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5 Things Every Kid Should Know About Disability – Raising Anti-Ableist Kids
[Image Description: Book cover for Rosie The Raven, by Helga Bansch, featuring a young white-presenting child flanked by two enormous black ravens.]
This is the first of a four-series post. In this post: 5 actions to teach your kids about disability inclusion & awesome picture books to get started. Learn what to look for in kids books fostering equity for kids with disabilities – and how to spot ableist tropes.
Raising Anti-Ableist Kids
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Disability 101: What Every Kid Should Know
If you’re new to the disability rights movement and a social model of disability, let’s start from the beginning.
Disabled lives are lives worth living.
Disabled lives are lives worth living.
Out loud, please;
Disabled lives are lives worth living.
Disabled kids deserve the same rights to life, autonomy, and respect as any non-disabled child.
So why do our school and library bookshelves still treat kids with disabilities as burdens to be managed.
Children’s Disability Books Are Hot Rubbish
You’ve got some work to do. We all have some work to do.
We’re raised to view disability as a flaw, people with disabilities as incomplete, as less human. From revulsion to pity, from erasure to abuse, we all need to take a look at how we view disability and how we treat each other.
Racism and sexism in kidlit is falling out of style. Somehow ableism and body-shaming is still totally okay.
Stop settling for rubbish books that feed into ableism and non-disabled supremacy.
Be an accomplice for disability rights: 5 Ways To Demand Inclusion:
Speak up & disrupt.
Demand inclusive environments and products that everybody can access. Every non-disabled student can walk up a ramp, but not everyone can walk up stairs.
Demand the same treatment for disabled people as you expect for yourself.
Don’t put your grimy hands on someone’s wheelchair and start shoving. Respect the autonomy and consent of disabled people – don’t insist on helping even when someone says ‘no.’ Don’t subject people with disabilities to non-consensual treatment that would be considered inhumane and abusive for people without disabilities.
Listen & believe our lived experience – and respect our time.
Don’t argue with a disabled person because you think you know better about what they need. When they tell you to stop doing something or set boundaries – don’t ask them to break it down and justify their needs. Google is free. You’ve probably got access to a library. Getting the same question from strangers 10 times a day is exhausting. Your friends and family don’t owe you a masterclass, nor should they have to justify why they need accommodations for education, employment, and survival.
Make mistakes. Apologize. Move on. Do better.
If you truly want to learn about the experiences of disabled people and create inclusive future for all of us, move forward and speak up, even when you’re afraid you’ll misspeak. Be prepared to get corrected when you’re wrong. And don’t lash out at us when you make mistakes. Remember this mantra: “Creating an equitable future is not about me.”
Check your assumptions & Always presume competence.
The tone of a conversation changes immediately once I tell someone I’m autistic.Did that last sentence make you want to go back and re-read this whole thing through a new, paternalistic lens? Ableism tells you to discount and disqualify the challenging things I tell you, simply because I have a cognitive disability.
Get over it. The only person who can speak for me is me. Not my parents, not my partner, not my doctor, and certainly not allistic (non-autistic) organizations who profit off stigmatizing the disabled community. This holds true for everyone – of every age – regardless of how we communicate, whether it’s via speech, typing, or assisted-communication devices.
Stop reading ableist bedtime stories
In later posts, we’ll discuss two more vital types of books that every kid should read (Pt 2: de-stigmatizing and Pt 3: normalizing). But first let’s focus on personal agency.
Since we’re stereotyped and erased from movies and media, most public spaces are inaccessible, and many schools and workplaces segregate us to keep us invisible. Children’s stories might be the only place your children can see and learn about disabled lives and experiences.
Stories featuring disabled people with agency, who are self-empowered and competent, teaches children two things:
- Complex and human disabled people exist beyond stereotypes and pity-parties. Disability does render us bad, broken, or worthless.
- We do not exist as inspiration porn , sidekicks, villains and tropes to make abled folks feel good about themselves.
- Competent multi-dimensional disabled protagonists represented in a spectrum of races and genders.
- Open discussion of disability without shame, including advantages and challenges.
- Thoughtful, inclusive language, and well-crafted images of characters with integrity
- Engaging, story-based plot lines.
