Updated: Jun 23
By Margaret Kingsbury
One in four adults live with a disability, yet disabled representation in children’s books is far too sparse. In a study (2014) conducted by Donna Sayers Adomat and published in Disability Studies Quarterly, she found that reading and discussing children’s books that feature disabled characters in the classroom led to more positive interactions.
Ms. Schild related how, before the unit, students were resentful of a classmate with developmental disabilities who had an aide to help her; the classmates thought that she was receiving unfair privileges. After the unit, they understood why she needed assistance. One boy with autism, who was usually quiet and withdrawn during class time, participated actively in the book discussions and could identify with some of the characters in the stories. At one point he said, “That’s like me. I have autism—a little bit.” A parent noticed changes in her daughter: “She doesn’t say, ‘Oh, I changed,’ but I notice a big difference in her attitude when we go out and see someone in a wheelchair. She’ll go up and start talking to that person, and she won’t complain about the kids in her class with ADHD anymore.”
These types of interactions and outcomes demonstrate why it’s essential to read children’s books featuring disabled characters and to make sure that both school and home libraries are stocked with these books. It’s also vital to discuss the books afterward, as the study notes, children often speak about disabilities utilizing societal stereotypes and attitudes. Adult guidance and discussions can help create more positive and realistic attitudes about disabled people.
I am a disabled mother, so I know how important it is to have disabled representation in the children’s books my daughter and I read at home. One tendency I’ve noticed in these children’s books is for authors to portray characters with easily identifiable physical disabilities, like wheelchair use. While this is excellent, I wish I saw more instances of invisible disabilities, like my own.
These ten children’s books portray many types of disabilities and from many perspectives. Some are told by a child with a disabled mother, relative, or classmate. Some are about a disabled child or adult and their day-to-day living, and others reveal a unique, fictional story that doesn’t relate to the child’s disability. These are just as important, for it’s essential to show children that disabled people can have fun and adventures and full lives of their own.
10 Children’s Books With Disabled Characters
For many, disability shows itself as chronic illness and exhaustion. This is the case for Aleeya’s mother in Mommy Sayang, Rosana Sullivan’s debut picture book. The story is based on Sullivan’s childhood, of her life growing up in a small Malaysian village, or kampung, and the loneliness she felt when her mother became ill and could no longer play with her. Though this is her debut picture book, Sullivan illustrates and directs for Pixar and has worked on many of their shorts, so she’s experienced in creating short tales for children. Her illustrations are sweet and engaging, just like the prose.