Allison's Book Bag

Award for Literature which Portrays Children with Disabilities

Posted on: March 12, 2013

Today I reviewed a book for which I criticized its portrayal of special education students. The issue became an important one for me when I took a course six years ago on mental retardation. Naturally, when I had to write a research paper, I found a way to combine that assignment with my love of books. What I found disturbed me.

At the time, two main issues stood out to me. First, individuals with disabilities were often stereotyped. Second, those with special needs are often used  as agents of change in the main character’s life, rather than portraying them as individuals in their own right.

Newbery Medal

Newbery Medal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then there’s this article from Phys.Org, which proclaims of an increase in the positive portrayal of disabilities in Newbery Award-winning books. That is terrific news! Yet the article also refers to a 2006 study, which indicated that many Caldecott Medal and Honor books can give children an inaccurate view of what it’s like to have a disability and reinforce negative stereotypes.

According to the article, other issues also exist:

  • The representation of characters with disabilities in Newbery books is not proportionate to the current school population of students with disabilities.
  • White school-age characters with disabilities were overrepresented, black and Hispanic characters with disabilities were underrepresented, and Asian/Pacific Islander and American Indian/Alaskan Native characters were not present at all.
  • In some of these books, authors eliminated characters with disabilities through death, being sent away or discovery of miraculous cures.

In case you’re interested, in the book I reviewed today, one of the characters with disabilities was sent to the hospital due to severe illness. As for the race of the character, it wasn’t indicated but the majority of the characters were Latino. The latter could be a plus for the book?

One of the researchers quoted in the article noted, “We know that children learn a lot from models who are like them. We’d like to see children with disabilities more accurately depicted and representative for what is found in schools. This includes portraying more individuals with learning and speech/language disabilities.” Now to end on a positive note, let me share another link. There’s an award which might help both with encouraging authors to better depict those with disabilities, but also could help educators become more aware of noteworthy books which are already available. The Dolly Gray Children’s Literature Award honors authors and illustrators of books for children, adolescents and young adults that accurately and authentically portray individuals with developmental disabilities. It’s been around since 2000, but I first heard of it because of an article from The Digital Universe about Tina Dyches, of BYU’s Department of Counseling Psychology and Special Education, who is adding onto the school’s library by purchasing all books which have received the award.

What books have you read about those with special needs? Which would you recommend? Are there ones you would not?

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