Beyond Good Intentions and Chicken Soup: YA Lit and Disability Diversity: How Far Have We Come? @ YALSA’s 2010 YA Lit Symposium

November 8, 2010

I attended the 2010 YA Lit Symposium in Albuquerque. This post is a summary of one of the sessions that I attended. Check out other posts tagged yalsalit2010 for more session recaps.

The second session I attended on Saturday morning was “Beyond Good Intentions and Chicken Soup: Young Adult Literature and Disability Diversity: How Far Have We Come?” with Dr. Heather Garrison, Dr. Katherine Schneider (founder of the Schneider Family Book Award!), and author Terry Trueman.

This was another really outstanding session. The speakers opened with an explanation of disability as a social construct (it’s society that disables people by not providing allowances and through the perception of others) and a short examination of different models of disability, including the medical model (there is something wrong with people with disabilities’ bodies), the moral model (there is something wrong with or shameful about people with disabilities), and the minority model (disability sets someone apart, but it’s something one can be proud of and that person can lead a full life).

With a bit of a theoretical groundwork, they next talked about the importance of the depiction of disability in literature. Since 20-30% of the population has a disability, it’s not something that we can ignore or not address. Positive depictions of people with disabilities counteract Othering, and reading stories about characters with disabilities may be a reader’s first exposure to disability. (Making this point later, Terry Trueman said that he hoped that after someone read his book Stuck in Neutral, they might see someone with cerebral palsy and think, “Maybe that person is like Shawn, which means that maybe that person is like me.”). Futhermore, seeing characters with disabilities means that people with disabilities are worth writing about. Characters with disabilities can be leaders, have girlfriends, and go on adventures–they’re more than just their disability. And finally, having characters with disabilities in good stories provides positive role models for people with disabilities.

We find a lot of stereotypes of people with disabilities in literature, many of them contradictory. For example, characters with disabilities are either asexual or hypersexual, victims or vengeful, infantile or “supercrips” with powers beyond that of “normal” people. We see a lot of this especially in classic literature, and we were encouraged to instead of glossing over a character’s disability, to address the potentially problematic depiction of that disability and how the disability was perceived during the time in which the book was written. We shouldn’t ignore problematic depictions of disability, but should instead use them as a chance to discuss and education.

When we’re evaluating books that include a character with disabilities, we should consider:

  • Awards like the Schneider Family Book Award or the recently revived Dolly Gray Award
  • Attitudes: are the characters with disabilities equally active but not a super-person? Are they accepted without having to overcome their disabilities or prove themselves?
  • Accuracy: what are the credentials of the author (including personal experience)? Is accurate information given in a variety of settings? Are equipment, accommodations, adaptations, and support all depicted correctly?
  • Appeal
  • Accessibility

If you’re reviewing a book that includes mention of a disability and you’re not sure if the depiction is accurate, ask someone with that disability. The slogan “nothing about us without us” is helpful here–people with particular disabilities are the best authority on that disability because of their lived experience. You can also pair potentially problematic books with a memoir by someone who also has that particular disability.

There was also a great list of what is and isn’t available in both nonfiction and fiction:

  • Available in nonfiction: “living with…” books about particular disabilities, books about sibling issues and self-esteem issues, and biographies and autobiographies
  • Not widely available in nonfiction: books about sex, jobs, manners, histories, Daring Book for Girls-style books, and “and” books address disability and race or class or gender
  • Available in fiction: relationships, drugs, alcohol, sex, school issues, teen community, and books in both realistic and sci-fi settings
  • Not widely available in fiction: the transition to college, historical fiction, intersection with other identities (e.g., LGBTQIA, poverty, teen parenting, race/ethnicity, religion)

Finally, we were asked how our libraries do with accessibility. Can people with disabilities use your website and electronic products? Can they attend your programs? What are staff attitudes like? And are our conferences accessible to people with disabilities? This was the only session I attended that had large print handouts and discs with the handouts in formats that assisting devices for the visually disabled can read.

Dr Garrison kindly sent me handouts from this presentation; I’ve uploaded them so everyone else can access them, too.

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