Teaching at a women’s college, I often find myself exploring gender issues with my students. When my students shared their desire to research the representation of women with disabilities in children’s literature, I was ecstatic about their curiosity and then devastated by their discoveries.
There are a growing number of picture books highlighting women with invisible and visible disabilities such as The Girl Who Thought in Pictures, The Story of Temple Grandin by Julia Mosca and Rescue & Jessica by Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes.
This growing representation is essential and demonstrates progress. However, when one more closely examines motherhood, women with disabilities seem to disappear from the pages and bookshelves.
Think about that for a minute…think about all the books that you have read as a child or have read to a child about a mother’s love, about families…how many included representation of women with disabilities? What does this say to children? You must be fully-able bodied to be a mother. What does this lack of representation say to a young girl with a disability? You are not worthy of being a mother. What does this lack of representation say to young boys? A woman with a disability is not capable of being a mother. If you have a disability as a man, you cannot be a father.
These may not be the intended messages, but they are the implicit messages that our children are receiving. Here is one conversation among school children from a study in the British Journal of Sociology of Education (2014) focused on the assumptions young children have about people with disabilities,
Interviewer: Do you think disabled people sometimes have children and families of their own?
Boy 1: No, no, no, no, no!
Girl 1: No!
Interviewer: Why is that?
Boy 1: Because they’re disabled, they won’t ever look after them because…
Boy 2: (Interrupts) They can’t look after themselves!
The only time that this assumption was questioned was when a child stated her uncle is a disabled person and father of three children, but this was an isolated comment and was ignored by her peers. (Beckett, 867).
The issue of mothers with disabilities missing from children’s literature becomes even more complex when we look at women of color. Where are women of all ethnicities and abilities represented on the bookshelves? If you find them, please share them with me. I need them. My students, as future educators, need them. My daughter needs them. My sons need them. We all need them.
Because…a mother’s love is universal. A mother’s love is limitless.
Until I find those books (or write them), I will share and discuss inclusive images of motherhood like the ones above with my students, my children, and my readers.
If you have images of motherhood that represent the limitless ability of all mothers, please send them my way at firstname.lastname@example.org. And, keep believing in the Possible!
Work Cited & Other Related Resources
Beckett, Angharad E. (2014) Non-disabled children’s ideas about disability and disabled people. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 35 (6), 856-875.
Pennel, Ashley E.; Wollack, Barbara; Koppenhaver, David A. (2018). Respectful Representations of Disability in Picture Books. Reading Teacher, 71 (4), 411-419.