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Disability in children's literature facts for kids

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Disability in children's literature is a subject that has been the focus of changing attitudes in broader society since the 1970s. The movement to include children and youth with disabilities into mainstream society has led to new approaches on the part of authors, as well as educators. Even though society has included more diverse characters with disabilities, most seem to be the hero or laughing stock within these plots which can place emotional strains on children with disabilities while reading these novels.

In the United States, 17-20% of the population has a disability, a rate that is slightly greater than the 17% worldwide figure. Disabilities may include physical, cognitive, mental, health, sensory or learning difficulties, and may range from severe to mild. The approach of children and youth literature (collectively called "juvenile literature") can have a significant impact on the children reading it, whether they personally have experienced disability or not; literature "has proven to be an agent capable of influencing attitudes and acceptance of impairments".

From 1940 to 1970, around 311 books for children were published in the United States that included characters with disabilities. Some of these books romanticized the disability, some were infantilized, while others portrayed the disabled characters as avoiding the world. One example is the classic children's book Heidi. It portrays the character Clara as a spoiled and insulated child, who regains the ability to walk after befriending Heidi and overcoming a vague and unexplained psychological problem, the apparent cause of her physical paralysis, which in reality would be medically unlikely. Another oddity is that the portrayal of blind individuals was in excess of their actual numbers in the real population. Blindness was noted as being the most common disability among African-American characters in children's fiction, used as a plot device to represent the ability to see beyond racial prejudices, making the disability secondary to its significance as a plot device.

Beginning in the 1970s, the United States Congress passed several Acts to legally protect the right of children and adults with disabilities to be included in schools and the workforce, first with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and then the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975. In 1986, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) was put into force in the United States, which ended the exclusion of children with disabilities from publicly funded school systems. With the integration of children with disabilities into public schools, educators, librarians and publishers took a new interest in children's literature that dealt with disability in a balanced, accurate, and constructive way. An overall growth in public awareness of disability and its portrayal in media has supported a trend towards more detailed medical descriptions of conditions in juvenile literature. Barbara Holland Baskin and Karen H. Harris conducted influential research into the portrayal of disability in children and youth literature in the late 1970s. They published the seminal study Notes from a Different Drummer (1977), followed by More Notes from a Different Drummer (1984). Today, disability in juvenile literature is a standard topic included in bibliographies, research, criticism, and review sources. Several bibliographies and studies reviewing fiction and non-fiction have been produced in the years since.

The evolution of the portrayal of disability can be seen in the books written since the 1970s. Judy Blume shows the experience of a teenage girl diagnosed with idiopathic scoliosis in Deenie (1973). The protagonist, Deenie, faces the challenges brought by having to wear a body brace during her treatment, which impacts her perceptions of herself and those of her family and fellow students. Deenie does not overcome the disability by the end of the story, nor is she defeated by it; the conclusion more realistically shows her continuing to face challenges and learning to adjust to them.

A trend in current juvenile fiction is the portrayal of characters with "hidden disabilities" that have become more common diagnoses in recent decades. Examples include Petra Mathers' Sophie and Lou, about extreme shyness that is an emotional and social disability, and Caroline Janover's The Worst Speller in Jr. High (1995) about a boy with dyslexia. In fiction for older youth, disability has recently been dealt with in complex situations with nuanced techniques such as multiple-perspective narrative.

Bibliographer Debra Robertson, who wrote Portraying Persons with Disabilities: An Annotated Bibliography of Fiction for Children and Teenagers (1992), pointed out in the early 1990s that not every disability has to be a "metaphor for a protagonist's development", and the tendency of writers to romanticize or stigmatize medical conditions in this way is a persistent problem in juvenile literature.

More recent studies have indicated that educators may improve student understanding of disability with "follow-up discussion or activities and stories that portray characters with disabilities accurately, realistically, and positively".

Every two years, the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) published a list of books for and about young people with disabilities.

Examples of Disability Representation in Children's Literature

Wonder written by R.J. Palacio is about a young boy, Auggie, who has Treacher Collins Syndrome and is judged and bullied at school. He takes his insecurity and views it as a powerful part of his identity. It accurately describes the harsh reality of students being remarkably unkind to someone with a disability but having them understand that it doesn’t change who he is as a person.

Having inspirational books like Wonder can build compassion in students who might not struggle with a disability. It can help young children understand certain disabilities and how to become empathetic instead of gawking at someone who might look different than them. Children can look at others with a disability and not understand what they are going through in terms of mental or physical health. However, increasing disability representation within children’s literature can educate them on the reality of not being “normal” and what that is like growing up.

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