Allison's Book Bag

Why Does Disability Literature Matter?

Posted on: December 18, 2014

Disability literature is on my mind. One reason is that I am a special education teacher, which means I work with students who have disabilities. Another reason is because I serve on a local diversity committee that recently expanded its review selections to include not just books about different cultures and regions, but also those about characters with special needs.

Why does disability literature matter? First, people need to see themselves represented in literature. Growing up, I sought books that featured girls in non-traditional roles. To this day, my personal library includes novels about aspiring authors. Particularly since moving away from my home province, I have sought out readings that feature Newfoundland. I also appreciate any story about a girl who is the only child of a single father, because that was my situation. Books about characters like ourselves help us to feel like we’re not alone. But it isn’t always easy for people with disabilities to find themselves in the books they read.

Second, literature should show us people who are different from ourselves. Through my readings for my diversity committee, I’ve learned about religious traditions other than my own, the history of some of our immigration laws, and even glass-collecting in Egypt. While the news media tends to focus on the negative, literature can broaden our perspectives.

Unfortunately, disability literature has its share of problems. For example, characters with disabilities still serve as tokens. In other words, they are a vehicle by which the author educates readers about special needs. Too often this results in stereotyped characters who are objects of pity instead of complex individuals that we learn to care about. A newer trend is for characters with disabilities to have super hero powers. Such books allow my students to imagine themselves as gods, wizards, or other magical beings. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for students who so often feel like failures, except it still provides an erroneous view of what it’s like to have a disability. Even when characters with disabilities are more accurately portrayed, they end up recovering miraculously or being written out of the novel by being sent away to the hospital or some other institution. That is a convenience very unreal to life.

Every time I read books like these, I cringe for two reasons. First, such books fail to provide role models for young people with disabilities. If I read a book about a girl whose glasses let her see other worlds, initially this might thrill me. Unfortunately, in the end, I would still be stuck in the real world with my ordinary glasses, feeling like a freak. Second, such books fail to develop real understanding of what it’s like to have a disability. Even our award-winning books are guilty of this mistake. It’s time for a change.

What are your experiences with disabilities? What is your view of disability literature? And what titles would you recommend on the topic?

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