I was at a baby clinic in a children’s centre recently when I spotted a book helping children to understand disability. How great, I thought, to have a book like this in a children’s centre. Full of optimism, I opened it up and had a look.
On the first page, there was a picture of a busy playground, full of busy kids. The book asked the reader to try to identify which child in the picture wouldn’t be interested in sport. As all of the children in the picture were running, jumping or playing football apart from a single girl sitting alone in a wheelchair, the reader was expected to point to the girl in the wheelchair. Wrong! the reader was told on the next page. The girl in the wheelchair loves sport. In fact, she plays for her local football team! She is a child football star! Don’t judge a book by its cover, was the book’s message. The real person who didn’t like sport was a boy who, despite running around with a basketball, in fact hated sport and preferred drama instead.
I know, of course, what the creators of the book was trying to do. They were trying to show that if someone is in a wheelchair, or walks with difficulty, he or she is the same as everyone else on the inside and may have special talents that we don’t know about. That is a good and very positive message, of course, and it’s one I have seen repeated in a number of books I have seen that aim to show disability in a positive light.
And yet the approach is problematic, for a number of reasons.
First, it assumes that young children make negative judgements about other children with disabilities. In my experience, this isn’t, actually, often the case. Adults make negative judgements, certainly, and older children, too, but when young children meet Toby, there usually follows the same pattern of behaviour. First, they usually watch Toby for a while. Then, they ask me, or his dad, or his older brother, about him – why he doesn’t talk, why he is distressed by a particular noise, why he dribbles or still wears nappies. His brother or I explain that he has a learning disability and his brain works differently so, for example, he doesn’t talk but he uses a special book to communicate instead. The children usually nod, interested in the answer, perhaps try out his communication book for a while, and then that’s that – Toby is accepted and the children carry on playing. We find that being open and honest is the best approach and is most likely to lead to Toby being accepted. So a book that tricks young children into being prejudiced and then tries to show why that is wrong is confusing, unhelpful and puts the concept of prejudice into their minds when it might not have been there before.
Second, and perhaps more critically, books that suggest that disabled children have special talents can send a worrying, if unintended, message to the disabled child him or herself. Many disabled children, and particularly those with a severe learning disability, have a variety of interests, but they don’t always or necessarily excel in them. Toby loves the outdoors, and can spend hours exploring parks and countryside with amazing stamina, but he isn’t the president of the local orienteering and fell-walking society. He likes music, but he isn’t the leader of the local orchestra. He enjoys cooking and is great at trying new food, but he’s not a participant on Junior Masterchef. And that’s fine. We love Toby for who he is, not for what he does. That’s an important message to give all our children, and our disabled children are no exception. We love them, and will support them, and if they excel in a particular sport or activity, we will be proud of them – but if they don’t, we will be equally proud of them for taking part and for doing their best.
I know that these books are written with the very best of intentions, and it’s genuinely wonderful to see disabled children reflected in picture books for young children. But I would urge the writers, illustrators and publishers of these books to consider carefully the messages they are giving, not only to non-disabled children, but also to disabled children themselves. All children, disabled or not, should be loved and accepted for who they are, not for what they can – or can’t – do. The best way of ensuring this happens is by including realistic disabled characters in children’s books. The characters may play for Arsenal, or paint the most amazing pictures, or be writing the next Harry Potter. Or they may not. Either option is fine; we’ll accept them – just as they are.