- Helpless supporting characters with disabilities who exist only to support the abled protagonist’s story (victims, villains & burdensome disabled family.) [Problematic: French Toast, My Brother Is Autistic, Netflix’s Atypical]
- Characters worthy of acceptance, success, and love, only after they overcome disability, mask their disability, or go above-and-beyond to make up for them. [Problematic: My Friend Maggie, My Brother Charlie, The Patch]
- Disabled characters expected to ‘suck it up’ or keep up with abled people despite pain and abuse, or disregard the real challenges and dangers of living in a world without accommodations. [Problematic: Armond Goes To a Party, Dylan the Villain]
- Disabled characters are pitiful and miserable until they can ‘overcome’ disability – usually with the help of non-disabled saviors. [Problematic: Ricky The Rock That Couldn’t Roll– that sad face, OMG.]
- Defining a happy ending with a magic cure. [Problematic: Peter Nimble, John’s Whistle ]
Captioned age ranges are for when my sons got ‘the gist’ of the story with discussion & alternative readings – most contain text for much older ages.
Understand Disability Acceptance (NOT just ‘awareness’)
In ‘We’ll Paint The Octopus Red,’ a big-sister-to-be helps her parents recognize that her new baby sibling with Down syndrome will be just as valuable a family member as any other child. Avoid the sequel though, it’s awful. I’m still looking for a better book that centers a person with Down Syndrome’s voice, rather than a sibling. (Down Syndrome)
In ‘All My Stripes,’ Zane’s mom lists the things she loves about his unique autistic mind. Caveats: This book contains a foreword by a leader of the reviled autism-exploitation group Autism Speaks, and the non-autistic illustrator created non-literal (re: non-neurodivergent) illustrations, as the ‘stripes’ listed aren’t literally on the zebra. Irritating. (Autism)
‘Fish In A Tree’ is the story of a clever girl with undiagnosed dyslexia who has been labeled as a troublemaker in her attempts to hide her disability. Caveats: One character is presumably autistic and wears a ‘Flint’ T-shirt, but the author uses this without addressing either social disabilities or the Flint water crisis – COWARDICE. It’s also been critiqued by wealthy folks who don’t believe that physical abuse and bullying would be overlooked by adults in a public school (HAH!). To read more on the intersection of poverty and lack of adult intervention with bullying, click here. (Dyslexia)
‘Naomi Knows It’s Springtime‘ – ignore the outdated, blurry illustrations, have kids close their eyes when you read this. Naomi can tell it’s spring in a multitude of ways using other senses and by being a reasonably intelligent human. When her condescending neighbor ties to throw a pity party for her, Naomi has none of it. (Blindness)
‘The Hickory Chair‘ – more outdated, blurry (rather terrible nonsense) illustrations, but the blind narrator navigates complex themes of respect, competence, and loss in a simple story that will grow with kids over time. (Blindness)
‘Mama Zooms‘ is the story of a boy and his wheelchair-using mother and the great life they have together. (Mobility disabilities/wheelchair user)
‘Silent Lotus‘ is the story of a Cambodian girl and her family who grow to accept and understand her disability, allowing her to focus on her strengths.
The Lion Who Had Asthma, written for very young kids who need nebulizer treatments, doesn’t frame the asthmatic protagonist as weak. Instead, he’s a strong lion, a powerful hippo, etc.
And sometimes he just needs a nebulizer treatment to help him roar loudly. My 3 year-old loved this, and it helped him feel powerful to imagine his nebulizer as pilot’s gear. It also helped my non-asthmatic son see asthma doesn’t make his brother frail or less-than. Simple and empowering, it’s super helpful if you’ve got a little one who isn’t always enthusiastic about treatments.
Melanie stands alone as an awesome story for the fairy tale adventure and riveting plot. BUT ALSO IT GETS WAY COOLER.
Melanie and her Grampa are all like “Dammit, oh nos. Melanie is Blind.” (I’m paraphrasing.) Grampa goes off to find a healer, insisting Melanie can’t make the dangerous trip because she’s Blind (presuming incompetence – it’s a thing!) Of course he doesn’t make it.
