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Characters With Disabilities Scarce In Top Children’s Books


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Kids with disabilities remain woefully underrepresented in the most acclaimed children’s literature, a new study finds.

In an analysis of 131 winners of the Newbery Medal and Honor — considered the top prizes for children’s books — researchers found that just 31 included a main or supporting character with a disability between 1975 and 2009.

The finding reported in the December issues of the journal Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities is significant, researchers say, because kids look to books to find characters they can identify with.

“We know that children learn a lot from models who are like them,” said Tina Dyches, a special education professor at Brigham Young University and a co-author of the study. “We’d like to see children with disabilities more accurately depicted and representative for what is found in schools.”

Of the books that incorporated characters with disabilities, children with everything from intellectual disability to autism and physical difficulties were depicted. However, no disability was represented at the same rate it occurs among students in the nation’s schools.

What’s more, characters with disabilities were most likely to be supporting characters and were often used to boost the emotional growth of those without disabilities rather than to develop in their own right, the study finds.

“We are hoping that this will be a call to authors,” Dyches said. “We’ve got so many wonderful authors in the world and we would love to see more inclusive characterizations in high-quality books, where kids with disabilities are being recognized for who they are and not just for the limitations of their disabilities.”

A similar study in 2006 looked at the Caldecott Medal and Honor, which is presented for children’s picture books. That research found that winning books provided inaccurate views of life with a disability and failed to accurately represent the prevalence of various disabilities.

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Comments (10 Responses)

  1. Unitedmedia says:

    This is a common trend in all media sources. How often do we see people with disabilities depicted as just as a human being? Where it has nothing to do with the disability? Our greatest opportunity to find equality in our communities and acceptance is to show the rest of the general population through media that it has nothing to do with the disability.

  2. Anya Weber says:

    I hear what you’re saying about characters with disabilities being mostly inspirational to other characters, rather than complete people with their own storylines. That’s a problem. But “scarce”? 31 out of 131 means about 24% of Newbery winners included someone with a disability. That’s not bad at all, much higher than I was expecting. In fact, maybe Newbery tends to favor books with disability storylines?

  3. Sonja says:

    Our kids with disabilities aren’t having “adventures” – they’re usually having “therapy”. I guess it isn’t exciting enough to write about…

  4. lsmith says:

    I shared this article with our school librarian. The following is her response: “There have NEVER been so many books with disabled characters as there are in YA and children’s literature today. There is even a special literary award given each year (the Schneider Family Award) to the best books showing characters with disabilities. The award is given in three age categories: children, middle school and teens.
    This year, the National Book Award in the young people’s category (Very Prestigious) was given to Mockingbird: mok’ing-burd by Kathryn Erskine, which is about a 10 year old with Asperger’s Syndrome.
    Out of the thousands and thousands of books published each year for children, only 3 or 4 per year win a Newbery Award or Honor for excellence in literature! You could pick any number of minority groups and discover that only a small percentage of books winning this award represented that group, especially when you analyze back to 1975, especially if you look at ethnicity and gender issues in addition to disability issues. I bet the percentage changes as you get into more currently published award winners!
    I think the study should have taken a broader look at children’s literature, and focused on a more recent time frame. After all, topics of disabilities are much more likely to be openly discussed in the last twenty years than they were in the 70s! The same with issues of race, gender, etc.!”


  5. Spoke With Pics says:

    Yes, but there is a tide that is turning.
    For example: There is one book that has just been published by Future Horizons titled: “Apples For Cheyenne.”

    It has outstanding illustrations by a young and established illustrator, Kim Miller who happens to have classic autism. Written by author Elizabeth Gerlach, who has also written “Just this Side of Normal.”

    The children’s book is a story of three friends with different disabilities having fun horseback riding. Rachel, the main character has autism. She meets up with her riding companions for a afternoon of fun. The story talks about each character’s interesting characteristics. The main theme through out the book is Rachel’s relationship to the horse she rides, Cheyenne. This book is a great way to show typical kids that children with special needs to have just as much fun as typical kids. It can be a wonderful integration tool. Children with disabilities and the community need to see characters in books who show that they can have fun just like everyone else…are like everyone else.

