Stories: written, read or listened to, are one of the key mediums through which children are able to catch their first glimpses of the wider world and figure out where they hope to end up in it. The opportunity to see themselves taking on the challenges of society, be it in exciting fantasy epics or picture books tours around the farmyard, is an invaluable one. Yet, this is an experience that has for too long been held from children with disabilities.
Last month’s panel Disability Representation in Children’s Books held at the Bookseller’s Children’s Conference sought to explore the ways in which we can make space for new and inclusive stories which allow disabled children to see themselves in the stories they love. Hosted by Claire Wade, author and Co-founder of Authors with Disabilities and Chronic Illnesses (ADCI), with a panel featuring James and Lucy Catchpole, Cerrie Burnell and Lisette Auton, the panel was thought-provoking look at the challenges faced by people with disabilities both in and out of the publishing industry.
Most important to all those involved was the right to be able to tell their own stories as people with disabilities, rather than have them told for them. A life with disabilities is as rich and varied as those of able-bodied individuals, and as the panel discussed, it is not enough to be well intentioned or disability-adjacent to be able to represent these complexities on the page. As Cerrie Burnell noted, there will be so many “amazing unknown facts that you will miss because you haven’t been in that person’s shoes.”
Speaking on her own experience writing novels with a special focus on inclusivity, Lisette Auton described her use of inclusion readers in order to ensure that her writing was as open and unbiased as possible when engaging with her diverse audience. As the panel was keen to stress, we are all holders of unconscious biases which it is our responsibility to unlearn so that our writing is a welcoming place to all readers.
While the scale of the effort to combat these attitudes and preconceptions was clear, there was a sense of optimism throughout the discussion. James Catchpole described being asked whether he knew any other writers with disabilities, something he says had never happened before. Auton described her experience working on her debut novel with her publishing team as a positive experience, and the impact that was made by those around her paying attention to her needs in order to allow her to work to the best of her abilities.
As the panel came to a close Clare Wade put one last question to the rest of the speakers: what actions can we, the audience, take in order to help raise up the voices of people with disabilities and make the space for them to tell their stories? The answer was a resounding one; buy the books that are being published, tweet about them, attend the events. For relatively little effort we will be able to enjoy a wealth of rich and beautiful stories and make sure there won’t have to be another child unable to recognize themselves amidst the pages describing brave knights, swashbuckling pirates or even just a play date with friends.