A warm welcome to Alice Wong for this awesome two-part guest post on reading while disabled. Alice heads up the Disability Visibility Project, and today she’s brought together the voices of five disabled readers to talk about the books they’ve read, and what those stories–and reading–means to them.
And now I’ll hand it over to Alice…
Books were my best friends growing up. In grade school I would sit in the corner of the gymnasium in my wheelchair and read while trying to avoid being hit by an errant basketball. This was the 1980s and physical education wasn’t adaptive or inclusive which was fine by me. It gave me more time to read.
The libraries at school and in my community (shout-out to the Nora Branch of The Indianapolis Public Library!) were refuges–places I felt safe, free, and unencumbered. I owe a lot to the writers during my childhood when I felt lonely and trapped in a non-normative body and people’s narrow expectations of who and what I could become. Like a lot of other misfits, nerds, weirdos, and bookworms, books were key to my liberation. I interviewed a few of my disabled friends about their childhood favorites and the importance of disability representation in literature: Keah Brown, Sandy Ho, Hamza Jaka, Meriah Nichols, and Vilissa Thompson. This is first of a 2-part guest blog post. Some of these responses have been edited for clarity and space.
What are some books you grew up reading and loving as a kid?
Meriah Nichols: I loved the Lord of the Rings series, the Chronicles of Narnia, all of Madeline L’Engle’s books (but especially the Wrinkle in Time series). Nancy Drew was also a favorite, then Sherlock Holmes. All of the work of the Brontë sisters. I loved anything with mystical magic, rich language and a sense of more – more than me, more than my reality, etc.
Vilissa Thompson: I loved the classic Baby-Sitters Club series by Ann M. Martin. Reading BSC was the “thing” to do as an 80s baby/90s kid. I enjoyed the differences between the girls in the series, and their unique friendships with one another.
Keah Brown: Growing up I loved the spunk and spontaneity of the Junie B. Jones books. I loved The Scholastic book fair growing up because I saved all of my allowance money to buy books at the fair. Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary made me want to be a writer. That book in particular hold a special place in my heart. I also read a lot of books that were definitely too old for me to be reading like a lot of romances and crime dramas.
Hamza Jaka: Of course, Harry Potter. I always felt a connection to Lupin and Mad-Eye Moody, so I was thrilled when Rowling revealed that they were in fact disabled according to her canon. I always wondered how disability was integrated into Hogwarts though. Did wheelchair users use winguardium leviosa to get around? Or did learning disabled or blind folks have spells that read things out to them, did they get extended time on tests? Other favorite books include The Lost Years of Merlin, the Star Wars expanded universe for its characterizations of great characters, the Animorphs series. Also, as far as comics go, Spider-Girl was definitely my favorite, a diverse cast, multiple disabled characters, and genuine conflict, but happy endings. Oracle and her Birds of Prey as well.
Sandy Ho: Matilda by Roald Dahl (because I identified so resolutely with Matilda’s position of being the strange one in her family, and the way she used books to gain power, and seek empathy from characters elsewhere) / The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien (fantasy! The way different species and fantasy humans were described in the book had a lasting impact one me) / Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card (sci-fi because I was a Trekkie growing-up, and to have that world of space play out in my mind through the page was something I relished being able to do.) / Harriet the Spy – Louise Fitzhugh (because she was another female kid character I looked up to, and she had brains to who solve mysteries!) / All of the Judy Blume Ramona series books, and also the Fudge series books…because Judy Blume.
As a physically disabled kid my entire life, books and libraries were a refuge for me. What was your relationship with reading as a kid?
Meriah Nichols: I was a deaf kid who was sexually abused and constantly moving. I had TBI and PTSD and was just considered “difficult” (and sent away from home a lot). Reading was my life, my escape, my being whole. When my own life was too unbearable (which was often), I’d go to my comfort-land within stories.
Vilissa Thompson: Reading, and then writing, were the activities I loved to do as a kid. When I read a book, it’s so easy for me to get lost in the story that’s unfolding. It feels as if time stops. Even at 31, I still get excited when I hold a book that I cannot wait to dive into. I love the adventures books take me on, and the feeling I have when the last word is read.
Keah Brown: I absolutely loved reading as a kid and I do now as well. Books were my first best friends, my place to escape from the confines of my body and thoughts and into worlds and lives of characters that I grew to love and know well.
Hamza Jaka: I loved reading, reading was my salvation. I couldn’t really play outside, snow and walkers don’t mix. Reading let me move forward with my life and grow mentally.
Sandy Ho: This was a similar experience for me as well. Initially I had used books to while away the time waiting for doctors. It was a distraction from pain for me often time that I could delve into a book where there was a clear beginning, middle, and ending – that all problems would be solved. This fact of reading was something I was really drawn to because as a young kid I didn’t always see the ending to a hospital visit, or discomfort I was experiencing.
Is there a book you read as an adult that you wish your disabled younger self could have read? If so, which book and why?
Meriah Nichols: I loved The Poisonwood Bible because as a missionary child growing up abroad, it really spoke to my third culture kid experience. The Deaf chapter in Far From the Tree was also powerful (and triggering).
Sandy Ho: I think if someone had thrown my way Don’t Call Me Inspirational by Harilyn Rousso as a high school student my world would have blown up earlier than it did. Or if someone has introduced me to Geek Love by Katherine Dunn around the time of 8th / 9th grade that would have been mind blowing. I think I had such an ableist idea of myself that was formed largely because I didn’t have any examples of disability besides those ideas that had been filtered through my family / school / friends – all able-bodied!
A huge thank you to Alice for such an awesome post. Below is a little bit about each of the contributors. Make sure to stop by next week for Part 2!
About the Contributors
Sandy Ho. I’m a disabled woman who is queer, and Asian-American. Twitter: @IntersectedCrip
Hamza Jaka. Pakistani-American disabled man, also major nerd and comic book fan. Twitter: @HamzaAJaka
Meriah Nichols is teacher and artist who lives in a yurt off the grid. She is deaf, has 3 kids (one with Down syndrome) and a lot of chickens. She writes about travel, disability, and getting dishes done on her blog, www.meriahnichols.com. She likes her tea Earl Grey and hot. Twitter: @meriahnichols
Alice Wong, Founder of the Disability Visibility Project™, a community partnership with StoryCorps and an online community dedicated to creating, sharing, and amplifying disability stories and culture. Twitter: @SFdirewolf