Neurodiversity and Disability

When we talk about intersectionality and diversity in children’s literature, it is essential to discuss stories that affirm and feature the authentic voices of disabled and neurodiverse people, instead of allowing the narrative of their lives to be defined by neurotypical and able-bodied people. In searching out books that feature identity-first language (more on that later in this post) and stories that don’t silence or belittle Disabled and Neurodivergent people, we were able to find some resources that included tips and studies that can be helpful for neurotypical and non-disabled educators, parents or anyone who works closely with children!


Definitions:

unless noted, definitions by Lydia X.Z. Brown at Autistic Hoya 

Resource Recommendation: Disability Language Style Guide from the National Center on Disability and Journalism (NCDJ)

Terms to Avoid When Writing (and Talking) About Disability

Privilege

1. Often-unearned advantages and benefits in society due to actual or presumed membership in a particular group at the cost of the analogously oppressed group.
– May be benefits that ought to be afforded to all.
– May be advantages or benefits that no one ought to have.
2. Some of the most common forms of privilege include able-bodied privilege, Christian privilege (in most Western contexts), cisgender privilege, class privilege, education privilege, man or masculine privilege (sometimes called male privilege), neurotypical privilege, status privilege, straight privilege, thin privilege, and white privilege.

Disability-Related Terminology

Ableism
1. Oppression, prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination against disabled people on the basis of actual or presumed disability.
2. The belief that people are superior or inferior, have better quality of life, or have lives more valuable or worth living on the basis of actual or perceived disability.

Accessibility
How well a person with atypical ways of thinking, communicating, sensing, or moving, can easily navigate an environment.

Agency
The ability to make independent decisions and act in one’s own best interests.

Disabled
People are disabled when they have physical or mental differences or impairments while living in a society where their bodies and ways of thinking, communicating, sensing, or moving are not treated as “normal” or “natural.”

Erasure
The systematic removal of the viewpoints and existence of oppressed people. The systematic omission of the identities of oppressed people.

Impairment 
When someone has difficulty doing something that most other people can do easily. Impairment may lead to disability (such as paraplegia), but does not necessarily (such as nearsightedness).


Neurodiversity-Related Terminology:

Invisibly disabled
A person whose disability is not apparent, such as someone with dyslexia, a person with schizophrenia, people with communication disabilities or sensory processing disabilities, or an autistic person.

Neurodiversity
1. The belief that differing neurologies are a natural part and form of human diversity.
2. The belief that atypical or divergent neurologies are not indicative of disease, defect, disorder, or illness.
3. The philosophy that neurological difference should be celebrated and accepted as natural and normal. 

Neurotypical
People whose brains work in basically the same way as most other people, or whose ways of thinking and processing information are considered more or less “normal” by the standards of their society.

Visibly disabled
A person whose disability is externally apparent, such as someone in a wheelchair, a little person, someone with Down syndrome, many Blind people, or someone with cerebral palsy.

Autism/autism spectrum disorder

(from the NCDJ)

Autism spectrum disorder is a group of complex disorders related to brain development. Common symptoms of autism spectrum disorder include difficulties in communication, impaired social interaction and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior, interests or activities, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. However, symptoms vary across the spectrum. Some experts classify autism as a developmental disorder rather than a mental illness. Prior to 2013, subtypes of autism such as Asperger’s syndrome, autism disorder and childhood disintegrative disorder were classified as distinct disorders. The fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders consolidates all autism disorders under the larger autism spectrum disorder diagnosis.

Opinions vary on how to refer to someone with autism. Some people with autism prefer being referred to as an “autistic person;” others object to using autistic as an adjective.

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network details this debate here.


