International Day of Persons with Disabilities: December 3, 2019
December 3, 2019, is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, which the United Nations has recognized since 1992.
It seems that we are always celebrating some sort of special day, so what makes this one so important?
Well firstly, because so many people have disabilities. Statistics Canada says that one in five Canadians has a disability. You may not always be able to tell that a person has a disability. Someone who uses a wheelchair or a cane for mobility has a visible disability. It can be much harder to identify a person with autism, epilepsy or any other so-called “hidden disability.” Still, it is important to remember that people with disabilities are everywhere.
This day is also important because people with disabilities haven’t always had the same rights as others. Canadian laws protect people with disabilities, but until recently, these laws haven’t been very specific. Here in Ontario, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act has existed for less than 15 years. And on a federal level, the Accessible Canada Act (Bill C-81) hasn’t even become law yet.
It can be difficult to find books with accurate and thoughtful representations of disability. I have always been uncomfortable with books that try to tug at our heartstrings by portraying characters with disabilities as inspirational. Yes, many people love a story about an underdog beating the odds. However, I feel that these types of stories suggest that we wouldn’t normally expect people with disabilities to succeed.
In my mind, an exceptional portrayal of disability is one where a person’s disability is part of who they are, but not the whole story. Exceptional books celebrate differences while normalizing the experiences of people with disabilities. They give children with disabilities the opportunity to see themselves accurately reflected in books. Here are a few examples of books that do this very well:
King for a Day by Rukhsana Khan; Illustrated by Christiane Krömer
During the South Asian kite festival of Basant, a young Pakistani boy named Malik wins battle after battle to rule the skies with his homemade kite. Malik’s physical disability is never directly mentioned, nor is it part of the story. We only know about it because he is shown in a wheelchair in the illustrations. Malik is not amazing at battling kites despite his disability, he’s just amazing at battling kites. Period.
Benji, the Bad Day, and Me by Sally J. Pla; Illustrated by Ken Min
Sally J. Pla is a self-described #ownvoices author. The #ownvoices movement argues that authors who live a particular experience are the best ones to create characters with similar lives. In this case, it means that Sally J. Pla is autistic.
So is Benji, a character in this picture book. Benji’s brother Sammy is having a really bad day, but nobody seems to notice. Except somebody does notice — Benji — who knows exactly what it takes to help his big brother feel better. This book smashes many of the stereotypes about autism while sharing a lovely story about two brothers.
My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay by Cari Best; Illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Zulay, who is blind, learns in an integrated classroom with her three best friends. Everybody has different abilities and helps each other. Maya helps Zulay draw straight lines, and Zulay assists Maya with math. When their teacher announces that the class will be participating in a field day, Zulay decides to run in the race, which she does with a little help. This book teaches us about inclusion and different abilities, while showing us that with slight modifications, people with disabilities can participate in the same activities as their peers.
A Boy Called Bat by Elana K. Arnold; Pictures by Charles Santoso
This middle grade novel stars a boy named Bat, whose veterinarian mother brings home an orphaned newborn skunk. The family is going to care for the skunk for a month before turning him over to a wildlife rehabilitation centre. But Bat quickly grows attached and knows he can never give up the skunk. He just needs to somehow convince his mother to let him raise the skunk himself.
Bat doesn’t like high pitched noises and sometimes he flaps his arms. It’s never said outright, but Bat is autistic. This book is a rare gem — where a character with autism is the star of the show without his diagnosis being on display or up for discussion. Autistic readers could easily see themselves reflected in this multi-dimensional protagonist.
These are just a few great books that I have come across. If you are looking for other resources, I recommend checking out the recipients of the Schneider Family Book Award, which recognizes the representation of disabilities in books for children and teens. Additionally, the website Disability in KidLit lists many excellent books for middle grade and teen readers.
No blog post about International Day of Persons with Disabilities is complete without mentioning the Toronto Public Library’s IBBY Collection for Young People with Disabilities. This collection contains more than 4,000 titles in over 40 languages. It is available for in-library use in the Children’s Department at the North York Central Library.
And now, through January 26, 2020, you can view a special exhibit called You, Me, Us: Outstanding Books for and About Young People with Disabilities in the TD Gallery at the Toronto Reference Library. This exhibit features notable books from around the world. Guided tours are available, and you can even request a customized visit and story time based on the needs of your group. The exhibit is beautiful so I really recommend you check it out.