Let’s talk about Disability
A very crucial aim of Parag bringing out more books with disability and inclusion as the theme is to encourage more conversations about individual differences, different experiences, and empathy along with conversations on the sameness or universality of aspirations, friendships, joys, and struggles. In saying that we are all the same, we are giving space to and celebrating individual differences. Discussions on different books and literature could actually trigger rich explorations of what children actually think about these aspects.
In most groups, even in ones that are used to engaging with issues surrounding the experiences of different abilities, children tended to attribute special abilities to people with disabilities or to over-compensate for disability with other senses and skills. For example, in response to Wings to Fly, one child said – “She was good at numbers because her legs were weak.” In response, the facilitator sought to understand if he thought that these aspects were related and whether she wouldn’t have a good recollection of numbers even if her legs functioned normally, and the group thus discussed the merit of certain deeply held beliefs. In other groups, children had similar responses –
‘They do a lot of things that we do, and in a lot of things they are better than us. Physically, they may be differently-abled but emotionally they are very good, and they are very hardworking’
‘But people like Kittu, these things (minor difficulties) don’t make a big difference to them. We have the mindset that we cannot do this, but they don’t think like that.’
‘We can learn how they are able to concentrate on their work / studies so well’
This tendency to ‘idealize disability’ (Adomat, 2014) may emerge even when there is no such intent of the author. For example, some children conjectured that ‘Perhaps Kanna could SEE in the dark although he couldn’t see in light!’ to explain how he led the family out of the dark cave temples. As Adomat (2014) put it succinctly, ‘… this strategy ends up reinforcing rather than challenging what is fundamentally a competitive view of the what it is to be a person of value.’ Responses like these present an interesting avenue to unpack what children’s notions of ‘equality’ entail and for discussing how the idea of ‘everyone being the same’ is not the same as ‘accepting differences’.
Interestingly, we also observed that children seemed to be largely oblivious of the kind of everyday concerns facing people with physical disabilities, almost bordering on apathy. When asked to imagine if someone like Dip Dip trying to go around their own neighbourhood (which was not disabled-friendly) looking for the cat; or that someone with visual impairments trying to navigate public spaces and roads on their own, many children said that their other senses or simple strategies will help them (e.g. ‘(the visually challenged) can always use sounds from vehicles to keep themselves safe or take baby steps using their stick to steer clear of potholes while walking’). Others offered trite aphorisms about how if one were to try hard enough no problem is insurmountable (e.g. ‘Dip Dip can do whatever she wants – koshish karne walon ki haar nahi hoti). They held on to this belief even when the actual physical impossibility of this was pointed out using specific examples, as in the following exchange –
Facilitator: Okay. Now, think about this library space. We want to bring everyone here – but think if someone comes here on a wheelchair, will they be able to get in? [There is a flight of steps leading to the library]
Kids – We will help them out
Facilitator – What if they don’t want help and want to come in on their own? On their wheelchair?
One boy – Apni himmat se aa sakte hain
This leads us to wonder if the intent of these books to establish a sense of agency of people with disabilities somehow trades off with presenting their lifestyles within a realistic manner, masking the actual difficulties they face in accessing public spaces, the difficulties they face in terms of people’s perceptions of their agency and capability? We also realized that as a community we need a more concerted effort to make a range of authentic stories presenting a fuller range of experiences of people with disability more accessible to children.
Personal connections / Shifts in perspective
Good books also have the power to engage our emotions deeply and to connect with our personal realities while also helping us understand and empathize with others and, over time, to bring about larger shifts in perspective. In our conversations with children, we did explore their personal connections with these books. In one group, a girl bravely shared that she used to take her bullying classmates’ words to heart and believe that she was indeed that kind of a person, but now, just as Manya learnt to ignore such things and went on to perform in the play, she will do the same. Similarly, another boy said that he would cry usually when he is teased about his surname, but after reading Kittu, he has decided to try saying something polite or witty and join in the joke. Another girl felt that her default response is ‘mujhse nahi hoga’ but having seen Manya and Kittu’s drive to do things, she will try more things.
