fibromyalgia without making it the point of the cover, when its inclusion in the book may be incidental? Is there a way to do so that won’t be clunky or even exploitative? These conditions are often invisible in real life. We don’t want to gloss over that fact, nor suggest that disability is only valid when visible or disclosed. Invisibly disabled people deal with that often enough in real life.
With this section, we’re not intending to supply easy answers. We simply want to show the different approaches that publishers have taken, and highlight some pros and cons that may not be immediately obvious.
Why does the lack of visible representation on covers happen and why is it a problem?
We can’t definitively answer that first question, but we can make some educated guesses. The obvious reason is that publishers are afraid disability won’t sell. Like any other marginalized group, the assumption is that the majority won’t be interested, which means fewer sales. Books that include diverse characters are frequently seen only as “message books.” Erasing the diversity from the cover may be a preemptive measure (based on faulty but pervasive premises) taken to prevent losing readers before they even pick up a book.
With disability in particular, there’s another layer to this. In our culture, visible disabilities are closely linked to ugliness, grotesqueness, and undesirability. The very act of looking at disabled people makes some non-disabled people deeply uncomfortable. Publishers may worry that covers displaying disability will scare readers off because of those associations. Covers are meant to entice, to seduce, to attract; disability tends to have the exact opposite effect, at least as far as non-disabled readers are concerned.
Which brings us to an important point: these covers are often meant to attract non-disabled readers specifically. The kidlit community talks a lot about the importance of seeing yourself reflected in books and, in this case, on covers. We talk about the effects on marginalized readers of seeing—or not seeing—your reflection. But according to publishers, marginalized readers may not be the target audience. They’re not necessarily who publishers or designers think about when they’re making decisions about the cover.
This is why even when there’s braille on a cover, it’s almost always too large to be usable, which defeats the entire purpose of braille. This is why even when there’s a wheelchair shown, it’s sometimes obscured. This is why slurs are sometimes used in titles and in cover backgrounds. This is why disability is so often glossed over entirely.
But why is any of this a problem? If we want more readers to find and pick up books with disabled characters, why not increase the marketability of those books however possible, even if that means erasing or minimizing the disability on the cover?
Wanting books with disabled characters to do well is a worthy goal, to be sure, but we need to consider the cost. Think about the message those covers send to disabled and non-disabled readers alike. They say that disability should be hidden; is shameful; is Other. The logical extension of that, of course, is that disabled people should be hidden, are shameful, are Other. There is real and tangible harm in those messages, no matter if they’re intentional or not.
Think, too, about the possibilities book covers offer for normalizing disability. Including visible representation can counter the above assumptions by rejecting them entirely. We want disabled children to grow up in a world where they’re included and visible like anyone else; where books tell them they can be heroes, too; where they won’t feel different and less, which is a message they may otherwise absorb from a young age.
There is incredible power in seeing and in being seen. Book covers can play an important role in that.
While we discussed many individual covers in this article, we are much more interested in pointing out patterns than we are in calling out or shaming any specific books.
For one, we only included covers which either made an attempt at representing the disability, or which did not represent the disability in situations where it likely would have been visible. We did not include the many, many covers which do not show the disabled protagonists at all (e.g. Far From You), which show the character too zoomed in to see their disability (e.g. The Drowned Cities), or which show a character whose disability might not be visible in a still image (The Demon’s Surrender; see author’s comment at end of interview).
For another, many of the covers included and criticized here or that we did not feature may well have been the best choice for that particular story. It’s impossible to say for sure whether a publisher chose an abstract cover because it best reflected the book or because they wanted to avoid explicit representation; we can’t know whether a close-up was chosen because it’s a trend in YA covers or because it’s a convenient excuse not to zoom out and show the disability.
We can’t divine intent, but we can examine and critique patterns of representation.
When there are so few books featuring disabled characters (especially compared to the overwhelming majority featuring non-disabled ones), each cover carries more weight than it otherwise would. With such a dearth of textual representation, it’s not enough to consider the cover image for any one book in isolation; publishers much also consider the wider context of disability representation and the extreme importance of visual as well as textual representation.
Visibly disabled readers understand what it means when characters like them are represented as non-disabled, when the disability is sneakily hidden, when it’s pushed to the background or even the back cover, when it’s absent altogether. Given the consistency with which this erasure happens, it’s safe to say these aren’t oversights or missteps. They are likely intentional choices made with a non-disabled audience in mind, and as a result, disabled readers may browse hundreds of books in any given bookstore’s YA section and not see a single visibly disabled character on the cover.
Disabled readers deserve to see themselves represented. They deserve to be visible on the covers of the books they star in. They deserve to be treated with the same respect as their non-disabled counterparts.
It’s time we see more and better disability representation on our covers.