The Wheelchair

Published on: 10 January 2011 Author: Alex Strick

Alex Strick, BookTrust's disability consultant, gives some great tips and advice on writing a character in a wheelchair, ensuring they're authentic and what pitfalls to avoid.

Illustration of two older children, one is in a wheelchair

Let's talk about wheelchairs. Perhaps the most 'obvious' way to include a disabled character in a children's book, but no doubt carrying its fair share of potential pitfalls.

For starters, there is the very fact that it is so obvious. You may worry that including a wheelchair will run the risk of appearing tokenistic? Will it look as if you have just added it to you book in order to put a nice neat little tick in the 'disability' box, alongside the other boxes marked gender, race and ethnicity?

This is an understandable fear, especially where the wheelchair is added as something of an afterthought.
Perhaps the answer lies not in the inclusion of the wheelchair, but the way it is included? For one thing, the wheelchair-user should surely be an active part of the scene - not just a passive observer. For example, if one is illustrating a group of children playing football, making a wheelchair-user the mascot or an enthusiastic supporter on the pitch-line does not constitute including him or her in the game. Being 'inclusive' means just that. Real inclusion.

At this point, you may be forgiven for deciding that it is all getting just a bit too complicated and potentially time-consuming. 'I'm a writer or illustrator', you may think, 'not a disability sports specialist. And I have a deadline of last week'. Perhaps including a disabled character can wait until the next book.

However, my view (and I await the comments on this) is that it isn't always necessary to get too hung up on the technical details of exactly how a disabled child would play football, for example. Children have ways of making games happen, don't they? Just get on and include a wheelchair-user in the group and let your characters find their own way to make it work. That isn't to say that a little bit of research wouldn't help you make it look as plausible as possible.

Another fear is that a character in a wheelchair can appear rather one-dimensional - as if defined purely by his or her impairment. In other words, all one sees is the wheelchair. And will it run the risk of reinforcing any stereotypes or preconceived ideas about disabled people?

Surely here the answer is to ensure a fully-rounded character has been developed. Indeed, there may well be no need to even reference the fact that they use a happen to use a wheelchair. What makes them most interesting will be their personality, their interests, their strengths, their weaknesses and the adventures they have, not the fact that they happen to use a wheelchair.

Illustration of a younger child in a wheelchair

And then there is the question of how to draw (or describe) the wheelchair itself. All too often, a wheelchair in a children's book can be a huge, ugly, old-fashioned contraption, looking more like an instrument of torture than a means of getting around. These days, many wheelchairs are actually rather more attractive, streamlined affairs (think of those sporty little numbers used by wheelchair athletes). Likewise, including a wheelchair in a book does not automatically create the need for a kindly person standing behind it, to push it. Many wheelchair-users propel themselves.

There are also some spectacularly hi-tech powered wheelchairs on the market - but how many times have you seen one of these in a children's book? Wouldn't it be great to include one in your next book? And then there are of course many, many other forms of mobility equipment, like bikes and trikes and walkers and.... Perhaps they should be saved for another day and another blog.

So on that note, I pass over to you. Show your support for what we are doing, ask a question, make a controversial observation, share an experience or suggest a topic for one of the many blogs to come. You even might disagree entirely with everything I have said. Whatever you are thinking, please share it with us now in the comments section below.

Go on, I dare you.

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