Studies and Articles on Utilizing Children’s Literature

to Introduce Neurodiversity and Disability in the Classroom


 Using Children’s Picture Books About Autism

as Resources in Inclusive Classrooms

by Miranda L. Sigmon, Mary E. Tackett, Amy Price Azano

From The Reading Teacher Vol. 70 No. 1 pp. 111–117

  • “With an increase in the prevalence of children diagnosed with autism and the continuing movement toward inclusion in elementary classrooms, general education teachers must meet the challenge of planning in- struction for students with autism and their neurotypical peers. To be effective in the inclusive classroom, teachers need to create inviting and safe environments so that students learn to work together and support one another while respect- ing neurodiversity. Picture books about autism can be used to teach children understanding, empathy, and acceptance.”
  • While recognizing these challenges, more schools are moving toward inclusion as an instructional model for best meet- ing the educational needs of students with autism and other disabilities. This inclusive setting allows the growing population of children with autism to work and learn alongside their neurotypical peers.
  • Students with autism are “increasingly visible in public schools” (Chandler-Olcott & Kluth, 2009, p. 549), but many general education teachers are unaware of evidence-based strategies to meet the needs of their learners with autism (Friedlander, 2009; Rogers, 2000). The increasing number of students with autism affects literacy instruction in the general education classroom (Chandler-Olcott & Kluth, 2009). As such, teachers must be given easily accessible literacy tools to adapt instruction to meet students’ learning needs.
  • This article provides instructional tips for educators and offers suggestions for using children’s picture books about autism to encourage positive, inclusive instruction. We believe that all students benefit from increased awareness and identification of the characteristics, strengths, and challenges experienced by students with autism and that chil- dren’s books about autism provide an accessible tool for modeling and encouraging positive, accepting relationships among students. These picture books and the characters in them can also serve to en- hance the classroom environment by highlighting diversity, social justice, acceptance, and empathy for students with disabilities.

Tip 1: Teach Common Characteristics of Autism

While Focusing on Unique Qualities of the Individual

  • Autism is a spectrum disorder and thus does not have a finite set of characteristics. Two students diagnosed with autism may behave differently: One may be completely nonverbal and may resist physical touch, whereas the other may be talkative and crave hugs and interaction. Teachers should select a variety of books that highlight these differences. These books should center on characters who exhibit many different characteristics across the autism spectrum, and reading several different books will help point out that not all children with autism have the same characteristics and abilities
  • By reading multiple books about autism, students may see that, although there are general characteristics, an individual with autism has unique abilities, too. In doing so, we caution teachers not to single out any student with autism as the spokesperson for the disability. Inclusive classrooms should celebrate diversity but not make students feel self-conscious or alone in their experiences. A major goal of inclusion is acceptance, so it is important that students not generalize from the experiences of one or two classmates. In fact, by using books portraying characters with autism that illustrate the range of the spectrum disorder, students can better understand that, although autism has common characteristics, individuals with autism are still individuals.
  • A strategy for discussing characteristics of autism is to use poster paper to list all of the characteristics of autism introduced in the books (e.g., communication skills, anxieties, lining up pencils, disliking loud noises, various stimming behaviors) and then discuss them with students. These books also present opportunities for neurotypical students to recognize that they too might have a similar characteristic, like disliking loud noises. Inviting students to safely discuss these similarities and differences builds trust and community in the inclusive classroom. To focus on the unique qualities of the individual characters with autism, read a different book each week and discuss how the characters are alike and different. This strategy provides opportunities to discuss similarities and differences between students with autism and their neurotypical peers and to celebrate the neurodiversity of inclusive classrooms.
 Tip 2: Discuss How Children With Autism
Need to Be Accepted, Not Changed
  • In many of the books, there was a turning point in which the character with autism would overcome a particular challenge, an obstacle, or social anxiety. For example, the child with autism would speak at the end after being nonverbal. This turning point of- ten resulted from one or more characters in the story accepting the child with autism for who he or she is and the child with autism reciprocating by exhibit- ing a previously unmet social convention. Although inclusive practices and positive social interactions can affect the behaviors of a student with autism, we caution against using books that serve only as ex- amples of celebrating change rather than teaching acceptance.
  • Although a student with autism may respond positively to other students’ acceptance and interaction, it is important for stu- dents to realize that overcoming the social anxieties associated with autism is not likely to happen after one or even a few friendly, accepting encounters in class or on the playground. The big idea is that stu- dents should be taught to be accepting without the notion that they will get any validation in return for their efforts, which is sometimes misleading in the books.
  • Teachers may want to focus on the accepting behaviors of characters in the story regardless of whether or not the child with autism is able to reciprocate appreciation in some way. Following a read-aloud, students could model ways of showing empathy based on characters from the books and then apply them to examples in their school environment.

