Being a professor of education for over a decade, I have read lots of children’s books. Over the past five years, I have focused my reading on children’s books representing people with disabilities, and you might be shocked at what I found or maybe not…
- You can find many picture books about disabilities, but few picture books where the main character has an exceptionality.
- You can find the sports stories of athletes who play traditional sports, but you cannot find picture books about athletes who play adaptive sports.
- You can find lots of pirate picture books featuring amputees holding weapons or bottles, but you cannot find books about going back to school that include children with limb differences.
When I reflect on what I can and cannot find for young readers, I wonder what messages they are getting from the books that do and do not appear on our shelves. Are these the messages we intended?
- You can talk about disabilities, but you can’t talk with people who have exceptionalities.
- You can hear the sports stories of traditional athletes, but the triumph of athletes who play adaptive sports are not as valuable.
- You can read about amputees as villains, but they shouldn’t be included in your classroom.
Fortunately, there is a growing representation of people with exceptionalities in the media. You can see a young boy in a wheelchair on a poster at Target. In my Athleta catalog, a young girl who is an amputee is running across the page. So now, I simply wonder when children’s literature will catch up and include everyone on the shelf.
Until then, I will blog, teach, and present the sports stories of athletes who redefine ability and believe in the possible because I know representation matters. Don’t believe me. After a group of third graders, heard my son, Ian, and I share the sports story of wheelchair rugby champion, Nick Springer, and they asked to write him letters.
“You showed me that anything is possible. You showed me that there are no limits to what I can do.” -Sierra
“I think you are brave and I know you are strong.” -Olivia
“Never let anyone tell you what you can’t do and what you can.” -Emerson
“Everyone loved how you persevered.” -Grace
“I think you are brave like a superhero. I like the way you do wheelchair rugby.” -Ahmed
“I bet you liked crashing, slamming, banging, and helping your team. I think it would be fun to play wheelchair rugby.” -Logan
“It felt good telling your story to the class. I was proud of you and Mom and me. It also felt good to talk about someone else who has a disability like me. The best part was doing it with Mom. Love, Ian”
I told you REPRESENTATION MATTERS.