Acclaimed children's books have few characters with disabilities

Published: Thursday, Dec. 30 2010 11:09 p.m. MST

New BYU research finds that Newbery Award and Honor books don't contain proportional representations of children with disabilities.

Lisa F. Young

PROVO — If you're the parent of a young Samoan boy with a reading disability, it may be difficult to find an acclaimed children's book with characters he can relate to.

A new BYU study found that Newbery Award and Honor books from 1975 to 2009 feature a disproportionately smaller percentage of children with disabilities and ethic diversity than actual classroom numbers.

In fact, BYU graduate Melissa Leininger and professors Tina Dyches and Mary Anne Prater found that specific learning disabilities were depicted in only two literary characters (8 percent), yet occur in American classrooms in 45 percent of students.

"That's totally understandable because Newbery Books are judged on their literary merit, not necessarily (because they are) dealing with hot topics," said Dyches, who teaches special education. "But we would like to see a better representation of the kinds of kids that students in our American schools will typically encounter."

The group decided to evaluate Newbery Award and Honor books because they are found in nearly every school library across the country. And 1975 was a good year to start tracking the annual literary award because that was when the government passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which required public schools that received federal funds to provide equal educational opportunities for children with mental or physical disabilities.

From the 131 award-winning or nominated books, the researchers found 31 books that featured 41 main or supporting characters with a disability. They then reviewed how that character was depicted, as well as how they interacted with siblings, parents and the community.

The study, published in December's issue of Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, found that of the 41 characters with a disability, 24 were between the ages of 6 and 21 and were most commonly depicted with mental retardation, orthopedic impairment, autism or multiple disabilities. Only one character was depicted with a speech impairment.

However, the most common disabilities in American classrooms today are learning disabilities, speech or language impairments and mental retardation, explained Leininger, who wrote the paper as her thesis for her education specialist degree and now works as a school psychologist for the Davis School District.

"If children are not seeing their disability, I think it's a lot harder for them to feel like, 'Oh, this is something I can relate to,' or 'I feel like someone else understands,'" she said.

"Children like to feel recognized and included," she continued. "When they don't see those (self-reflective) books, it minimizes their sense of importance or acceptance within the school environment."

In addition to discrepancies in disabilities, Leininger said she was also surprised by the lack of ethnic diversity of characters with disabilities.

Of the younger characters with disabilities, 20 were white, three were black and one was Hispanic. There were no Asian/Pacific Islander or American Indian/Alaskan Native children depicted.

Such diversity is important in literature, she said, because it allows children with disabilities to see themselves through the characters and gain strength from the characters' good decisions and successes. It also helps classmates become more understanding and appreciative of others' differences.

Yet despite what may be lacking, the team is encouraged by what they see as continual improvement in the literary portrayal of individuals with disabilities.

"A lot of the (earlier) depictions were more, 'Here's this kid, he has a disability and that's all we'll focus on,'" Dyches said. "Now, we have kids who are so much more multi-dimensional. It's not just the disability that the authors are focusing on. It's just one part of that individual. It may be a significant part, but it's not the only part."

e-mail: sisraelsen@desnews.com

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