‘We need children to see disability as part of the norm – not a weird phenomenon’

Published on: 03 December 2017 Author: Alex Strick

We need to see more disabled characters in children’s books, says Dr Rebecca Butler – especially since prejudice is still widespread in society. 

Sunday 3 December is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Created by the UN in 1992, the aim is to raise awareness of disability issues and disabled people’s rights.

The initiative also serves to highlight the benefits to society if you include disabled people in all aspects of political, social, economic and cultural life. 

BookTrust consultant Alex Strick spoke to Dr Rebecca Butler about her thoughts on the need for disabled characters in children’s books.

Does it feel to you that the percentage of books featuring disabled characters has improved over the last decade?

Yes, the percentage of such books has increased dramatically, which is a great advance. But disabled characters are still far less visible than non-disabled characters. There is always room for improvement.

Why is it so important that we continue to grow the number of inclusive books on the landscape?

It is vitally important.

If disabled children don’t see themselves represented in literature, they have nothing literary to aspire to and react to.

Conversations between disabled and non-disabled children, which can be stimulated by such texts, will simply fail to develop.

Obviously, it’s about more than just including a disabled character – it’s also about getting it right. What specifically do you look out for?

I look for three-dimensional characters who are not saints. I look for characters whose disability does not magically disappear when the narrative finds it convenient.

Another essential is context. Disabled characters have families, they have educational needs, they have medical experiences, they face discrimination and prejudice… Some authors fail to do the necessary research to understand the context in which a disabled character lives. It can be hard work.

In your previous blog for us, you helpfully highlighted some of the typical pitfalls authors may face when they feature disabled characters. Can you remind us of the most common stereotypes and tropes you come across?

The worst one is kill or cure. The disabled person either leaps fully mobile from the wheelchair or gracefully expires, thereby saving the non-disabled characters the bother of worrying about her.

Second, the disabled character may be represented as nothing but a bundle of symptoms; a cipher rather than a living being.

Finally, the disabled character may be a saint, never feeling a negative emotion such as anger or self-pity. Everyone, disabled or not, feels negative emotions sometimes.

Are there any forms of disability that you feel are especially under-represented in books?

Two groups spring to mind. People with multiple and complex learning difficulties are hardly ever represented in fiction. Their view of the world may be limited but my experience is that it can also run deep. As far as I know, no one has seized this issue. Also under-represented are people with serious physical limitations but high cognitive levels. Despite Stephen Hawking, this remains true.

It always strikes me that there are very few books actually by disabled writers themselves?

You are right. Lois Keith is an exception. I fear that some sections of the publishing business are still too conservative to run the risk of publishing books by disabled authors. They like established names, so change is very gradual.

For reasons embedded in society, many disabled people who might become authors lack the confidence that readers will be interested in their stories.

Finally, on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, do you have any key messages or requests about the way disability is perceived, both in books and by society?

Research by the National Centre for Social Research shows that prejudice towards disabled people is still widespread in Britain. We need a fundamental change in social attitudes.

Non-disabled people must be helped when they meet a disabled person to see the person first and the disability second.

We need to start young and ensure children accept disability as part of the norm – not a weird phenomenon.

Rebecca Butler holds a doctorate of education, which focuses on motor impairment in characters in children's novels and how these were perceived by young readers. She also has a Master's in children's literature and regularly reviews in three journals. She has published a number of papers on aspects of children's literature, including disability. She is a committee member of IBBY UK.

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