Books with disability representation are not just empowering for people with disabilities, they carry a lot of weight in influencing readers without disabilities. They have the power to provide education, insight and teach empathy.
Underrepresentation of the disability community in books can be extremely harmful and limiting to the way we form ideas about them. What we mean is, mere representation isn’t enough. We mean respectful, nuanced and realistic disability representation, not the type where disability is portrayed as an issue that needs a solution or placement of a token character.
Furthermore, there’s little doubt about the issue of reading and listening to different versions of the same story about the same group of people all the time. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk discusses how the repetitive stories that we’re exposed to can lead us to form very real ideas about the people they’re about – and not just among kids, people of all ages can be affected.
According to World Health Organization, 15 per cent of the world’s population identify as having some form of disability. According to StatsCan, here in Canada, that number jumps up to 22 per cent. However, people with disabilities are still one of the most underrepresented populations in literature; a Toronto Star survey found that only 2 per cent of characters in kids’ books represent children with disabilities. It’s even rarer to see characters with disabilities who also identify with multiple marginalized identities.
Below is a list of non-fiction young-adult books that tell impactful stories of characters with disabilities that you can add to your reading list.
Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the 21st Century edited by Alice Wong
Activist Alice Wong brings together a collection of essays written by people with disabilities. From blog posts, manifestos, and eulogies to Congressional testimonies this anthology gives a glimpse into the rich complexity of the disability experience, highlighting the passions, talents, and everyday lives of this community.
Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
In this collection of essays, Lambda Literary Award-winning writer and longtime activist and performance artist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha explore the politics and realities of disability justice, a movement that centers the lives and leadership of queer, trans, Black, and brown people, with disabilities who have knowledge and gifts for all.
Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty
Diary of a Young Naturalist portrays 15-year-old Dara McAnulty’s connection to the natural world through diary entries. Having been diagnosed with Asperger’s/autism at age five, Dara’s view on the delicate and changing biosphere is raw in its telling, describing how nature became a life-support system throughout his adolescence.
Comedian Zach Anner entered the world with cerebral palsy and an uncertain future. By his thirtieth birthday, Zach had grown into an adult with a career in entertainment, millions of fans, a loving family, and friends who would literally carry him up mountains. If at Birth You Don’t Succeed is a hilariously irreverent and heartfelt memoir about finding your passion and your path even when it’s paved with epic misadventure. This is the story of a man who couldn’t safely open a bag of Skittles, but still became a fitness guru with fans around the world.
Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s by John Elder Robison
Look Me in the Eye is the moving and funny story of growing up with Asperger’s at a time when the diagnosis simply didn’t exist. A born storyteller, Robison takes you inside the head of a boy whom teachers and other adults regarded as “defective,” who still has a peculiar aversion to using people’s given names (he calls his wife “Unit Two”). Ultimately, this is the story of Robison’s journey from his world into ours, and his new life as a husband, father, and successful small business owner.