In Manya Learns to Roar, there is a point towards the end when Manya is in the wings of the stage, relieved that no one is paying her special attention that no teacher has come especially to her to give a pep talk. “No special treatment. She was just like anybody else. She was one of them’. Similarly, in Kanna Panna, he says the following after successfully leading the family out of the dark cave temple – “Pehli bar sab mujh par bharosa kar rahe the. Achcha lag raha tha.” We read out excerpts like these in one discussion group, and asked children why such experiences –of being treated normally – might be so important to Manya, Kanna and others like them. Some responses from them –
“Like us, they want to do things independently. So, if we help them more, they will feel like they are being treated differently. We’re getting special attention.”
“I think they want to be treated normally…it is just a stammer, nothing very special, then why are we treated differently. I wouldn’t want to be treated like that.”
“They don’t think that they are special or inferior to anyone. They feel they’re normal as we feel that we are normal. I think that everybody comes into the category of normal.”
These responses led to a very interesting and important discussion on the boundaries of “normality”. By that point, children had frequently said that all of us have strengths and weaknesses, and there are many things that people with disability can do better than us. When the assertion was presented to them differently – do they think that we are all disabled in some way and that this disability can take many forms – the children strongly agreed. Older children immediately repeated that none of us is normal and so we cannot treat anyone else differently or tease them because they do not seem ‘normal’ –
“I have a classmate who stammers – but none of our classmates offer him any special help. I feel like neither he nor any of us are normal – none of us is”
“I think everyone is disabled in some way – the things those people can do, we can’t do”
“I would say so because Kittu was very adventurous, and wanted to try skateboarding, but someone else with both legs might not be that adventurous, so everyone is different in their own way”
THE ROAD AHEAD
We often use the metaphors of mirrors and windows in discussing the significance of diversity in literature. Bringing in authentic and diverse narratives in children’s literature ensures that all children can find themselves in a book as well as provide a window to understand and appreciate the “other” and to discover commonalities of human condition. We believe that the books supported by Parag initiative and other children’s publishers is an important start, but we have a long way to go. We need many more sensitively written books that, taken together, present a more complete view of the continuum of ability in our world. Even as we have more books with characters with disability in them, there seems to be much scope for engaging stories with children with non-physical disabilities, like mental retardation, learning disabilities and even other sensory deficits like deafness. In this pursuit, we must also aim for an interesting range in genre, and have books that can range from easy readers to longer, chapter books. We also need more of these books in a range of languages so that all children can find themselves and others them in these books.
In the words of Patricia Polacco –
“If children can read authentic stories and understand that the heart of humanity is the same – it does not matter how we’re packaged on the outside, we’re all the same – I think it does a great service to molding a child to be a citizen of the world”
Adomat, D.S. (2014). Exploring issues of disability in children’s literature discussions. Disability Studies Quarterly, 34(3).
Dyches, T., Prater, M. A., & Jenson, J. (2006). Portrayal of disabilities in Caldecott books. Teaching Exceptional Children Plus, 2(5).
Nasatir, D., & Horn, E. (2003). Addressing disability as a part of diversity through classroom children’s literature. Young Exceptional Children, 6(4).
Ostrosky, M.M., Mouzourou, C., Dorsey, E.A., Favazza, P.C., & Leboeuf, L.M. (2015). Pick a book, any book: Using children’s books to support positive attitudes toward peers with disabilities. Young Exceptional Children, 18(1).
Pennell, A. E., Wollak, B., & Koppenhaver, D. A. (2018). Respectful representations of disability in picture books. The Reading Teacher, 71(4).
What does the Riyaaz Academy for Illustrators do? It trains young aspiring artists to illustrate for children’s books, textbooks, magazines.