The books I once used – but now I don’t…

We are not raised to understand the social model of disability, or at least most of us aren’t. We are taught that disability is a deficit, to be remedied, to be helped, especially by the neurotypical or able-bodied. This is what’s reinforced as we grow up. We are taught to be “helpers” to the peers in our classrooms. We read books that “explain” disability through the lens of the neurotypical sibling, classmate, or author.

And I used to recommend these books all the time. I read them to the general education students in my life. I bought them for families. I filled my own library.

Some of those previous titles included:

  • All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time
  • My Brother Charlie
  • Since We’re Friends: An Autism Picture Book

I have made a deliberate choice not to link to these books, as I would not currently recommend any of them to a classroom library. Many of these books only further the deficit model, while othering children with disabilities. Their plots feature a child with a disability, “off in their own world”. Their cast of characters feature “helpers” instead of mutual relationships. They see disability as something “odd” to be “remedied”, instead of a beautiful and important part of the diversity of our world. Usually the intent is kind — to explain, to clarify — but the impact is to other, to estrange, to create a gap.

This doesn’t mean that all of these authors are terrible, or that we should start fires in our libraries. This isn’t a “burn it all down” post, though sometimes it can be tempting (or even need to happen!). It’s a call to reflect. It’s a call to be willing to read something again. You’ll even find this happen with new books that we review here on the blog. I’ll write something about it. I’ll talk about it with Taylor. I’ll read a new perspective from a friend. I’ll see the way a certain phrase leads to a deeper understanding in a student. Suddenly, my own view on the novel and the way it fits into the world becomes more nuanced. There’s more to discuss.

That’s what’s so POWERFUL about literature. It invites a continued cycle of learning.

Part of establishing strong, representative libraries means using clear eyes on our actions in the past. It means re-evaluating once beloved books to see how our understanding of them has changed over time. It means making better choices in the future. It’s not about shame, blame, or guilt for past choices. It’s about improving. It’s building libraries that do reflect the world we want for ourselves and our children. And it’s so, so, so much about the conversations that we have — with each other, with our children, with our fellow readers.

Why We Write

Did you know that over 12% of Americans live with disability?

That 5-9% of the population has a learning disability?

That the prevalence of autism is 1 in 59?

That 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness, and 1 in 25 experiences serious mental illness?

I’m not surprised if you didn’t know. Look around: we don’t see these numbers reflected in our television shows, our books… We don’t even see them reflected in our classrooms, our schools, or our communities — because we still so often separate those with disabilities.

When we do read about people with disabilities, it is often tokenized or a plot device. The characters often fall into specific roles: those that “inspire”, those that help showcase someone else’s gifts (never their own), and often even books that further reinforce harmful stereotypes or prejudices.

We read these books, and we are never challenged to think about our world differently. We never question segregation. We never question the things we’ve said or the ways we’ve interacted. We never question a world where ableism is so pervasive that some families literally use bleach in an attempt to “eliminate” autism.

Think about what books could do, instead.

Books can show another way — another world.

Imagine growing up immersed in literature that reflects the world around you. Imagine a classroom library that highlighted the humanity in us all – the messy, the mistakes, the beautiful, the talented, all of it — rather than dehumanizing and stripping agency from those with disabilities.

How would we see the segregation in our schools and communities differently? How would we see the potential in the employment field? How would we better understand the importance of sign language, of ramps, of universal design? How much richer would our relationships become? How many less stares would be given when in public? How many less ridiculous questions, less patronizing head pats, less ignorant assumptions?

It is also unbelievably powerful to see yourself reflected on the page. I remember the first time I read a series of essays where the authors’ experiences so closely dovetailed with my own. It was like coming home. It is knowing that you’re not alone. It is seeing a future for yourself that you may never have been shown before. It is everything.