Discussing deafness and disability

Published on: 27 April 2012 Author: Alex Strick

Alex Strick, BookTrust's disability consultant, discusses deafness, representation and inclusivity in children's books. 

After a week which included the London Book Fair and the Federation of Children's Book Groups Conference, I came back to earth positively buzzing with new ideas, information and plans.

At both events, I was lucky enough to be facilitating seminar discussions on disability and/or deafness, working with panels including the likes of Julia Donaldson and Ros Asquith.

At the Federation conference, we ran a workshop entitled Same Difference - the World of Disability in Children's Books. A wonderful brother-sister team (Aminder and Tatinder Virdee) accepted my invitation to take part in the seminar, and readily shared their experience of disability. Tatinder was eloquent in describing the need for disabled children to see themselves in books and find characters with whom they can identify. These images are also of course crucial in helping non-disabled children to become accepting of difference. As Tatinder pointed out, using a picture book to discuss disability in the classroom can present a perfect means of allowing children to ask questions and develop a better understanding of disability.

Aminder and Tatinder represent young disabled people in a national network called Trailblazers and also run disability awareness sessions in schools. Aminder illustrated how important it is for disabled children that such disability discussions are delivered sensitively and appropriately, using an example from her own childhood. When she was six and her brother eight, a teacher invited the pair up to the front of an Assembly to 'show' the rest of the children what it meant to be disabled.

The impact of this unfortunate event on the siblings was appalling. Some of their peers would avoid including them in any games (for fear of hurting them) while others started to tease or bully them.

Alexandra Strick with some of the panellists at the London Book Fair seminar

Illustrators Ros Asquith and Rebecca Elliott then shared their experience of featuring positive images in their books. Books clearly need to include natural, incidental images of disabled children taking part in everyday activities - like Ros' illustrations in the Great Big Book of Families. Ros described how she often creates the scene first and then works in the disability aid, such as a walker, so that the focus remains on the activity, not the disability. The panel acknowledged that books also need to help young readers understand that some children have more complex needs. Rebecca pointed out how some children will never be able to share in all the same activities or ambitions as their peers. In Just Because, her characters Clemmie and Toby are based on her own children, her daughter being severely disabled. The book reflects Rebecca's view that her daughter should be accepted - and indeed celebrated - simply for being herself.

For the seminar at the London Book Fair, we chose to focus particularly on deafness and children's books. Julia Donaldson explained how giving deaf children better access to books and stories is one of her key interests as Children's Laureate. She has been using the laureateship to further her knowledge of this area and identify needs. She and fellow author Joyce Dunbar clearly both shared the view that children need increased BSL signing, particularly in books, but also at events and in society at large. It is also vital that deaf children are actually given a voice. For me, one of the most powerful quotes from the day was that deaf children can't hear - but they also can't be heard.

Lauren Metcalfe from Action Deafness Books helped the audience better understand some of the common needs of deaf children.

90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents, who may have little or no experience of deafness, resulting in many different ways of communicating and sharing books.

Lauren highlighted how important the visual image can be for deaf children - and how this should continue to be seen as valuable when children get older - deaf children need access to good quality, age-appropriate picture books and graphic books. Rebecca Atkinson, a journalist and writer, talked about the importance of images of deaf people, both for deaf and hearing audiences. Rebecca is deaf herself and she described how valuable Julia's book Freddie and the Fairy had been in showing her own children another deaf person in a book. Some deaf children assume that they will grow up to be hearing, so it is vital that books include deaf adults as well as children.

Clearly not put off by her first public speaking assignment (and the Federation conference), Aminder Virdee joined the panel again to talk about her experience and the need for positive attitudes towards disability in general and Ros Asquith again shared her experience of including diverse images in books.

Both seminars were really well attended and seemed to generate great interest and debate. However they also illustrated just how much there is now to be done, and I look forward to working with BookTrust to find ways to meet at least some of the needs which the panels raised so powerfully.

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