Top Children’s Books Don’t Accurately Portray Children with Disabilities, Researchers Find

It’s no secret that a child’s worldview is shaped – in part – by the books they’re exposed to. This is simply part of growing up, and the lessons learned through literary classics, new fiction and nonfiction help children gain an understanding of people, places and ideas. That’s why a recent study from researchers at Brigham Young University raises questions about the portrayal of individuals with disabilities in children’s books.

Special education researchers at BYU recently set out to examine children’s books that received the American Library Association’s annual Newbery Medal, an award for the most distinguished children’s books. The study looked at books from 1975 (chosen because this was the year IDEA was passed) through 2009 that portrayed characters with disabilities. The findings were published in the December issue of Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities.

The researchers found that, despite the millions of children with disabilities in public schools, characters with disabilities are misrepresented, and frequently they, or their disability, are removed from storylines through such means as death or miraculous cures. According to the findings:

The representation of characters with disabilities in Newbery books is not proportionate to the current school population of students with disabilities.

In some of these books, authors eliminated characters with disabilities through death, being sent away or discovery of miraculous cures.

White school-aged characters with disabilities were overrepresented, black and Hispanic characters with disabilities were underrepresented, and Asian/Pacific Islander and American Indian/Alaskan Native characters were not present at all.

These findings touch a nerve for many who have advocated for years for realistic portrayals of people with disabilities in all forms of media.  What the study shows is that during a critical age in which ideas are formed and perceptions about others are made, children are largely receiving an inaccurate depiction of people with disabilities. This can have an impact on the way children view their peers, as well as how children with disabilities relate to characters.

In an announcement on the study from BYU, co-author and special education professor Tina Dyches says:

“We are hoping that this will be a call to authors. We’ve got so many wonderful authors in the world, and we would love to see more inclusive characterizations in high-quality books, where kids with disabilities are being recognized for who they are and not just for the limitations of their disabilities.”

The researchers evaluated Newbery Award and Honor books because they are found in nearly every U.S. public school library.