    That said…
    Bottom line: Book sales “talk” to publishers. Publishers would be taking on more stories about people with disabilities, if there were books sales to support it.

    Sales of books speak louder to the publishing community than anything! Professionals follow the money. (As an author myself, this has been explained to me.)

    My advice would be, if you want more stories about people with disabilities, buy, buy, buy the books that are available now. Purchasing power is your voice.

    If you like a book, recommend it to people you know. Urge people to buy it, not from used bookstore, not to loan it but purchase it. If everyone does that, publishers will be happy to buy more manuscripts with characters with disabilities. Then, there will be more of a chance that such a book will be chosen for awards.

    I don’t know about how they choose “Newberry Medal” winners, or how a book gets nominated, but no matter if you have a jewel of a book waiting to be discovered, it might not get the professional nod or accolades the book deserves. Just because a book does not receive an award, it does not mean that it is not worthy.

  6. fprezant says:

    I agree with the article above that there needs to be more and better childrens literature selections depicting characters with disaiblities as part of the story line. I have read Dyches and Prater’s research and with my co author and colleague, Dr. laura Marshak, have conducted our own analyses of children’s literature and have presented on the paucity of materials, In aparticular there is very little in the area of career role models that feature succesful individuals with disabilities. We presented on this at last year’s CEC . We recently co authored an elementary level book “Dr. Vermeij’s Conch Quest” (Prezant and Marshak, 2010, Authorhouse) about a Guggenheim winning marine scientist who happens to be blind. We did this specifically because there were so few books with career role models.
    We hope to be discussing this issue again as part of our panel presentation at CEC this year. We can be contacted at
    Fran Prezant

  7. EarlChantrill says:

    This is a very interesting article. I think children with disabilities and relatively normal cognition like to see other children with disabilities portrayed in literature. And it appears that books portraying children with disabilities are available, especially recently. I have enjoyed several series of books for adults in which the protagonist is a person with a disability, such as the Odd Thomas books by Dean Koontz. There is also a series with a protagonist with leprosy. I don’t remember the name of the series or author right now, but some of your readers probably would.
    This being said, I have a problem with researchers looking for a problem based on representation of a group within the general population. For example, the number of female firefighters in a particular department may or may not represent discrimination, but is percieved to be discriminatory based only on percentages. But more likely, not that many females applied and/or passed reasonable evaluation of skills necessary to do the job. Perhaps this is not a good example, because there is a history of actual discrimination. Underrepresentation is not necessarily discrimination. If there is actual discrimination it needs to be eliminated. But we need to be careful not to create a perception of discrimination based solely on numbers.

  8. chelseyblair says:

    I am an aspiring writer and currently studying Children’s Literature at Simmons College in Boston. I make it a point to bring disability issues up often in my writing, and reading, but it always surprises me how few books have disabled protagonists. The ones from my childhood are generally didactic.

    I am hoping to be part of the change in this area, because often authors and editors speak of diversity, forgetting that the word does not simply apply to race and sexuality.

  9. sirole says:

    I am coming into this conversation a little late. I am working on a book, and have several ideas for others. I have had several thoughts about this over the years:
    I am a parent/caregiver, therefore I try to maintain an awareness that my perspective is an approximation, like many such authors.
    Children without disabilities have an enormous body of literature to draw from in order to find role models, even if not every type of role model is available or prevalent. Children with disabilities have much fewer options, and those options are less represented in literature. Rather than looking at “discrimination” as a perspective, perhaps we should look at what need exists, I think there is a pent-up demand, and I think publishers are responding to it but wonder if there is a study that targets what that pent-up demand looks like?
    Children with disabilities can face such slim options for their futures, and they can and do have adventures, but even realizing what adventures are possible can be a struggle for families already struggling to be care-givers. Perhaps the discussion can begin to describe the possibilities for disability-awareness literature, and poll the target audience to identify the demand. The poll may fall short, as many children have given up reading for the purpose of sharing an identity or looking for a role model, and it might take some conversation to open up the potential…

  10. Linda Chatriand says:

    I am looking for publishers who are interested in stories about disabled kids. I am a disabled teacher and have been writing for disabled kids but can’t find the right publisher. Does anyone have information on this?
    Linda C

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