Melanie goes on to save her Grampa and a mess of other dudes who get captured by an evil troll. Through the story, we see how Melanie is kick-ass at things we sighted folks wouldn’t be able to manage. In the end, Melanie points out that ‘healing’ her blindness would be a bad idea – it was her abilities as a Blind woman that allowed her to rescue everyone.
So. BOOM! How ya like her now, GRAMPA?!
Understand The Social Model Of Disability
‘The Red Lemon‘ – allegory highlighting the social model of disability, where many disabilities considered flaws are only a challenge in a world not designed for us.
‘Red: A Crayon’s Story‘ – allegory for undiagnosed disability and identity dissonance. It works for LGBQTI+ youth, but as a young autistic girl growing up undiagnosed and confused, this story hits me in the gut.
‘Finklehopper Frog‘ is bullied and unaccepted until he realizes jogging isn’t the only to get around.
‘Yuko-Chan And The Daruma Doll‘ – This a kick-ass Blind girl who perseveres in situations where sighted people (and old dudes) give up, and goes on to save her village using innovation and hard work despite those around her assuming she’s incompetent. (Blindness). Great for discussions of intersections on adultism, sexism, and ableism.
‘Rosie The Raven‘ – A human girl born to a raven family, Rosie’s family accepts and accommodates her disabilities (such as the inability to fly), and she grows up confident and happy with the way she is.
‘The Monkey And The Panda‘ – Celebrating different abilities as different, not less.
Understand Social Pressure & Self-Acceptance
‘Not So Tall For Six‘ (achondroplasia, bullying)
‘Abigail The Whale‘ (body size & acceptance, bullying)
Click here for more books championing fat liberation
‘Lovely‘ (Visual disabilities & differences, body acceptance) – Celebrating birthmarks, age-spots, vitiligo, gender spectrums, athletes with prosthetic devices, heterochromia iridum, a wide range of heights, weights, ages and sizes, plus more stuff I don’t even know the names for – all happy the way they are. (Various)
‘Abby’s Asthma And The Big Race‘ (Asthma, micro-aggressions & presuming incompetence)
Up next in part 2: Look at me, not through me – De-Stigmatizing Disability
Check out part 2 of this series to learn the real-world impact of terrible children’s books.
Stay Curious, Stand Brave & Demand Disability Rights
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*Note on identity language:
If you are disabled/have disabilities and feel misrepresented in this post, your comments are welcome and I invite your perspective, as the community of disability rights advocates is not monolithic and your perspective matters.
Before any non-disabled folks chime in suggesting I switch to person-first language – please don’t pretend it’s just concerned advice. I’ll leave it to you to google how assuming I’m not disabled because I’m eloquent, assuming I’m not disabled enough, tone-policing, and derailing my point is an act of supremacy.
The use of person-first language centers non-disabled status as superior. It separates us from our disabilities – as if our disabilities don’t affect who we are and/or we should be ashamed of them. You wouldn’t call me a ‘person with womanhood,’ ‘a person with right-handedness,’ nor ‘a person with mixed heritage.’
I am a right-handed, multiracial, autistic woman and I am not ashamed.
Not sure if this would meet all your qualifications, but we really like Rescue & Jessica (https://beyondthesnowyday.blogspot.com/2018/10/rescue-jessica-life-changing-friendship.html) and would be interested in hearing your thoughts.
Ooof. This is uncomfortable. I really, really, REALLY hate that book.
I care for a 5 and 2 year old who liked “Rescue and Jessica,” but I have removed it from circulation, having bought it without seeing it. It makes me uncomfortable that we can read the dog’s thoughts as well as the girl’s, but the page I dislike intensely is the one where Rescue meets Jessica and realizes she is, among other things, “pretty.” What on earth does that have to with anything? I think it was useful for the boys to see realistic illustrations of artificial limbs and rehab but surely we can find that elsewhere.
Our family really liked http://sharondraper.com/bookdetail.asp?id=35 While there are adults who help Melody, they are imperfect and ultimately. Melody is self-directing, I think. But, I would love your take on it (when you have time to read books for older kids). I think I often miss the objectionable parts and it helps me when someone helps me deconstruct!
That interview started out nice and devolved quickly. Pulling out some problematic quotes:
“How is Melody a representative of the world of the “differently-abled?””
