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Children’s books play a pivotal role in shaping early thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions. Books that feature characters with disabilities help children with disabilities understand that having a disability, even though life-altering, needn’t make them feel any lesser; different maybe but not lesser! And NO! Books with characters who have disabilities are not for children with disabilities alone! It is a must-read for ALL children. When children read about the diverse characters – their disabilities, the strengths they have; they understand and grow up to be more accepting of disabilities or differences in the abilities of others. This is the basic foundation that can build an inclusive society – a society that accepts people with disabilities.
What characterizes as a Disability?
A disability is any condition that makes it more difficult for a person to do certain activities or interact with the world around them. These conditions, or impairments, may be cognitive, developmental, intellectual, mental, physical, sensory, or a combination of multiple factors. Impairments causing disability may be present from birth or occur during a person’s lifetime. The World Health Organization proposes the following definition of disabilities:
Disabilities is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations. Disability is thus not just a health problem. It is a complex phenomenon, reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.
For the purpose of this blog, I have included books that describe children whose differences may make it challenging for them to do things most people take for granted. That may be the ability to see, walk, learn, understand social cues, or pay attention. These books are a “must-read” for every child. Read on for a list of moving books that feature children and young adults with a disability.
Poignant Books Featuring Characters with Disabilities:
Ayesha’s favourite day is Sunday, for it’s her Abba’s day. This story tells what happens at Ayesha’s home every Sunday and what makes it so special! The fact that Ayesha, the central character in the story uses crutches is divulged to the reader only at the end. The disability aspect is not given undue focus but is treated as part of the story.
One little child is staring at something. Another joins him, then another . . . till finally ten little children are staring at something. What do they see? The suspense builds up, page after page, through text and picture, to an amusing climax. This beginner counting book has illustrations as innovative as the concept, in black and white pen-and-wash on paper. The children are from different social backgrounds, communities, and abilities — a quiet comment slipped unobtrusively into the pictures.
“We were late. We were running in the street. We had played in the river, and we had climbed trees…” Everything Amma had said NOT to do! A story of everyday fun that lights up the close bond between a boy and a dog, with clues that gently tell us that the boy is blind. Many aspects of the lives of visually impaired people are revealed to children through the main character. The story talks about accessibility issues they face, how they use walking sticks to find their way around and also about the use of dogs as guides. It also helps children to understand how blind people utilize their other senses much better.
Dip Dip looks everywhere for her friend’s lost cat. And when it finally climbs up a tree and can’t come down, the only thing to do is…? Exuberant illustrations capture the spirited little girl for whom being in a wheelchair stops her from nothing! Dip Dip’s amazing adventure in the process of trying to find Kaapi, her friend’s cat also helps create an understanding in children about the issues faced by those with physical disabilities in accessing public spaces.
A little girl spills, drops, breaks, trips on things. She is called Clumsy, Slowcoach, Careless… words that scare away all other words. But in her head, words become stories and stories, pictures. With a box of paints and a brush, she sweeps herself away from the names people call her! Vivid watercolors lift her from her everyday milieu into a swirl of exuberance.
When the lights go off at the cave temples, it is quiet little Kanna who coolly leads everyone to safety. Light or no light, it makes no difference because he can’t see anyway. A joyous story that inverts the notion of ‘disability’ and portrays a child for whom having a visual impairment is just the way he is — and even a chance to have some fun!
Most people are confused about how to react to those with disabilities. Their questions, misconceptions, doubts, and fears are answered here – simply and straight from the heart – by a child with cerebral palsy. Sheila Dhir’s willfully childlike line drawings are just as simple and powerful as the short poems. As a differently-abled child’s silent dialogue with society, the book offers a sensitive and sensible way of helping children understand disability and the strengths of those who are differently-abled.
Little Malathi wants to run after hens and chicks, and catch the ripe yellow mangoes as they fall – but how can she, on a wheelchair? She grows up to show that she can do much, much more! Moments and experiences from the remarkable life of disabled athlete Malathi Holla, told simply and sensitively, bring out her determination and untiring spirit. The energetic illustrations are full of warmth and cheer.
Jahan’s best friend Susie has a lisp. The boys in the park tease her and call her Thoothie and the kids at school laugh at her. Fed up, Susie decides to stops speaking. What is Jahan to do? A story about friendship and its triumph over the cruel attempts by kids to tease and make fun of Susie for her lisp forms the story.
