Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Wheelchair-using father says more children's literature should include disabled characters

From Tim Rushby-Smith at The Times in the UK:

Among my daughter’s collection of Playmobil figures there is one of special importance to me. It is a man in a wheelchair (grey hair and beard hastily removed and replaced with a younger look), and it offers me a presence in the story unfolding in her imagination, if only in the crowd scenes.

I’m sure that placing oneself in the story is a part of making sense of the world as a child. Pretty much everyone will have a favourite book from childhood, and a character they identified with. Clearly, for me, the instinct to be part of the story has not diminished, even if I am now in a wheelchair and the tale is being constructed by four-year-old Rosalie.

Similarily, if disabled children have role models to identify with, it must help them to feel they belong to society. And, while wheelchairs are available from Playmobil, it’s more important to give them a presence in children’s literature. Such visibility helps the 770,000 disabled children in the UK to feel part of everyday life, and, importantly, shapes the attitudes of all children.

In the light of the Fiona Pilkington case, where a mother was driven to take her own life and that of her disabled daughter, much has been said about the failure of the police and the local authority to respond to the harassment and violence directed at the family. However, the case also highlights a more fundamental problem with attitudes towards disability. We are at a point where racially motivated attacks are properly recognised and widely reported, yet assaults and bullying directed at a person with a disability is merely perceived as “anti-social behaviour”.

While the arrival of David Proud as a wheelchair user in EastEnders is rightly seen as progress, the “normalisation” of attitudes towards disability can best begin when children are young. Books and education provide an opportunity to move away from a point-and-stare culture, and can help all children to perceive those with a disability as part of normal, everyday life.

In The Picture is a pioneering campaign set up by Scope, the disability charity, to address this issue. The aim is to encourage publishers, illustrators and writers to include disabled children in picture books for young readers. The project has resulted in a vibrant collection of works from a wide range of children’s book illustrators.

There are images from household names, as well as exciting new artists. Quentin Blake has drawn a girl in a standing frame picking fruit with a friend, Jane Ray depicts a fairy with wings, a crown and crutches, and in Hannah Turner’s picture of a busy swimming pool, an empty wheelchair sits by the side while the owner plays in the water with everyone else.

“Traditionally, images of people with a disability in children’s books have tended to be negative — from Captain Hook to the hunch-backed witches in fairytales such as Hansel and Gretel,” says Ray. “They are either there to paint the hero or heroine in a good light or they are miraculously cured, as if this is the only possible positive outcome. In the past 10 to 15 years there have been more books containing images of children with disabilities, but they have tended to be factual. Explaining hearing aids for example, but nothing with imagination or mythology.

“The campaign is about showing disabled children in books because they’re there, a part of the story along with all the other kids. But you can’t do it with one book. The key is to have so many that it just becomes part of the way people think.”

It is a bold ambition, and it’s impossible not to be impressed when looking through the extensive resources that the In The Picture campaign has managed to collect and make available online.

As I was not disabled as a child, I was curious to know how the portrayal of disability in children’s books and television has changed. Ade Adepitan, a Paralympic basketball bronze medallist and TV presenter, says that when he was growing up there was a notable lack of role models. “When I watched We are the Champions on TV, I always wanted to take part but there were never any disabled kids involved,” he says. “And as for books, there weren’t even any black faces in them, let alone characters with disabilities.”

As I play tennis with Adepitan every week, I have seen the impact that he has on today’s children. When we get together, I am frequently asked by children in excited whispers if he’s “that one off of Desperados” — a reference to the BBC drama series about a wheelchair basketball team in which he starred. Interestingly, these comments come from able-bodied youngsters — the best demonstration of the way television can shape the attitudes of all children towards disability.

The BBC announced in June that it is launching an online directory of disabled talent, with the support of the actors’ union Equity, and a nationwide search for disabled actors and performers for drama, comedy and children’s shows. But as Cerrie Burnell knows, progress is sometimes slow. Burnell, a presenter on the BBC Cbeebies channel for the under-fives, is also involved with the In The Picture campaign. Having been born with no right forearm, she has helped to raise the profile of children’s understanding of physical disability. The negative reaction of some parents when she first appeared on screen, however, raises questions about how such attitudes could affect a child with a disability. One parent wrote on the channel’s message board that their child had “freaked out” on seeing the new presenter. “There’s a time and a place for showing kids all the differences that people can have, but nine in the morning in front of two-year-olds is not the place,” the parent added.

Burnell agrees with Adepitan’s view that there has not been enough diversity in children’s literature and programming.

“Floella Benjamin [the black former Play School presenter] did a lot to change that. I know that when she started working, there weren’t any black stories. But things have moved on, so that now with Charlie and Lola for example, you have Lotta as a black character. I think it’s nice that we’re getting to the point where it’s not unusual to have a different ethnicity. It’s important to have a good mix of characters as a reflection of every day.”

And it is certainly noticeable that there are one or two wheelchair-based characters appearing in children’s programmes. But picture books represent a major part of the world of the under-fives and, critically, it is a world where they are able to dictate time and decide what characters they want to focus on. This gives them the opportunity to find someone in a picture that they can identify with. Perhaps there is simply a need to have more disabled characters in the background rather than as the main focus of a tale about overcoming adversity.

“It’s important for them to be in the wider crowd scene, fitting in to society,” says Burnell. “But at the same time you want to explore what it means to have a disability, and have that portrayed honestly. All children deserve to have their lives represented by the power and beauty of story.

“But it’s been done the wrong way so many times. I think there’s a secret story waiting to be discovered. And it’s one that can be done imaginatively, creatively through children’s literature. It’s got to be in a way that’s cool and appealing. It must not be boring and it can’t be alienating.”

Attitudes toward disabled children have changed immeasurably since Scope was founded as the National Spastics Society in 1952, and I’m sure that society’s view of disability has also changed profoundly in the past 57 years, although the story of Fiona Pilkington indicates that we still have a long way to go.

Now Scope is aiming to change attitudes by providing a valuable resource that enables children with disabilities to get In The Picture. And a bit more of a search through the Playmobil catalogue shows that we can get them in the toybox, too.