Even though this is written in Q & A form, it’s hosted on Draper’s own website and there are no names attributed to either side. It’s pretty safe to say she made these questions up herself and answered them. Which is a little bizarre – like talking about yourself in the third person. Then again, she speaks in passive sentences. I don’t read books by folks who aren’t willing to claim their own thoughts.
The phrase ‘differently-abled’ is awful for several reasons.
“…based on the reality of thousands of intelligent children and adults who are trapped inside uncooperative bodies. I’ve read dozens of books on disabilities, worked with handicapped children at a local summer camp, and spent untold hours trying to unlock the secrets hidden in my own daughter’s mind.”
– The ‘trapped/locked in’ trope is ableist and vile.
– Does anyone say ‘handicapped’ anymore? I don’t know a single person who uses it other than to reference parking spaces. From my understanding, that’s a terribly offensive way to refer to a person.
– She read books (presumably written by non-disabled ‘experts’), talked to children, and I’m noticing a big gaping hole in consultants – #ActuallyDisabled adults. There are plenty of non-speaking adults to consult for a story like this, and reference to these kinds of consultants who can give an author context with in ways that children haven’t learned yet is conspicuously missing. Either because she didn’t want to pay any disabled people while profiting off appropriating her daughter’s voice, or becuase she assumed they are too incompetent and their insight doesn’t matter.
– Note the use of the qualifier ‘intelligent.’ This is coded functional language. This speaks to the author’s values on who deserves to be heard, and who doesn’t.
“Everyone needs a mentor, a life coach…”
Does this life coach is a non-disabled person, rather than a disabled adult who has similar experiences to Melody?
“Her race is not important…She is purposely made generic…”
Race matters – it affects our everyday experience when we’re people of color because we ARE treated differently. A white girl with these disabilities does not have the same experience and challenges as a disabled girl of color. This is erasure, and it does damage. Being disabled AND a person of color has exponential consequences.
“Even though she is frustrated, silenced, and unable to do the things she longs to do, she has an unbelievably positive spirit.”
This smells like inspiration porn and the trope that all folks with disabilities must be upbeat and chipper to be worthy valuable humans. There’s a lot to unpack in this trope, but basically it dehumanizes and flattens disabled people into caricatures.
“…give a realistic portrayal of the reality of how people treat the disabled”
I thought she was being intentionally provocative and reclaiming identity-first language with her use of ‘disabled people’ earlier in the post (as we do here) but phrases like ‘the disabled’ are offensive. Similar how you can use the phrase “Black Americans” to reclaim this label without shame, but you’d never want to be trapped in an elevator with a person who says “Blacks in America.’
“I want them to say,”…”I never knew what is was like to be handicapped-I learned to think differently.”
The author is plainly stating that this book is written for the gaze of speaking children. Which I get it, that’s fine, that’s what destigmatizing books are for. BUT it’s also telling that she doesn’t believe that non-speaking children will be able to read books such as this. This book is NOT made for non-speaking children. This directly contradicts the next statement:
“This novel speaks for those who cannot speak. It should remind us of the humanity in us all.”
The non-speaking community has been clear on this – books written by speaking people, particularly speaking parents appropriating the voice of non-speaking people, do not speak for them. This is an offensive, and oblivious statement.
Try this book by an 11 year old girl with Down Syndrome https://smile.amazon.com/Ailia-What-like-years-syndrome/dp/0991099613/ref=as_li_ss_tl?keywords=ailia+what+it+is+like+to+be+11+years+old&qid=1554556406&s=gateway&sr=8-1-fkmr0&linkCode=ll1&tag=booksforlittles-20&linkId=ef4f4793d43ca19f59fd89e1e01f8f37&language=en_US
Will do! Thank you!
I’d love to hear your opinion of Lenore Look’s Alvin Ho series. The main character is a generally fun and awesome kid who also has anxiety and is selectively mute, and I feel it has been great for “normalizing” therapy for kids with anxiety.
