In the opening ceremony of the Olympics, young disabled performers were featured from start to finish. When 11-year-old Humphrey Keeper sang
so beautifully, who noticed that he had been born without a hand on his left
arm? Many of the children in the Kaos
choir who sang and signed God Save the Queen have physical and learning
disabilities. One girl suffered four seizures just days before the ceremony,
but she was determined to get out of hospital in order to be able to take part. Jerusalem
Soon we will be hearing more stories of men and women who refused to allow disability to define their goals. They will compete at the Paralympic games, win and lose, showing the world just a part of their many abilities.
Sadly, along with the positive and inspiring stories that come from the Olympics and Paralympics, we also hear far too often about disabled people being bullied and abused, sometimes, horrifically, even killed by their tormentors. Political and media rhetoric can paint the disabled as malingerers, sponging off the state. Children need to learn early in life to identify with people whose bodies, minds and emotions work differently from the supposed norm.
I think it’s a good time to be thinking about how we present disability in children’s books. Recently I read a book in which the (best-selling and very popular) author had - shockingly, in my opinion - used physical and mental disability to signify the sinister. It was like coming across a crude racial stereotype in a modern setting.
One book doing much to challenge prejudice is Wonder, R J Palacio’s debut novel which has deservedly won much attention and praise in her native
and beyond. Wonder tells the story of August
America , a boy
with extreme facial deformities, moving from home-schooling to the classroom
for the first time. R J Palacio is extremely good at the small and large
unkindnesses of schoolchildren, faced with someone different - and the real wonder of this book is Summer,
the girl who defies convention to be kind, and then moves beyond kindness to
make a real friendship with August. Pullman
The book isn’t perfect – I’d have liked to hear more about August’s sister’s feelings about her own face, and I didn’t like the approval given to his strategy of joking about his face to make others feel better. The ending is just a little too sentimental for my taste (but
will love it). Still, I want to
force it into every 11-year-old’s hands. Hollywood
I have a paralympic athlete character in my book, When I was Joe. I wanted Ellie to be determined, ambitious, brisk and unsentimental. I wanted her struggle to be there alongside those of the other characters - not taking over the book, but important, nonetheless. I also wanted to show the effect that a super-determined, highly talented special needs member can have on an ordinary family.
Growing up, as I did, with a disabled brother whose ambition and determination bulldozed any obstacles in his way, I rarely read books about families like ours. Today we need them more than ever.