Have you ever considered how inclusive books are in your school library?
When people hear the word "diversity", they often assume the discussion relates solely to culture, race and heritage. These areas of diversity are slowly improving within books but I’d argue there is a lack of books relevant to additional needs and disability and I think it’s something we could consider in our schools.
Why does it matter?
Inclusive books not only provide the opportunity for children who are often underrepresented to see themselves in books and as equals, but for all children to become familiar with characters who may look or behave slightly differently, or use different equipment to them, but who are fundamentally just the same.
Having worked with children with a range of additional needs, I’ve seen directly the impact that an inclusive book can have – from the massive smile when a child recognises a character in a book who is using the same walking frame that they use, to the partially sighted child enjoying a tactile book designed specifically with his needs in mind.
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What makes a book inclusive?
Inclusion isn’t necessarily difficult, but it has to be genuine. Growing up, the only type of disability I saw in books was a child using an oversized, old-fashioned wheelchair, who was usually being pushed by someone rather than self-propelled. Fortunately, this has changed in recent years, with children now being shown, for example, the wearing of eye patches (and not just for pirates), signing and other forms of mobility equipment.
In order for inclusion to be authentic, the writer, illustrator and publisher must consider the whole character rather than just their impairment, or whatever else it is that might make them "different”. Any reader will find it much easier to relate to a fully rounded character with a personality and a range of interests, than to someone who is one-dimensional and only included in order to tick a diversity box. If it is a box-ticking exercise and they hold no true part in the story, then I’d suggest going back to square one. Children with additional needs have massive personalities and these should be reflected in the stories.
Choosing books for your library
There are more and more really good inclusive books available, but there are also a number that continue stereotypes, or reinforce a single story that is outdated or boring.
When selecting inclusive books for use in school, it’s important to look out for books with an engaging story and high-quality illustrations, characters who have a variety of interests, and those using modern equipment and who play with their peers. Books that show that parents and grandparents can be disabled, too, are also essential; children need to see that disabled people can have relationships, careers and a family, just like anyone else. There is a well-known real-life story of a child who thought their impairment would disappear when they grew up because they never saw any disabled adults – which shows the importance of young people seeing progression in life.
So next time you visit your school library, I’d encourage you to think about how inclusive it is. Inclusion in all areas of school life is vitally important for our young people with additional needs – but also for all young people growing up in a more diverse and inclusive society.
Adam Black is a teacher in Scotland. In 2019, he received the British Empire Medal for raising awareness of stammering. He tweets @adam_black23