Tip 3: If Your Student Has Autism,

Communicate With Parents About Using These Books in the Classroom

  • Teacher communication with parents is a vital part of any student’s educational experience, but special attention should be given to cultivate the relationship between the teacher, child, and parent of a student with autism. Just as no two students with autism are the same, families view and respond differently to student disabilities (Kluth, 2003). As such, it is important to choose children’s picture books whose message aligns with that of the parents. Within the available books about children with autism, some highlight school environments and some focus more on family connections and everyday situations. It is important to use a variety of books and to openly communicate with parents about your intentions for their use in the classroom.
  • Be sure to make it clear to parents that your goal in introducing students to these books about autism is to increase students’ awareness and acceptance of autism, not to single out their child. Working with parents to create a partnership and to identify your goals to promote an inclusive philosophy is important in the relationship and experiences of students with autism in the general classroom and their families (Kluth, 2003). One idea for approaching the use of these books with parents is to send the books home ahead of class read-alouds so that the student with autism can read and discuss the story with their parents before hearing it in front of peers. Additionally, teachers can invite parents of students with autism to be guest readers and to answer questions students might have.

     

    Conclusion:

    Using children’s books as a resource is common in elementary classrooms and could address and increase awareness and acceptance of autism among students. We hope this article helps elementary educators feel more comfortable using children’s picture books that portray children with autism in their classroom as a teaching tool for learning about and understanding au- tism. By acknowledging and openly discussing autism, we hope autism becomes part of a celebration of neu- rodiversity—and not characterized as tragic (Chandler- Olcott & Kluth, 2009). By incorporating these children’s picture books into the classroom through read-alouds and discussions, students are introduced to characters who exhibit empathy and acceptance toward students with autism while also learning to appreciate differ- ences and unique talents in all individuals. We are hopeful that the use of these children’s picture books will help students better understand, empathize with, and accept students with autism in order to advance toward a more positive outlook about differing abilities in a truly inclusive classroom.


 Exploring Issues of Disability

in Children’s Literature Discussions

by Donna Sayers Adomat

From Disability Studies Quarterly Vol. 34 No. 3 

  • In this qualitative study, the author uses the theoretical lens of disability studies to examine how children in two multiage classrooms examine issues of disability through conversations during read-aloud and literature circle discussions. In this study, the author looks at how children build positive understandings of disability from children’s literature but also how societal attitudes, beliefs, and stereotypes might play into their interpretations of literature. Student’s talk before, during, and after literature discussions was audio- and videorecorded. Several themes emerged from a discourse analysis of the transcriptions, including: defining disabilities, questioning and critiquing notions of normalcy; idealizing disabilities; identifying with characters; developing an advocacy stance; and using imagination to open up perspectives towards people in the real world. Through exploring characters in books, children not only learned about various disabilities, but they came to understand characters with disabilities as full and complex beings, similar in many ways to themselves.
  • Students in elementary classrooms today reflect the ever-increasing diversity of culture, language, and abilities in our society; however, the diversity of students is not always addressed by instructional approaches or materials. Multicultural literature, broadly defined, includes people who have been underrepresented in stories because of race, gender, sexual preference, and disability (Galda, Sipe, Liang & Cullinan, 2013). Providing space and time for discussions about multicultural literature brings the wider perspectives of society into the classroom and allows children to create democratic communities in which to consider diversity. Through literature discussions, children’s voices are heard, they are able to connect the books to their lives, and they gain multiple perspectives on complex issues such as stereotypes and prejudice.
  • Although there are numerous studies on how children negotiate social issues in discussions of children’s literature, such as race and ethnicity (Copenhaver-Johnson, Bowman, & Johnson, 2007; Rice, 2005; Rogers & Mosley, 2010; Souto-Manning, 2009), sexual orientation (Hermann-Wilmarth, 2007), and gender (Louis, 2001; Taber & Woloshyn, 2011), the issue of disability is largely absent (Walker, Mileski, Greaves, & Patterson, 2008). This study fills a needed gap in the research and examines how children in two elementary classrooms explore issues of disability through classroom discussions of children’s picture books and novels.
  • Representations of disability in children’s books have improved in the past decade, but stereotypes persist. A large body of children’s books gives “subliminal or frankly negative messages” about the supposed nature of people with disabilities (Saunders, 2000, p. 1). Therefore, a greater awareness of how teachers and students can examine books to uncover stereotypes and negative images is needed.

