CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 39. . . .June 10, 2016
When I was in grade school, I lived with my family in the Middle East for several years. This resulted in an interesting and patchwork education in English speaking schools that followed curricula from England or the USA. I loved to read and the paucity of ‘appropriate’ children’s books in English meant that I would read whatever I could get. I remember one British series that followed the adventures of two girls who met at school. It became apparent that one of these girls kept a serious secret, and this turned out to be a brother with an intellectual disability who also used crutches to walk. I had the same perplexed reaction as the protagonist who finally discovered the source her friend’s shame and secrecy. That’s it? Looking back, this was my consciousness raising introduction to disability and a particular construction of what ‘it’ meant.
There is no doubt that words and stories are powerful, and the stories of individuals who live with a disability have both reflected our societal perceptions about disability as well as reinforced them. In her book, Stories for Every Classroom: Canadian Fiction Portraying Characters with Disabilities, Beverley A. Brenna’s goal is to highlight contemporary Canadian picture books and novels that contain major characters with a disability so that classroom teachers are encouraged to incorporate some of these materials into the work that they do with their students. Brenna, a Professor of Curriculum Studies in the College of Education at the University of Saskatchewan and author of several books for young people, encourages educators to adopt a critical literacy approach in order to foster consciousness raising among school-aged children and youth. She argues for helping students (and teachers) to see disability as simply one aspect of human life, an aspect that is largely missing from our collective consciousness, and to help readers identify with the characters that live with a disability. She maintains that the opportunity to struggle with questions about how such characters are seen and treated allows students to begin to consider their own perspectives and to question them. As she suggests, ‘Do these texts offer fresh, new perspectives on uniquely lived lives or do they further entrench traditional ableist (discriminatory) stereotypes about normalcy?’ (Brenna, 2015, p. 4).
To this end, Brenna provides a chapter on the history of the portrayals of characters with disabilities, another on the use of a critical literacy approach in teaching literature and an extensive annotated bibliography of contemporary (published since 1995) Canadian fiction for children. The annotations are divided into four chapters, focussing on picture books and junior, intermediate and young adult novels. The annotations are accompanied by colour reproductions of the book covers. Also included are author portraits (including one of Brenna herself) in the three chapters that focus on novels as well as read on lists. Brenna offers a rubric that may be used by teachers and readers to delve more deeply into the portrayal of various characters. Elements of the rubric include the identification or description of the disability, the growth or development of the character throughout the novel, the relationship of this character to others and the possibility of identification between the reader and the protagonist with a disability. The focus on contemporary Canadian children’s fiction from the past twenty years is both understandable and frustrating. This is understandable as some limits must be set, and Brenna chose to focus on books that were (re )published in the past twenty years. These books are widely available, and Brenna points to significant efforts by authors to portray characters with a disability facing similar challenges and joys in their lives as everyone else.
However, as she notes in her historical overview, disability was often only a device used to advance the plot, and that stereotypical and problematic portrayals of people who live with a disability have been around for a long time and reflect cultural assumptions. I would suggest that educators would benefit from a more extensive analysis of how disability has been portrayed in fiction. Wolfensberger, a significant scholar in the field of disability (1972, 2013) provided an analysis of how individuals and groups of people who are devalued in society (which includes most people with disabilities) have been portrayed in written fiction, film, parent narratives and (auto)biographies as well as in visual art (Race, 2006). He argued, as do others, that these portrayals reflect and reinforce already existing assumptions and that members of a society enact these assumptions in how they interact with people with disabilities. Wolfensberger documented several socio cultural roles that have been long associated with people with disabilities. While Brenna mentions some of these in her analysis, I will include Wolfensberger’s (2013) full list.
The roles include:
We can find examples of these roles in literature, both classic and contemporary and some of these works still appear in junior high and high school curricula in Canada. In addition to works already mentioned by Brenna, I will add Of Mice and Men (2013), To Kill a Mockingbird (2015), Flowers for Algernon (2004), The Chrysalids (2010), The Tempest (2004), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (2013) and Million Dollar Baby (2000). Virtually every Disney animated and live action Disney villain is portrayed with physical or mental health impairments while the sidekicks are intellectually impaired. Stories based on actual individuals are more likely to portray individuals with a disability as ultimately heroic in the ways that they ‘overcome’ their disability.
I raise these points less as a criticism of Brenna’s work, but to point out the extent to which consciousness raising would be helpful. Educators need to deeply consider their own, as well as our collectively held, beliefs of people with disabilities if they want to be effective at changing them. Brenna’s book provides a very good foundation from which to start.
Zana Marie Lutfiyya is a Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba. The portrayal of people with disabilities in popular culture is one of her research interests.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.