I really, really wanted to like this. There are so few books with Chinese male leads and I very much want validating books for my Chinese sons. I wanted SO badly to like this series, but Look has consistently insisted on ‘mirroring’ the bigotry in our culture while deflecting any responsibility to educate her readers on why it’s problematic. She gives puts the onus on kids to see how Alvin’s sexism, ageism, and ableism is problematic, and very few adults can do that, never mind kids. I honestly don’t even think she’s aware or interested in examining her own bias.
The Alvin Ho series are chapter books. Asking busy parents to read this book alongside their kids and unpack the many problems with Alvin’s toxic behavior is unreasonable. Look’s colonist-‘splaining response to Deb Reese of AICL justifying an entire plot line that appropriates, stereotypes, and stigmatizes Indigenous folks while refusing to take responsibility for doing better sealed the deal – she’s more interested in promoting a model minority myth of wealthy, assimilated East Asians, not creating a rising tide to lift everyone up.
I’ve read almost all of her books and she’s made zero progress in becoming more compassionate or inclusive. It’s rare for me to officially cancel an author and not waste time reading new books by them, but if she insists on being lazy, we don’t need to waste our time on her.
I’m curious about your inclusion of “we’ll paint the octopus red”.
My perspective on the story is that it is about able people grappling with the disability of their baby. The sibling serves to point out the ableist biases of the dad, who really only comes to accept things when he realises the disability “isn’t really that bad”.
Can you please help me understand how this story fits your criteria for an empowering story?
You’re right. The short answer is, this book would be better suited for the destigmatizing disability collection. The reasons I added it are 1. It’s basically a placeholder until I can find a better book that empowers (rather than tokenizes) a character with Down Syndrome, and 2. I’m grasping at any chance I can to prevent misinformed eugentics. Due to nasty mixture of stigmatizating disability and medical pushes for prenatal testing/subtle pressure on parents to abort fetuses that test positive for Down Syndrome,* people with DS are being culled from humanity. The dropoff rate is high on these posts – most parents have enough juice in them to select a few books from this post (the first in the series) but not to continue on to the destigmatizing post. I am afraid if I wait and shift it farther down the line, it could cost lives.
*I’m pro-choice, but the persuasive, stigmatizing tactics used by the medical community against parents, pressuring them to abort based on eugenics is disgusting.
Thanks for your thoughtful reply.
I share your position (pro choice, anti eugenics) and am all too aware that the “subtle pressure on parents” to terminate by ill-informed and biased “experts” is pretty frequently not subtle at all.
I don’t have an alternative to suggest, but will come back if I find one! May need to write one, it’s clearly needed!
I have just found a book entitled, Catherine’s Story, by Genevieve Moore. I’m curious on your thoughts. My great-granddaughter has this disability and I am discovering (1) how little I understand how to help and (2) how difficult it is to find books that can help others be informed.
I haven’t seen it – but I’ll see if I can get my hands on a copy.
This is my favorite kids book about disabilities and it’s written FOR autistic kids. I read it to the kids in my religious community last year and it was a big hit! It’s called why Johnny doesn’t flap. https://amzn.to/2FanMVz
Love this book – it’s on the next page of this series – over here in Stereotype-Smashing Kids Books
This is a fun one about self-discovery of the power of difference. https://books.google.com/books/about/Exclamation_Mark.html?id=I00-DAAAQBAJ&source=kp_book_description
I just finished Sarah Weeks’ middle grade novel, So B. It. The protagonist, a typically-abled, white 4th grader, is raised by her mother, aadbarely-verbal woman with a cognitive disability and a kind neighbor with agoraphobia. While the plot left me incredulous at some points, i found it to be a moving and appealing story, on the whole. I’m wondering if you’ve read it and what you think.
I haven’t read it yet, but Disability In Kidlit has a good review breaking down what the book did well in terms of depicting her disabled mother as human and where it got problematic using her as a device.
I really loved ‘Becky the Brave’ by Laurie Lear’s with my kids.
How do you feel about the able-saviorism in it? The story centers her little sister – not the person with epilepsy. Which suggests people with disabilities are too incompetent to advocate for themselves and/or need someone nondisabled to do it for them.
ABC Portraits of Deaf Ancestors by Karen Christie with art by Nancy Rourke is informative and colorful. A wonderful resource for Deaf children looking for heroes and heroines