Exploring Social Issues through Literature Discussions

  • Many research studies have shown that read-alouds in the primary grades and small-group discussions of novels in the intermediate grades in elementary schools promote a rich understanding of contemporary issues (Almasi, 1995; Barrentine, 1996; Langer, 1995; Sipe, 2008). Teaching literature about diverse paradigms and perspectives involves more than just teaching literary conventions or text genres; teaching literature that includes perspectives on social issues such as disability involves broadening students’ cultural perspectives (Thein, Beach, & Parks, 2007). What is needed is to build a picture of differing abilities without simplifying and universalizing complex experiences (Lewis, 1997).
  • Because reading children’s literature can be instrumental in changing readers’ attitudes about stereotypes, it is important for educators that these changes be beneficial. Teachers and other professionals who give children books about disabilities are striving to build bridges, not reinforce prejudices (Saad, 2004). Both images in books and children’s discussions mirror larger societal attitudes. In the personal sense, individuals construct new meaning as new information interacts with existing knowledge (Pantaleo, 2007). In the social sense, while knowledge is personally constructed, the constructed knowledge is “socially mediated as a result of cultural experiences and interactions with others in that culture” (McRobbie & Tobin, 1997, p. 194).
  • In literature discussion groups, students bring to the group existing practices—ways of talking, thinking, and acting—constituted through such conditions as gender, class, race, ethnicity, peer status, (Lewis, 1997) and disability. Although beneficial changes can occur as students examine and discuss diverse viewpoints, there exists the possibility that stereotypes about disabilities will be reinforced or reconstructed. Just as children’s texts have the potential for creating change in attitudes about disability, they also have the potential for preserving and reflecting negative cultural attitudes.

Disability Studies Perspectives on Children’s Literature

  • A disability studies perspective examines how disability is socially constructed in society and can shed light on how literature reflects the social conditions within which it was written. According to Linton (1998), definitions of disability are a matter of social debate and social construction over the causes, effects, representations, and implications of disability. Readers of books that feature characters with disabilities are able to understand and critique the books and the kinds of representations that are present in them. For example, in examining how disability is socially constructed in literature, readers might look at how disability is defined, how a disability affects the character’s interactions with family and the wider community, how people with disabilities are treated, and the problems that these characters face (Adomat, 2009).
  • According to disability studies researchers, disability has had moral, medical, and social constructions throughout its history and within literature (Lane, 2005). A definition of disability according to a medical model is “based on the idea that to achieve normalcy, the individual must be made whole and healthy” (Solis, 2004). Children’s literature written from this perspective emphasizes qualities like physical “wholeness,” good looks, and high intelligence, and are valued and identified with high status individuals; whereas, the qualities of others are demeaned, stigmatized, ridiculed, feared and degraded. Children learn that people with disabilities are more different from than similar to persons without disabilities, and the consequences of such beliefs result in segregation and isolation (Solis, 2004). In interrogating texts from a disability studies perspective, students might come to understand that a disability is not fixed and dichotomous, but rather it is fluid and continuous (Lane, 2005). In this study, I am interested in looking at how children build positive understandings of disability from children’s literature but also how societal attitudes, beliefs, and stereotypes might play into their interpretations of the literature.

