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Article: "Children with disabilities aren’t seeing themselves in the books they read"

Updated: Jan 17, 2021

Article written by Deborah Dundas and published by The Star:

Exclusive numbers gathered by the Toronto Star show that disabled children are one of the most poorly represented groups in Canadian books — with just under two per cent of characters in picture, middle-grade and young adult books having a visible disability.

That compares with a rate of disability among adults in Canada of 22 per cent.

This lack of representation in kids’ books doesn’t come as a surprise to Dorothy Ellen Palmer, a former teacher, disabled activist and author of the memoir “Falling for Myself.”

“There were never any books (when I was growing up). I never saw myself. I never saw a girl in a wheelchair. I never saw a girl who limped,” says Palmer. “I never encountered any as a teacher, I never had any to read to my own kids. So they had a disabled mom, but there was nothing in kids’ books at the time to help them understand what that was like.”

The results were found in a recent survey conducted by the Toronto Star and compared with numbers gathered by Statistics Canada.

In the survey, we asked Canadian publishers how many Canadian authored and/or illustrated children’s books they published in 2018 in three categories: picture books (ages 0-8), middle grade books (ages 8-12) and young adult books (ages 13 and older).

We then asked them to break down for each of those categories how many featured main characters who identified in a variety of different communities, including visibly and invisibly disabled (mental illness, learning disabilities).

The survey found the total number of books published in 2018 was 463 across all categories, featuring 560 main characters.

Of those characters, just five were visibly disabled — less than one per cent. Picture books had one visibly disabled character, middle grade three characters and YA just one. Invisibly disabled characters numbered 23 across all categories or four per cent.

Combined, the disabled represented just two per cent of characters.

These numbers fall far short of reflecting the population of Canada. According to Statistics Canada, one in five, or 22 per cent of the population aged 15 and over, had one or more disabilities.

Among youth aged 15 to 24, mental health-related disabilities were the most prevalent type at eight per cent, followed by learning disabilities at six per cent and pain-related disabilities at four per cent.

Not seeing oneself in books, and in popular culture, has a profound impact, say Palmer and Amanda Leduc, both authors of new adult books that focus on disability.

“It creates in the popular imagination the idea that we don’t exist. If we’re a rare and unusual species, (then) it doesn’t matter if there aren’t accessible facilities,” Palmer says.

She also says that stereotypes “reinforce shame and silencing. The stereotype of being Tiny Tim (from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”), of being grateful and chipper and happy and never complaining. It makes it hard to assert yourself. That starts with the erasure of never seeing ourselves in picture books.”

And people want to see more books with diverse characters, says Kate Edwards, executive director of the Association of Canadian Publishers. “Calls for more books by and for authors from diverse backgrounds continue to grow, with cultural diversity often being the focus of those discussions,” she says.

Leduc, communications and development co-ordinator for the Festival of Literary Diversity, is about to release a book titled “Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space,” that challenges fairy tales and the idea that happy endings are only for people “who walk on two legs.”

“You also need to have disabled characters where the focus isn’t about how they go about moving through the world,” says Leduc. “Disabled people do ‘normal’ things all they time; they have jobs and they come in all types of shapes and sizes.”

Portraying disabled people taking part in everyday life is essential, she notes.

“There is no one specific story and way you have to be in order to be successful.”

- Marina


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