Literature should, in theory, be representative of our global community and be accessible for all. That was at least what I had always thought, with so many cultural, diversity and disability awareness dates that are celebrated across the globe, including World Book Day.
I was encouraged by all the hype to begin compiling a list of children’s stories that address disability in some way or another and examine their effectiveness. This was a very short venture; I discovered that our local library, which has a quite big children’s section, did not have a single story related to disability. I thought maybe it is my fault – I was not searching in the right section or not looking thoroughly enough, so I sought the help of the librarian, but she too failed to find a single story that dealt with disability. There were about five books deemed disability-related, but when I had a quick skim through, I discovered they were ‘factual’ books that attempted to give children an informative idea about certain things such as cancer, bullying, visual and hearing impairment and asthma! I was shocked and quite disappointed on so many levels.
First of all, how can one of the biggest libraries in the area have no disability-related stories, and secondly, I am not sure I agree with disability being categorised alongside bullying. While it is a fact that many children and adults living with disability endure bullying but is that what young children should be taught about disability? I was determined not to leave the library empty-handed, so I began giving titles of books to the librarian; I naively thought that maybe if I provided a list of books, something would show up on the computer. I have to admit though that my actual list was not a very long one – in fact it consisted of five books that I had found from a quick Google search. After 10 minutes of searching on the computer database, the kind and patient librarian returned looking rather embarrassed and apologetic as she informed me that she failed to find any of the five titles that I had given her. She kept saying sorry and assured me that in the past, the library had had a few disability-related stories, but she did not know what had happened to them.
I left the library rather puzzled at the thought of how we can teach children about disability, acceptance and equality when there is a major void in children’s literature containing such issues. Even the very limited collection that has been published is not, in actual fact, available or well marketed to reach a large audience of children. A question forces itself here: why is disability-related literature so scarce and not so popular? There are 9.4 million disabled people in England, accounting for 18 per cent of the population. Should not that segment of society be equally represented in literature? Books are a primary source of knowledge about every aspect of our surroundings – when literature fails to teach children and adults alike about disability then this is a great cause for concern and answers must be demanded from writers and publishers.
The positive aspect of my findings is that there is a chance to change this void in disability-related books and to be accurate. There has been some slow progress as books with disabled characters have existed for years; it is just they are not categorised as disability literature or not marketed hugely. Who can forget Lennie Small in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men where cognitive disability was first brought to a wider audience, or Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville (1851) that has the unforgettable character, Captain Ahab, who hunts the Great White whale that tore off his leg? He is a physically disabled character that is quite clearly not affected by his impairment. Then there is the more recent Wonder by R J Palacio where the issue of disability, integration at school, family dynamics and inclusive society are all addressed and tackled. There is hope, but there is also room for improvement.
Disability is not the only issue that is lacking in literature – cultural diversity and coexistence is another rarity. In the last few years there has been an emergence of many publishing houses that specialise in faith stories for children such as Greenbird publishing. While it is a great initiative as these books inform children of various religions, especially about the core elements and teachings of that faith, I can’t help but feel they have a segregational aspect. Books need to promote diversity and coexistence and reflect our world where each person practices their faith yet interacts and lives with others that are different. For that reason, I doubt that we shall easily find faith-orientated books on the shelves of local libraries or bookstores.
The world celebrates so many events and has dedicated dates for recognising the importance and value of them, such as International Women’s Day, World Refugee Day, Earth day, International Day of Persons with Disabilities etc., so it is only natural that we also celebrate World Book Day. In my view, this is one celebration that is worthy for the world to unite in, commemorating our source of knowledge, the ‘door’ to the outside world and the explorative tool of other lives and circumstances.
Unfortunately the method of celebrating such a day just consists of children dressing up and taking a book into school to promote reading. While it is a great initiative to encourage children to read, enjoy and live the actual book, I do believe that there is still more that can be done with further focus on the actual essence of reading and to move away from the commercialised, media-hyped book characters. The majority of children dressed up as Disney’s Frozen characters; surely the fact that it is one of the most popular animations of recent times played a major part in being chosen by children as their favourite book character. Had Frozen been just a book without all the commercial goods, hype and the success of its animation film, would it still receive the same attention and love by children? I doubt it, because sadly the generation of today rely heavily on social media, TV and popular culture, so they are more likely to favour a book if it has been turned into a film or if it is widespread across shops and being commercially marketed. This leaves many books on the shelf, literally, and so many great classics ignored or books that have real potential to be a hit are dismissed simply because they have not been targeted by great marketing campaigns.
It is a positive sign that the world recognises the importance of books and nurtures the love of reading in children through fun activities and the opportunity to be a book character, yet we as adults need to instil the value of books beyond just conforming to what’s popular at the time. We should encourage children to be different with a unique choice of books. The passion of reading has to be a long lasting experience, and this will not be achieved if children only read the ‘popular books’ as sooner or later, these books will fall out of fashion and ultimately the child will lose their love of reading.
Having more books with various types of disabled characters is a must for authors, publishers, parents and children alike. Books are not only a primary source of knowledge about every aspect of our surroundings, but they are also reflective of our society. Children will insha Allah become accepting of others and grow into open-minded adults through learning about people of different faiths, ethnicity, gender and ability via books.
Raya AlJadir is an English degree graduate from Queen Mary, University of London, where she also read a Masters degree in Renaissance Studies and is currently researching for a PhD thesis. She is a freelance translator, writer and proofreader. Her main interest is promoting disability awareness, especially amongst Arabs and Muslims. Blog: http://www.accessless.com/