Superhumans – The Portrayal of Disabilities in Children's Books
This week SCBWI opened a new Blue Board to discuss writing about diversity in all it's forms. I am delighted because I seem to keep writing about disabled characters. I don't want to offend people by asking what life is like as a child with a disability, quite the opposite, I want to inspire.
It all started in the summer of 2012 when I saw this poster.
A huge 96 sheet on my walk into town with “Meet the Superhumans” and a photo of the athletes. It made me realise firstly, that I am quite lazy and I should be ashamed for making excuses, like its too cold to go running and secondly, that if you really want to do something, I mean REALLY want to do it, then there is a way to achieve it. If you are prepared to pour all your effort into into it.
Despite his later personal catastrophe, in that summer of 2012, what could be more inspiring than seeing Oscar Pistorius powering down the last 100 meters of track, so fast that he could compete with the most elite runners of the world? Yet here is a man who has no feet. Can you imagine a little boy with a dream so big? All the difficulties and physical pain he must have endured to achieve it? I can picture adults looking at this double amputee with pity as he says at school that when he grows up he wants to be a runner, thinking, “Well you can dream.” But he did dream it and better still he did it along with all the other medal winners.
If this was in a book people would think it was a far fetched story. I began to think about the characters who had disabilities in the books I read as a child. There was Clara in Heidi. I felt disgusted at Grandfather who just deemed Clara as a bit lazy and she could walk if only she tried. Fortunately for Clara, it seems she could magically walk once she got on with it, but this is not what happens to the vast majority of wheelchair users. They would love to just get out and walk but the reality isn't that simple. If I did have problem walking a book like that would make me feel like my disability was somehow my fault and that is not a message I would ever like to transmit to my readers. I do not want my characters to have blindness cured by tears like in Jane Eyre, or any other ludicrous scenarios.
My children love Cerrie Burnell from Cbeebies, they do not need her be like a starfish and grow a new section of arm, they like her because they like her. She is warm and friendly and that is enough. But apart from Cerrie, there are few females of note, real and fictitious who are strong and successful with a disability and heaven forbid that they are depicted as beautiful or powerful as well. You would expect at least Rupunzel to have Rickets, stuck up in that tower without much sunlight, but no. Disney depict her as physically perfect with massive eyes, nipped waist and a cracking soprano to boot. They didn't bother selling any dolls with the cropped brown hair she ends up with, as the idea of beauty is so ingrained that all the little girls want the perfect blonde one with cascading locks.
Now, I admit that I do love Disney Princesses as much as the next girl, but what if you were that little girl, like Cerrie once was, with a limb difference? Or if you had a prosthetic foot and you didn't want glass slippers but wanted to dance? Or if you were blind and you could never see again, no matter how many times your mum cried? Does this mean that your life is over and you must be locked away in a great mansion like the children in The Secret Garden? Heck no! No way at all! It just means that some things might be trickier in life, but lets all write books that show just what people can achieve. Lets write impressive people like those Superhuman Paralympians.
The protagonist I am currently working on would roll her eyes at me for even writing this post. She would get irritated and say lets just get on with it. Children don't want to be defined by what could hold them back, they to be happy in their own skin. To be accepted just as they are so they can embrace their talents and flourish into whatever they dream to be. They want to see and believe that life awaits no matter where they came from or what life throws at them. Surely as writers, that's something we can help our young readers explore.