Definitions of Disability

In the beginning of the curriculum units on disability, both teachers spent time helping children to understanding what disabilities were like. This theme shows how children wrestled with the boundaries of the disabilities portrayed in books. Although most of the books used in this study were fictional, many books provided factual information about a disability, either as a foreword or afterword. Children’s discussions initially reflected an attempt to understand and define the characteristics of various disabilities. In Looking after Louis (Ely, 2004), a book about a boy with autism who gets away with behavior the other children cannot, the second- and third-graders tried to figure out the kind of disability that Louis had:

Ms. Schild: [reading] “Louis sometimes talks in the wrong place. Yesterday Miss Owlie said, ‘Sit up straight, everybody.’ Louis said, ‘Sit up straight, everybody.’ We all laughed because he sounded just like Miss Owlie.
Matt: Probably he has that one disability where/
Emily: //You can actually see him talking
Sam: Well, probably he has the disability where he repeats everything he hears/
Shane: //or autism
Ms. Schild: What do we know, do we know anything about um other people, have we read anything in other books?
Brittany: I read um, this one girl was talking to angels and she repeated what her brothers said/
Ms. Schild: and do you know what disability she had in that book?
Brittany: //She had autism.

Although accurate medical information is important, children had difficulty moving beyond definitions. Their language reflected the factual construction of disability as a conglomeration of characteristics, therefore reinforcing the medical model that shows the nature of disability as categorical and circumscribed (Solis, 2004). In viewing main characters as representatives of particular disabilities, children were constructing an “enlightenment narrative,” in which a person with a disability functions primarily as an ‘education device’ for others, thereby viewing ‘disabled’ and ‘non-disabled’ as rigid categories (Dunn, 2010, p. 17).

The Boundaries of “Normal”

As children explored the definitions and characteristics of disability, the question of “what is normal” arose. In a discussion of Crow Boy (Yashima, 1976), a book about Chibi, a boy with autism who lives in the mountains of Japan, the second and third-graders wrestled with the idea of individual differences and being “normal.” They also refer to two other picture books about boys with autism: My Brother Sammy (Edwards & Armitage, 2000) and Ian’s Walk (Lears, 2003).

Micaila: Chibi and Sammy see the world in a way, different way.
Josh: No, I… uh… I sort of think that all of us do see the world in different ways.
Ms. Schild: We are all different, not just Sammy, not just Ian, not just Chibi.
Delia: So what’s normal?
Riley: If there is so much normal the way some people describe it, then there is no normal left, so what’s normal?
Ms. Schild: I think the word you guys were talking about is individual rather than different, that we are all individuals.

The children questioned and critiqued notions of “normality” and who decides what “normal” is. In considering differences among people, Micaila suggested that the characters from two books, both with autism, saw the world in a different way. Riley and Ms. Schild discussed the idea that we are all different, not just people with disabilities. Through a discussion of “normal,” children came to consider individual differences and the range of individual differences and disability, as opposed to a static set of characteristics. Children were beginning to realize that there were more fluid boundaries to the definitions of disability and normality, and that definitions served different purposes for different people. As Ms. Schild pointed out, we are all individual, rather than different, but in using this language, Ms. Schild reinforced the notion that disability is defined individually, not as a continuum of abilities within society.

Idealization of Differences

The issue of differences arose in many conversations. In the following excerpt, the second- and third graders discussed See the Ocean (Condra, 2006) and how the main character, Nelly, could “see” the ocean with her mind and her heart, even though she was blind:

Ms. Schild: [reading] Nelly smiles to herself as she thought how very much she loved the ocean. [to the class] Why can Nelly see the ocean when no one could? Laura?
Rachel: I know how she could see it.
Sam: Well, she could somehow with her mind see the picture. Maybe she was focusing more on trying to listen, to feel or smell.
Ms. Schild: She learns about the world in a little bit of a different way, doesn’t she?

In this excerpt, the children were developing an understanding that people sometimes need to rely on different abilities, that they need to compensate or use their other senses, and that some people sometimes need assistance.

The children did, however, tend to idealize disability. Although some of the children understood that people with disabilities might need to learn differently, they made statements that reflected the belief that people with disabilities overdeveloped their other senses and capabilities as a way to compensate for their disability. This kind of idealization was reflected both in the literature and in the children’s discussions, as evidenced by the discussion children had about The Hickory Chair (Fraustino, 2001). This picture book tells the story of Luis, who is blind, and how he is able to find hidden notes through his senses of smell, touch, and hearing. As Riley commented after reading it, “They say if you lose one thing, you always gain another.” Jessica and Kamela continued this discussion:

Jessica: Maybe people with disabilities can be like people without disabilities, Like, if you’re blind, you can still have fun and stuff, like people with disabilities.
Kamela: I mean, people with disabilities on some things they are limited, but still they can live in some ways the same way they would if they didn’t have a disability, and also I like this book, cause it kinda makes you think about, even if you have a disability, you can use your other senses and think in another way.
Jessica: There’s five senses, and you lose one, then it’s not that bad, so then you can use your other senses.

