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by Karol Ruth Silverstein

Disability is everywhere, sometimes hidden, sometimes unmistakable. Disabled people make up the largest and most diverse minority group in the world. So—yes—disability should be abundant in our children’s literature as well. But is “bad” (i.e., inaccurate, inauthentic, insensitive) representation better than no representation at all?

At this point in the kidlitosphere’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, the answer is a resounding NO! And as children’s book creators, we have to do our very best to get representation “right”—or as right as humanly possible—particularly when we’re writing outside of our own lived experiences.

Here are some tips to help as you embrace disability inclusion in your work:

1. #saytheword (and try to say the right word)

  • The disability community largely prefers disabled to the various euphemisms (differently abled, special needs). Even using people with disabilities robs us of an important part of our identities. Disabled isn’t a bad word!

Further study: How Person-First Language Isolates Disabled People, The Journal Blog, Rose Iris Theodosia Elysium

2. Study ableism

Ableism is loosely defined as stereotyping, discrimination, and social oppression toward disabled people. Disability stories are often told through an able-bodied lens, where disabled characters are either infantilized or objectified or have their disabled identities erased.

Further study: TED talk: Stella Young – I am not your inspiration, thank you very much

What Ableism Means and Why It Matters, Crystal Raypole for Healthline Blog

3. Familiarize yourself with disability tropes

A quick Google search will reveal plenty. Most basically come down to the disabled character existing to benefit the able-bodied characters around her. This viewpoint limits the storylines disabled characters can have, and limits their chances to star.

Further study: 9 Ableist Tropes I Could Do Without, Margaret Kingsbury for Book Riot

Ableist Tropes in Media that Need to be Retired, Rise.Realize.Redefine Blog, Zaha Baig

4. Start thinking of disability as an identity

Remember that, even though being disabled is not all we are, it often is an undeniably significant factor in our unique makeup as human beings. Don’t deny your disabled characters their identities!

Further study: https://www.thirteen.org/blog-post/disability-identity-all-can-share/


5. Support disabled stories and creators

Read stories centered on disabled characters, particularly those created by disabled authors and illustrators. If you love a disability book, post reviews, shout it out, and talk it up. Take on a Disability Reading Challenge.

Further study: 20 Picture Books to Read For Disability Pride Month by Margaret Kingsbury

21 YA Novel With Disabled and Chronically Ill Characters, Margaret Kingsbury for Book Riot

Disabled people exist in the world—61 million in the U.S. alone. Do they exist in the world of your story? Unless you’re writing a story where disability has specifically been eradicated, they should! And if you’re writing a disabled character—even if you have the same diagnosis as an adult but especially if you don’t—learn all you can about the specifics of that particular disability through research, interviewing young people if possible, and hiring readers with applicable lived experience. Do your absolute best to write disability “right!”

Sound like a lot to get “right?” Worried you’re going to mess up at some point? (I certainly have—and learned a lot that I can share!) If you’re interested in delving deeper into this topic, I’ll be leading a virtual mini-workshop and discussion on the subject for the January SCBWI SOCAL Meetup, January 22 from 1–2 PM. https://socal.scbwi.org/socal-meet-ups/

For more fantastic content, community, events, and other professional development opportunities, become a member today! Not sure if there is a chapter in your area? Check here.

KAROL RUTH SILVERSTEIN (she/her/disabled) is an award-winning children’s book author and screenwriter. She’s been an active member of the SCBWI for over 20 years. Karol’s debut young adult novel, Cursed (Charlesbridge Teen), a funny, frank and unsentimental take on the “sick kid” genre drawn from her experience of being diagnosed with juvenile arthritis at 13, won the prestigious Schneider Family Book Award in 2020. Learn more about her on Twitter @KRSilverstein, Instagram @KRSilverstin2019 and at www.karolruthsilverstein.com

Images provided by the author.