We’re back with Part 2 of Reading While Disabled. Today, Alice Wong has asked the same group of five disabled readers to share the books they read growing up that had disabled characters (if any) and the impact of that, as well as books they’d recommend now. The conversation wraps up with a discussion of the We Need Diverse Books movement and the importance of representation. If you missed Part 1, you can find it here. And now I’ll hand it over to Alice….
I detested my high school years. I scarfed down my lunch in the hallways and avoided the massive crowds in the cafeteria. My so-called friends were seated at these long horizontal tables with built-in seats so I rarely had a chance to sit with them since wheelchair users could only sit at the ends.
During lunch and study hall I escaped to the school’s library. No one ever asked me for my hall pass–I think they were scared to ask the scowly girl in the wheelchair. Wandering through each stack, smelling the musty yellowing pages, and touching the crinkles from plastic book covers was an adventure because you had no idea what you might find. One time my eye caught the title Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the bondage I had in mind but I ended up reading it anyway. These kinds of happy accidents enriched my imagination and understanding of the world.
I wondered if my other disabled people had similar experiences while growing up. Here is an interview with some 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 the second of a 2-part guest blog post. Some of these responses have been edited for clarity and space.
Were there any books you grew up with that had disabled characters and storylines?
Meriah Nichols: No. I wish there had been.
Vilissa Thompson: I did not read any books that had Black disabled characters, but I did gravitate towards storylines that did have strong Black characters, especially female ones. One of the reasons I loved the Baby-Sitters Club series so much was due to Jessi, who was the only Black baby-sitter in Stoneybrook. Though Jessi wasn’t disabled, her presence in the series was important to me. She was the sensible one, a very talented dancer, incredibly smart, and had a quiet leader spirit when she had to step into that role. Her first appearance in BSC discussed the racism her & her family dealt with when they moved to Stoneybrook; a heavy topic for a children’s book series to tackle. Reading about Jessi not allowing ignorance to shape her & her view of herself as a Black girl was important to me as I grew up to be that age (Jessi and the other characters were 11-14 years old). Reading about Jessi standing firm against prejudice was profound, and her having friends that respected and stood up for her was important for my younger self to read.
Keah Brown: No, and that breaks my heart to say I didn’t grow up with any sort of disabled representation.
Hamza Jaka: I think that Spider-Girl and Oracle helped form the crux of my identity. They showed me that disabled people could do lots of things, and live lives worth living. Harry Potter gave me some connection. Really, when I found a disabled character, it was just like a burst of joy. When I found a well-written disabled character, it was a time for reflection. I also really like the character Amy in John Dies at the End, but noticed a line that bothered me. David says that John never mentioned she had one arm, as a way to show John’s character. Amy’s a great character and it’s not often the women with disabilities who are romantic interests.
Sandy Ho: I’m trying to think of disabled characters and storylines…This is something that made me sad for my younger self that I didn’t come across any.
Is it important that there are books for kids and young adults that feature disabled characters and by disabled writers? Does it matter?
Meriah Nichols: Yes, I think it matters a lot. It would have helped me a lot to feel less alone with my hearing and my mind, not to mention help me with my abuse.
Vilissa Thompson: Authentic disability representation in books and having disabled writers are instrumental to ensuring that our stories are told in ways that are empowering, accurate, and not inspirational. This is one of the reasons why I’m working on a children’s book about my own life – I know firsthand the effects of not having disabled characters in books to read growing up. I want to do my part in ensuring that the next generation of disabled kids and teens do not experience that lack of visibility in literature. Disabled characters allow disabled children to see their stories and know that they’re not alone, and non-disabled children learn that being disabled isn’t “weird” and that nothing is “wrong” with us.
Keah Brown: I always say that representation matters because it saves lives. I think that everybody deserves to see themselves and to be seen as they are completely and they deserve to know that who they are and what they are is valuable and a story important enough to be told.
Hamza Jaka: It absolutely matters. It can provide people with a sense of purpose. Seeing yourself as a character in a story helps you understand yourself and your perceptions…Melissa Shang’s book Mia Lee is Wheeling Through Middle School is one example.
Sandy Ho: Yes! Because kids utilize stories not just as a way to learn from, and enjoy story time but to form their own ideas of the world, and about people. When disabled characters and disabled writers are not a part of this formation of their ideas about others – it makes it seem like we are a taboo topic. Kids need to know that there is nothing shameful, frightening, or secretive about living as a disabled person. There are stories and narratives that can involve disability outside of a doctor’s office, a hospital, or that one learning opportunity in elementary school involving “being nice to those special needs kids.”
With movements such as We Need Diverse Books™ highlighting the need for the publishing industry to improve, what are your hopes for better disability representation in children’s literature/YA lit?
Meriah Nichols: I so hope we can have more stories that are real stories, not just little props in which we can talk about disabled people. Our lives lived with our disabilities are just as rich and varied as those without disabilities, and I’d like to see more character representation that includes disability as there are that include race. And the intersections. For example, the character of Geordi in Star Trek: The Next Generation – he’s a blind engineer – episodes portray him sometimes from the angle of his being blind, and other times, just the aspect of his being an engineer. I’d like to see much more of that in literature and in storytelling.
Vilissa Thompson: I hope that movements like WNDB motivates disabled people to write the stories that have not been told. We need to change the depiction of disability in literature (which is typically written by non-disabled people with inspirational, ill-informed understanding of our lives) and reshape it in such a way that having discussions about representation will be in the past. This is our experience, and we must do what’s necessary to write about it in the manner it needs to be – our community need these characters and for those of us to write them.
Keah Brown: My hope is that we get to a place where we can show the diverse nature of disability in literature and young adult literature I think both need the representation. I’m tired of pity stories and heartbreak and a complete lack of romance for disabled characters.
Hamza Jaka: I hope to see more disabled characters, and not as macguffins or specially equipped to solve one particular problem. Most importantly, I want to see more queer, disabled, and POC characters, especially disabled people of color, queer disabled people of color, and queer disabled people. I’d also prefer that the characters not be stereotypes or used to elevate other characters because they are disabled.
Sandy Ho: I hope that there will be more presence of disability seamlessly incorporated into literature and YA lit. It doesn’t mean that I want more disabled-centric plots tomorrow (although that would be awesome), but that the publishing industry must expand its ideas and role of being a gatekeeper of our mainstream culture, and recognize all of the narratives that make up our ideas of who we are, and what we hope for our society as a whole.
A huge thank you to all of the contributors, and to Alice Wong for bringing these perspectives together for us. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to read and reflect on these responses.
How much of an effort do you, my readers, make to read stories representing a more diverse world? Has the We Need Diverse Books movement influenced your reading habits at all?
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