By compensating for a disability, the character makes up for it by having another kind of value or relying on other senses, so that everyone ends up being the same in some sense. The notion that people can compensate for their disability by overdeveloping other senses is in keeping with conventional ways of looking at disability that “focus on ‘fixing’ people with disabilities, trying to make them ‘fit’ more seamlessly into what is seen as a ‘normal’ society” (Dunn, 2010, p. 16). Also, in weighing the value of abilities, this strategy ends up by reinforcing rather than challenging what is fundamentally a competitive view of what it is to be a person of value (Mills, 2002).

Focus on the Person

In socially constructing issues of disability, the students as readers considered how disability is socially situated in literature as well as the larger social implications of the issues in stories. As Gervay (2004) wrote, “it is perhaps more important to move away from didactic teaching into the realm of meaningful human experience focusing on the person and the story.” In this study, children seemed to develop empathy with character before they were able to consider how disability impacted the characters’ lives. It was important for the children to identify how they were similar to the characters in the books, such as their likes and interests, and to use these similarities as a basis for understanding the characters’ disabilities.

Students in the fourth-fifth grade class read the novel Rules (Lord, 2008), which tells how 12-year-old Catherine copes with her autistic brother and how family life revolves around his disability. Excerpts from a small-group discussion show how students related to the characters in the books as multifaceted human beings who have many similarities and connections to themselves:

Kara: My mom sometimes holds my hand when I go to the clinic. She gets upset when I get late, like Jason.
Ana: I don’t have a lot of friends in my neighborhood, either.
Tim: My brother is sometimes annoying and embarrassing like David.
Chuck: I also have rules.

In addition to the many personal connections the children made to the characters and their lives during their discussion of Rules (Lord, 2008), they spent most of their conversations exploring the dilemmas and implications of the plot, such as why the character was afraid of going to school, why the character got into trouble, or why school was problematic for that character.

As a written response, Derek created a poem about the main character in Rules(Lord, 2008), which shows a complex understanding of who David was, both as an individual and as a boy with autism:

David
Brown hair, age 8, blue eyes, has autism
Sibling of Catherine
Lover of videos
Who feels left out
Who needs O.T.
Who gives Catherine a hard time
Who fears bees
Who would like to see the video store
Resident of the east coast
Special brother

In discussing the literary contexts and social implications of stories, the children in both multiage classrooms did not focus solely on the character’s disability; rather, they considered disability as part of a complex set of individual characteristics, and they viewed the characters with disabilities as people who have many traits in common with themselves. As Kendrick (2004) observed: “More discerning writers portray people with [disabilities] as the individuals they are, with a unique range of skills and needs, and with an acknowledged position within the social structure of the family.” Through reading and discussing fiction, the teachers encouraged their students to consider that the stories reflected real life and to use their imaginations to explore and understand their own world (Saunders, 2000).

Building on Strengths

Some of the books gave examples of children with disabilities who were helped when others recognized and built on their strengths, as this excerpt from Crow Boy(Yashima, 1976) shows. The children in the fourth-and fifth-grade discussed why one teacher was successful with Chibi, a boy with autism, but another one was not:

Stephanie: Um, my final thought is about how, well, you guys were just talking about, um, him talking to his teacher and stuff, and when his old teacher was there, his old teacher was probably mean and yelled a lot.
Kara: Well, it seems to me, like this teacher focused on the things that he did know, right? Like he said he was so impressed with all the things that he knew about the places where wild grapes and potatoes grew, and how much he knew about the flowers in the garden, he loved his drawings and his handwriting/
Jen: //focused on the things he did know.

In Crow Boy (Yashima, 1976), a new teacher helped to draw Chibi out his isolation from others, and for the first time, he was a successful student who was recognized by his classmates as having unique gifts. In discussing the story, the fourth- and fifth-graders expressed the idea that Chibi was successful because his teacher “focused on the things he did know.” They recognized that it is important, in a school setting, to build on the strengths of children, and that everyone has unique gifts and abilities.

