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Blog post Part of special issue: To read, or not to read?

Picturebooks and children’s understanding of disability: Incorporating the perspectives of primary school teachers

Maggie Chan, Associate Tutor at University of Edinburgh

When teaching literacy in primary schools, it is essential that the books purchased and used reflect the rich and diverse society we live in, which means ensuring sufficient representation. In recent years, there has been important research and work to raise awareness of the importance of ethnic representation in children’s literature (see for example, CLPE, 2022). However, there has been comparably less focus on disability representation. My research studies this, specifically in relation to picturebooks.

Picturebooks have a unique quality in that they are able to combine complex visual and verbal texts for storytelling, hence Bader (1976) coined the word ‘picturebooks’, writing it as one word. Children can understand visible disability (such as the use of a wheelchair) or invisible disability (for example, ADHD, dyslexia) through the content of the text and illustrations, and through discussions; and research highlights the importance of realistic and accurate disability representation in picturebooks (Barker & Murray, 2018; Dyches, et al., 2006; Ganea & Canfield, 2005). My research uses the lens of Critical Disability Theory to explore the issue of ableism (Goodley, 2014) in picturebooks. While the use of the term ‘impairment’ takes a perspective from the outdated medical model of disability, the term ‘disability’ is often used to include both physical differences and neurodiversity. Although ‘disability’ may be seen as a contested label, it is also an acknowledgement of one of the many identities of a person, which allows the maintenance of equal rights and inclusion.

To learn more about how teachers use, or could use, picturebooks with disability representation effectively, I conducted a study with two focus groups of five UK and five US primary school teachers. All teachers received selected picturebooks with disability representation, and we held online meetings before and after they used the books with their classes. Effective and meaningful discussions about disability with children rely on teachers’ understanding of disability and their confidence in enabling accurate understanding in a positive and inclusive way. To do this, teachers need to use appropriate language and vocabulary that are widely accepted in society, and challenge stereotypes and misunderstanding; however, this may require some teachers to undergo professional learning.

Indeed, using picturebooks with disability representation in class needs to be carefully considered. These books, particularly biographic ones, can raise sensitive issues among children with disabilities and their families (Prater & Dyches, 2008), and it may be appropriate for teachers to seek prior consent from parents. Teachers who participated in my study report some successes of using disability picturebooks:

  • children were engaged in the books and asked questions in class
  • children became more aware and open-minded and shared with their class details about disabilities of family members
  • children talked about the picturebooks with families at home.

Interestingly, in my research I found that there are many more biographic picturebooks with disability representation published in the US compared to the UK, but US teachers were not aware of many of these books. This shows a disconnect between availability/provision and use in the US.

Although all teachers who participated in the study, from both the UK and US, thought it was a good idea to use more picturebooks with disability representation in their classes, they cited time and financial constraints as barriers. However, to improve children’s understanding and inclusive attitudes towards the diverse society we live in, it is vital that teachers continue to make concerted efforts to ensure school book provision includes disability representation, and that opportunities are provided to read, share and discuss these books. Finally, further research into the intersectionality of disability and other identity representations (such as ethnicity, gender) is essential, and a larger corpus of picturebooks would allow comparisons of perspectives and experiences of using disability picturebooks across different cultures.


References

Bader, B. (1976). American picturebooks from Noah’s Ark to The Beast Within. Macmillan Publishing Company.

Barker, C., & Murray, S. (2018). Introduction: On reading disability in literature. In C. Barker & S. Murray (eds.), Literature and Disability (pp. 1–16). Cambridge University Press.

Centre for Literacy in Primary Education [CLPE]. (2022). Reflecting realities: Survey of ethnic representation within UK children’s literature 2017–2022. https://clpe.org.uk/research/clpe-survey-ethnic-representation-within-uk-childrens-literature-2017-2022-november-2022#:~:text=Annual%20reporting%20shows%20an%20increase,low%20at%209%25%20in%202021.

Dyches, T. T., Prater, M. A., & Jenson, J. (2006). Portrayal of disabilities in Caldecott books. Teaching Exceptional Children Plus, 2(5). https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2559&context=facpub

Ganea, P. A., & Canfield, C. F. (2015). An examination of factors that affect young children’s learning and transfer from picturebooks. In B. Kümmerling-Meibauer, J. Meibauer, K. Nachtigäller, & K. J. Rohlfing (eds.), Learning from picturebooks: Perspectives from child development and literacy studies (pp. 33–50). Routledge.

Goodley, D. (2014). Dis/ability studies: Theorising disablism and ableism. Routledge.

Prater, M. A., & Dyches, T. T. (2008). Teaching about disabilities through children’s literature. Teacher Ideas Press.


Supervisors: Dr Sarah McGeown, Rachel O’Neill and Professor Richard Andrews

Further information: https://blogs.ed.ac.uk/literacylab/current-projects/disabilitypicturebooks/

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