This resource considers how books for early years and primary age children can be used to promote disability inclusion. It follows the NEU’s earlier Every Child, Every Family and Breaking The Mould resources, which look at LGBT+ identities and gender stereotypes and Getting EVERYONE Reading For Pleasure which discusses in more detail the value of inclusive literature and also contains tips for supporting Disabled pupils with reading.
Literature is vital in helping children to explore and learn about the world. Books are key tools in promoting inclusion and challenging prejudice, but to be effective they need to include everybody. All children need to see themselves in books – and to see a full range of other diverse characters as well.
People are not defined solely by their ethnicity, faith, sexual orientation, sex or gender – or their abilities. Arguably, the group least well served by children’s literature are Disabled people. Depictions of disability are still relatively rare. Where they do occur, they are often part of bullying narratives or feature people ‘overcoming’ their impairments to achieve great things, neither of which necessarily aid inclusion. In the best titles, Disabled characters are shown to enjoy many of the same things and to have much in common with the rest of us. They are neither victims nor heroes – just ordinary people getting on with the business of living.
Many Disabled people still have to navigate a world that sees their impairments first and everything else second and makes assumptions about their needs and abilities based on one aspect of their lives. Literature can act as a powerful counter to this by showing us a world in which disability is acknowledged but not necessarily remarked upon and where people are defined by their interests and aspirations rather than other people’s assumptions.
The books in this resource take a number of approaches. Some talk specifically about diversity in all its forms and can be used to ensure that disability is included in wider conversations about both our differences and the many things we have in common. Some feature Disabled protagonists (although their impairments are not what defines them) and many just include Disabled children as part of the action. All have value but, arguably, this last group are the most important. For some children, the first people they may associate with disability are Paralympians or someone like Stephen Hawking. Such high achievers are valuable in terms of how, for example, they challenge common stereotypes about disability – but their lives do not reflect those of most Disabled people.
Reading stories that feature familiar situations and in which disability is just one aspect of many people’s lives is one of the best ways of promoting disability inclusion. We have also largely avoided narratives that feature bullying since these frequently show Disabled characters as excluded and focus almost entirely on that one aspect of their experience. Our suggested books also include a range of ethnicities, faiths, sexual orientations and other differences since Disabled people are as diverse as everyone else and fictional depictions should reflect those intersectional identities.
Just as thinking about everything we have in common is at least as important as identifying our differences, thinking about how we can include Disabled people by making positive changes is likely to be more beneficial than focusing on negative aspects of their experience. Many of the books exemplify the social model of disability which recognises that people are disabled by the attitudes and structures of society rather than by their impairments. It is because the world is ‘set up’ for people who are not disabled that many of the barriers faced by Disabled people exist. These barriers can be physical but may also be seen in the way some people perceive or behave towards people with impairments. Understanding this is the key to creating change – it is society that needs to be different, not Disabled people themselves. We can all be a part of this change – for example, by not assuming that Disabled people can't do certain things. The rounded, integrated portrayals in these books help to challenge narrow, stereotypical views of disability.
The selection isn’t exhaustive – there are many books we do not have space to include here. Think of this resource as a guide to the types of books that are likely to be most effective at promoting disability inclusion. We have sometimes suggested titles for particular ages but most will work for a wide age range – you and your pupils will be the best judge of the books they enjoy.
Remember as well that people with impairments should be included and visible across the whole curriculum. For instance, it is often noted that Relationships, Sex and Health Education can fail to include Disabled people. Think about everything from classroom displays to the examples you create for maths and science problems. Just as materials should include a range of ethnicities, faiths, sexual orientations and genders (and challenge stereotypes about all these), so should they regularly include representations of disability. And, rather than focusing primarily on one-off displays or events that foreground disability, ask yourself whether ensuring the integration of such representation across the whole school isn’t, ultimately, more beneficial. Celebrations needn’t be one-off affairs – they can also be about increasing representation in everything we do.
Teaching will always be both demanding and hugely rewarding. Educators enlighten, inspire, challenge and inform. They also have the power to change lives. I hope that you and your pupils enjoy these books. They will help you to reflect the diversity within your classroom and broader society. Here's to a more inclusive world!