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.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

“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.

Read more stories like this one. Sign up for Disability Scoop's free email newsletter to get the latest developmental disability news sent straight to your inbox.