Issues of Fairness and Equity

The focus of the children’s discussions became, not whether readers sympathized with the characters because of their similarities or their disabilities, but whether this sympathy opened up a different perspective towards people in the “real world.” Children in both classrooms became aware of the larger social implications of the stories they read, such as fair and equitable treatment, judging or making fun of others, and educational placements.

The fourth- and fifth-graders discussed Rainbow Joe and Me (Strom, 2002), a book about a man who can see colors even though he is blind, although other people do not believe him. Cory stated that Rainbow Joe’s mother learned that is it was important “not to judge people,” even though she was initially critical. Katie added: “It is okay to be different, and she learned that you should not judge people because of their disabilities.”

Some children in the class expressed indignation during the read-aloud of Ian’s Walk (Lears, 2003). The main character in the book is teased and bullied because he has autism. The students in grades four and five discussed how people with disabilities are treated differently or made fun of:

Maggie: People shouldn’t treat people with disabilities differently than people who don’t have disabilities.
Karina: I don’t get why people make fun of people who have special needs or disabilities, it is mean, they really should think about how that person has special needs or disabilities and how they would feel if that person made fun of them.

The children in Ms. Schild’s second- and third-grade class thought it was wrong or rude to label people with disabilities during their discussion of Rainbow Joe and Me(Strom, 2002), when Rainbow Joe’s mother made fun of him when he told her he could see colors and paint.

Meagan: Because you say a blind man can’t do stuff, a blind man can’t paint, a blind man…she is saying that a blind man can’t do stuff
Ms. Schild: She is kind of labeling him and she might not know. Anybody want to say anything about mama’s comment here? Marissa?
Marissa: It is really rude.
Ms. Schild: Why do you think is really rude?
Marissa: Because she is labeling him as someone, she doesn’t…she might not know.
Ms. Schild: You need to put yourself in his shoes.

In this discussion, Marissa believed that people with disabilities are labeled by others out of ignorance and rudeness. The children were exploring the causes and implications of unfair treatment, and they disapproved of the actions of those who did not understand. As Ms. Schild pointed out, if you put yourself in the person’s shoes, you realize that people with disabilities are able to do more than you might think or believe.

Discussion

  • At the end of the curriculum unit on disability, the teachers noticed a change in how disabled and non-disabled students interacted in the classroom. Ms. Schild related how, before the unit, students were resentful of a classmate with developmental disabilities who had an aide to help her; the classmates thought that she was receiving unfair privileges. After the unit, they understood why she needed assistance. One boy with autism, who was usually quiet and withdrawn during class time, participated actively in the book discussions and could identify with some of the characters in the stories. At one point he said, “That’s like me. I have autism—a little bit.” A parent noticed changes in her daughter: “She doesn’t say, ‘Oh, I changed,’ but I notice a big difference in her attitude when we go out and see someone in a wheelchair. She’ll go up and start talking to that person, and she won’t complain about the kids in her class with ADHD anymore.”
  • As a result of the unit, some students became involved in the community. Children in the fourth-fifth grade class found out that one of their classmates with developmental disabilities went for therapy at a therapeutic riding stable. At first, a few of her friends asked if they could accompany her, and gradually, there was a steady stream of volunteers at the stable, who not only mucked out the stalls but learned to appreciate the importance of the therapy for their friend and others in the community.
  • As was seen in this study, children with and without disabilities developed compassion and understanding for one another. With the guidance of their teachers, who pushed them to explore more deeply the issues surrounding disability, the children were able to become better informed and to deepen their understandings. Through exploring characters in books, children not only learned about various disabilities, but they came to understand characters with disabilities as full and complex beings, similar in many ways to themselves. The children with disabilities in both classrooms recognized and appreciated that children like themselves were represented, and therefore valued, in literature.
  • Children responded to the images in texts but also brought their own beliefs to the interpretations of stories, and their understandings of disability were enriched by the multiple viewpoints expressed by others in the classroom. This study shows that classrooms could be democratic places where children explore, through children’s literature and the guidance of their teachers, real questions of disability.