When the subject of “diversity” comes up in conversation, our minds generally turn to diversity of culture, race, and gender. But we often fail to consider the diversity that goes beyond physical appearance. There is a large population of people with disabilities who share significant problems and experiences, such as physical mobility limitations, and who struggle for social respect and representation. They might have difficulty doing the things we often take for granted: walking, talking, and even breathing.
Over the summer, during the height of the pandemic and a time of incredible chaos, I began reading to children of different abilities over Zoom. Reading stories about colorful zoos and exciting superheroes allowed me to give these children a moment of escapism and delight. However, as I thought more about the content of these books, I grew more aware of the ways they are represented in the media—or failed to be represented.
When we pick up a book to read, we don’t always find characters who reflect our lived experiences. Just as it is important to encourage diversity in children’s literature, we also need to emphasize stories that showcase different types of mobility or behavioral traits. It is time to broaden children’s ideas of inclusion through the literature they are exposed to at home and at school.
Books are used in classrooms all the time and are critical tools to teach empathy. Exposing children to people who look and act differently than they do from a young age will make them more accepting adults. Additionally, children with disabilities will see themselves portrayed in books, and they will feel less alone in their challenges. For example, books such as Special People, Special Ways by Arlene Maguire highlights a different disability on each page. Children with special needs get to see themselves reflected in the pages and are reminded that they are unique and enough, just as they are. For kids who do not understand disabilities, they get to learn about the experiences of other children. Another powerful book is Just Because, which shows the relationship between a brother and his sister who has a disability. Siblings of children with disabilities, and children with disabilities themselves, see their loving but complicated relationships in a heart-warming story.
Not only will the inclusion of children with special needs in books support the bridge between those with disabilities and those without, but children can learn to empathize with those that struggle in their daily lives. Ensuring that school libraries are well stocked with books that include stories of children with disabilities will help children learn how to be kind and understanding not only to those with disabilities, but also to the classmates that surround them in their daily life. They will come to find that most people struggle with something in their life, and that they should always choose kindness since they do not always understand what people are going through.
There are so many children who have been made to feel sad or alone because of the differences that make their life more challenging. Whether they struggle with walking, hearing, seeing, or understanding social cues, all children deserve to read stories that shine a positive light on their diverse experiences and abilities. Ultimately, we need to work on helping kids recognize the many ways in which we are unique through more inclusive children’s books. While we are making progress when it comes to themes of race, gender, and culture, we need to educate children on subjects that normally are not discussed, or not discussed enough. The sooner we teach kids that it’s okay to be different, and show them that they are properly represented, the sooner we will foster more empathy and respect in the next generation.