Writing tips to include diversity

How can writers, illustrators and publishers make sure that they're reflecting our diverse society? We have some pointers to help.

Fiona Lumbers illustration

Books should fully reflect the diverse society in which we live. As many as one in six children have special educational needs, and yet the books we give children do not come even close to acknowledging this.

Trying to ensure a disabled person is included in a storyline or picture can at first feel contrived, tokenistic or even 'over-PC'. However, this is generally because we are used to images and texts that do not reflect the true diversity of society. The book world should be involved in working towards a situation where this is the norm.

Understanding disability

A good starting point can be becoming aware of the 'social model of disability'. This is a well-established model that recognises that it is not an individual's condition that disables them, but rather the physical and social barriers around that person. These barriers may be:

  • Environmental: e.g. steps, small print or poor lighting
  • Attitudinal: e.g. notions that disabled people are childlike or helpless
  • Institutional: e.g. an organisation's policies and procedures or an absence of anti-discrimination legislation

Approaching any project from this angle can help you to avoid the implication that it is the disabled person who is - or has - the 'problem'.

Five tips for including disabled characters

  1. Include a disabled character 'naturally'
    By this we mean without drawing unnecessary attention to the disability. Including a disabled character does not need to mean major changes to your book. Disability doesn't need to be a key part of the plot – and certainly not a 'punchline'.
  2. Avoid stereotyping
    Don't fall into the trap of making the disabled character a 'sinner or a saint' simply because they are disabled. A disabled character should be just like any other character – an individual with his or her own views, strengths, weaknesses, ambitions and hobbies.
  3. Include different forms of disability
    Many people immediately associate disability with wheelchairs. Think about other ways of including under-represented groups, such as deaf people, blind or partially sighted people and people with learning difficulties.
  4. Think about terminology
    Language changes all the time, and terms we used even a few years ago may already be seen as unacceptable or inappropriate today. 
  5. Don't make assumptions about disability
    Think about the specific needs of your character and find out, for example, about the sort of equipment she or he might use, and ways that she or he would overcome particular obstacles.

Erika Meza illustration

Language and terminology

Changing just a few words can make a considerable difference to people who are disabled or work in the field of disability, as well as simply promoting good practice and inclusion.

Language and terminology are in a constant state of change. Remember that what may have been considered acceptable even four or five years ago may be considered by some to be unacceptable today. People's views on language and terminology can be very subjective.

At the time of writing, the following terms may be useful and are generally considered preferable to the examples shown in brackets:

  • Disabled (as opposed to handicapped)
  • Disabled person (instead of a person with a disability)
  • Learning disability (as opposed to mental disability)
  • Wheelchair user (as opposed to wheelchair-bound or confined to a wheelchair)
  • A boy who has Down's syndrome (as opposed to a Down's syndrome boy)
  • A girl who has cerebral palsy (as opposed to a girl suffering from cerebral palsy)

Illustration

If you are planning, commissioning or illustrating a book, always try to look at ways of including a disabled character somewhere. Sometimes this may be impossible (such as where an image includes only one or two people). However, always try to err on the side of inclusion.

  • In a group scene (particularly a school or street, for example), it should be relatively easy to include items such as a hearing aid, splint, glasses, wheelchair or walker. 
  • Do your research and make use of web resources such as Scope's In the Picture website, which features plenty of advice and an image bank for reference.
  • Research different types of mobility aids – for example, on manufacturer or suppliers' websites such as www.essentialaids.com and www.themobilityaidscentre.co.uk.
  • Think about the character's environment. Even if your disabled character does not feature much in the story, you might give reference to him or her by including visual clues or verbal references to items such as grab bars, ramps or specialist equipment.
  • Even if you have no disabled characters in your book, as above, look for ways to present an inclusive environment, such as featuring ramps outside public buildings. This can shows an awareness and can offer useful material for discussion.
  • Be brave! Look at ways to include less 'visible' conditions, such as dyslexia (tinted glasses) or deaf characters (using sign language).

Kate Alizadeh illustration

Accessibility

Consider your audience's needs, too. Look at ways of ensuring your book can be accessed by as wide a readership as possible. For example:

  • Using a legible font can dramatically help some readers (ideally sans serif – so Arial rather than Times New Roman)
  • Very ornate and 'handwriting'-style typefaces can be difficult to read
  • Instead of italics or underlining, use bold text to change emphasis
  • Use contrasting colours for the text and background
  • Avoid placing text over illustrations or complicated backgrounds

Examples of good practice

Natural inclusion of disabled characters in images:

  • Many books by Child's Play, such as their Hands-On Songs series (Humpty Dumpty and so on), include a vast range of casually included disabled characters
  • Books like My First Animal Signs by Anthony Lewis also include characters with hearing aids
  • Usborne's books by Jo Litchfield regularly include wheelchair-using characters, e.g. Daisy the Doctor

Positive and/or natural inclusion of disabled characters in stories, where disability is not central to the story:

  • Sophie Smiley and Michael Foreman have included a disabled character in their series about a football-loving schoolboy (the series includes Bobby, Charlton and the Mountain, published by Andersen Press)
  • Saffy and her family have a wheelchair-using friend in Saffy's Angel by Hilary McKay.

Accessibility:

Barrington Stoke books are on cream or yellow paper instead of white, making it easier on the eye. They have spent a lot time developing a typeface that they are confident is as easy to read as possible.

Bookmark

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