Neel’s wheelchair transforms itself to fight dragons and monsters and chase away scary creatures of the night. Fantasy is utilized to expose children to the world of Neel, a small boy who is a wheelchair user. Physical disability need not limit anybody is a message that is sent across. Read a review of the book here.
Magesh is different from other children. He’s no good with words. And when he’s misunderstood he gets upset and his movements get jerky. But there are two things he loves: playing with his brother Vignesh, and his Vibhuti Cat.But what will happen when Magesh starts going to school? Will he take Vibhuti cat along?
The book explores the ways in which a visually impaired person experiences the world. A bunch of school kids take a trip to the forest and this provides rich and varied sensory experience apart from the visual senses.
Tsering can’t wait to taste his grandmother’s delicious noodle soup. He invites a string of friends and neighbours home. But as preparations get underway, there is a power cut and the house is plunged into darkness. Will Abi be able to put together the much-anticipated thukpa? Told from a blind child’s perspective, this tale by Praba Ram and Sheela Preuitt is accompanied by Shilpa Ranade’s stunning illustrations.
Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah’s inspiring true story—which was turned into a film, Emmanuel’s Gift, narrated by Oprah Winfrey—is nothing short of remarkable. Born in Ghana, West Africa, with one deformed leg, he was dismissed by most people—but not by his mother, who taught him to reach for his dreams. As a boy, Emmanuel hopped to school more than two miles each way, learned to play soccer, left home at age thirteen to provide for his family, and, eventually, became a cyclist. He rode an astonishing four hundred miles across Ghana in 2001, spreading his powerful message: disability is not inability. Today, Emmanuel continues to work on behalf of the disabled. Thompson’s lyrical prose and Qualls’s bold collage illustrations offer a powerful celebration of triumphing over adversity.
Patricia Polacco is now one of America’s most loved children’s book creators, but once upon a time, she was a little girl named Trisha starting school. Trisha could paint and draw beautifully, but when she looked at words on a page, all she could see was jumble. It took a very special teacher to recognize little Trisha’s dyslexia: Mr. Falker, who encouraged her to overcome her reading disability. Patricia Polacco will never forget him, and neither will we.
For 8-12 Year-Olds
When Kartik and Kavya move from Kolkata to Rourkela, neither is enthusiastic about living in a small town and leaving their old friends behind. But it is especially tough on Kartik. At school in Kolkata, no one paid much attention to the fact that he was one-armed, whereas in the new school, he is treated like a freak. Worst of all, the school football coach refuses to let him play. Will Kartik overcome the odds and play football again? The story is one of resilience and overcoming the challenges he faces because of his disability which also includes attitudinal ones that lead to him being treated as an outcast. This is a tale of fun, football and friendship.
There’s a new girl in class and our teacher has asked one student to be her friend and show her around. But she is not sure what to do because the new girl is not the rest. The central character of the new girl has a prosthetic hand which makes her an object of both curiosity as well as the cruelty of other children. The author tries successfully to depict how easily children accept those who are different from them. This is a fascinating tale of friendship and fitting in, which tells its story through letters.
You can also read this on Storyweaver.
Krish has to give a speech at school. But how can he, when he stammers? And what’s worse, his partner is the Big Bully! Will Krish get out of this mess? Stammering is not really accepted as a disability, although it can make life extremely difficult for those who have the issue.Ths story puts across a very positive image for children to absorb.
Atiya Sardare lives with her dad, a forest officer. An only child, afflicted by polio, she finds solace and peace in the jungle, exploring it on short, secret, often dangerous treks. On one occasion she hears the haunting notes of a flute. It gives her goose bumps. She vows to learn to play the instrument much against her father’s wishes. Her music lessons bring her close to the grouchy old anthropologist, Ogre Uncle, and his Kurumba tribal daughter, Mishora. Atiya’s gift transforms her father’s view, it calms the rogue elephant, Rangappa and helps nurture a blossoming friendship between a teenage boy and girl. A moving, tender, and mesmerizing tale, Flute in the Forest has wonderful incidents based on the real-life experiences of the author.
Things that are normal and easy activities for a person without a disability can appear crazy and totally impossible to a disabled person. This is the idea behind the story about Kittu, who is a young boy who walks with crutches. Whether his physical disability stops him from having fun and enjoying skateboarding also allows children to understand the fact that children with disabilities too want to have fun and are open to trying. This story attempts to break stereotypes about disabled people.
Manya badly, badly wants to be Shere Khan in her school play. The Jungle Book is her favourite film and she knows all the lines. She’s sure she’ll be a superb Shere Khan. But not everyone thinks so. Her classmate Rajat is always making fun of her stammer. Her English teacher thinks it’s risky to let her get on stage and her principal seems to agree. The more anxious Manya gets, the worse her stammer becomes. Will Manya lose her dream role? Can she overcome her fears and learn to roar? This book was a winner in the Children First writing competition, organised by Parag, an initiative of Tata Trusts and Duckbill Books.
Nothing worries Nanju too much; not the fact that he walks funny or that he’s known as the class copycat or that the cleverest (and prettiest) girl in class barely knows he’s alive. But when books start disappearing from the classroom, the needle of suspicion begins to point at Nanju. Aided by his beloved best friend, the fragile but brainy Mahesh, Nanju has to find out who the real thief is. Otherwise, his father might pack him off to Unni Mama’s all-boys Hostel from Hell and Nanju might lose all that’s dear to him. Set in a school for children who are differently-abled, this funny, fast-paced whodunit will keep you guessing till the very end.
August Pullman was born with a facial difference that, up until now, has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. Starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, he wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid—but his new classmates can’t get past Auggie’s extraordinary face. WONDER, now a #1 New York Times bestseller and included on the Texas Bluebonnet Award master list, begins from Auggie’s point of view, but soon switches to include his classmates, his sister, her boyfriend, and others. These perspectives converge in a portrait of one community’s struggle with empathy, compassion, and acceptance.
Starting at a new school is scary, even more so with a giant hearing aid strapped to your chest! At her old school, everyone in Cece’s class was deaf. Here she is different. She is sure the kids are staring at the Phonic Ear, the powerful aid that will help her hear her teacher. Too bad it also seems certain to repel potential friends. This funny perceptive graphic novel memoir about growing up hearing impaired is also an unforgettable book about growing up, and all the super and super embarrassing moments along the way.
For Ages 13+
This young adult book that addresses the issue of how life can change in a moment and leave us with a disability. It also tries to put across a message of resilience – how we face a situation is the important criteria that will shape our future. The disability that Akriti faces is that of an inability to walk following an accident and the consequent anger that she feels at having to depend on others, which is not a strong point of her personality.
Chotu is blind, but it doesn’t bother him much. His sister Pari helps him with everything. Besides, she’s promised him she’ll get him his eyesight back before his ninth birthday. And that’s just a couple of months away! Pari is worried. How will she keep her promise? When she sees a poster with Shahrukh Khan, her hero, saying ‘Donate your eyes’, she writes to him, asking him to help Chotu. And then she hears that Shahrukh is in Rajasthan for a shooting! So Pari and Chotu set off on a road trip to meet Shahrukh and get Chotu’s eyesight back. Through adventure and misadventure and aided and hindered by a cast of bizarre, friendly, colourful and hostile people, the two children traverse across the desert to try to make their dream come true.
Ally has been smart enough to fool a lot of smart people. Every time she lands in a new school, she is able to hide her inability to read by creating clever yet disruptive distractions. She is afraid to ask for help; after all, how can you cure dumb? However, her newest teacher, Mr. Daniels, sees the bright, creative kid underneath the troublemaker. With his help, Ally learns not to be so hard on herself and that dyslexia is nothing to be ashamed of. As her confidence grows, Ally feels free to be herself and the world starts opening up with possibilities. She discovers that there’s a lot more to her–and to everyone–than a label and that great minds don’t always think alike.
Eleven-year-old Melody is not like most people. She can’t walk. She can’t talk. She can’t write. All because she has cerebral palsy. But she also has a photographic memory; she can remember every detail of everything she has ever experienced. She’s the smartest kid in her whole school, but NO ONE knows it. Most people—her teachers, her doctors, her classmates—dismiss her as mentally challenged because she can’t tell them otherwise. But Melody refuses to be defined by her disability. And she’s determined to let everyone know it…somehow.
Open Minds, Broaden Perspectives
It is not easy to explain disability to children. But books can illustrate what really matters and bring them to a child’s perspective. They can also be a great way to start conversations about disabilities with children. Books are like windows to understand our world and our world can be depicted as more meaningful and as it really is when they portray people of all colours, sizes, and abilities. Such books erase prejudices and sympathy that is associated with disabilities and instead reinforce the important message that disabled children are children first, and should not be singled out because of their differences.
Did any of these books strike a chord with you? Please share your perspective in the comments section.