Television actress backs online project for children with disabilities and reading problems
Books have helped Julie Fernandez, the disabled actress from The Office, through her toughest times. She was born with brittle bones and as a youngster escaped to the magical lands of the Chronicles of Narnia after numerous operations, temporarily forgetting about her condition. Now, at the age of 30, she is just as enthusiastic about books and wants to encourage others to read, especially children who find it difficult.
Miss Fernandez, who played Brenda in the award-winning comedy starring Ricky Gervais, is supporting a new website for parents to help youngsters with reading difficulties.
It has been set up by the Booktrust charity and is available at bookmark.org.uk.
Miss Fernandez said: "For the first 12 years of my life I had loads of operations and for a lot of the time I couldn't move, sometimes for six weeks at a time, so I would spend my time reading books.
"I was born with brittle bones and have had about 70 operations. The Narnia books helped me escape and made being disabled irrelevant. I also loved the Famous Five books and Stig of the Dump."
Miss Fernandez was thrilled when Booktrust asked her last year to be a judge for a teenage book prize and has continued to support the charity, which promotes books in education, media and arts, and the public sector.
"I'm all for promoting disability issues and supporting parents teaching their children to read," she said. "It's important for disabilities to feature in books. Why are 10 million disabled people not represented in the media, books, films and the news? Asian and black people are but disabled people are not."
That is why she believes The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, the award-winning book featuring a boy with autism by Mark Haddon, is so important. "It is brilliant and has raised awareness," she said. "Able people can read it and understand about disabilities."
Miss Fernandez, who will be the first person to go down the catwalk in a wheelchair at New York Fashion Week next month, said many children miss out on education because they spend much of their time in hospital.
"Parents at least can help their children read and there are books, recommended by other youngsters, that are for all abilities. If you can read, you can do anything. You can sign your name if you want to open an account at a bank, you can find out what's going on around you."
Alexandra Strick, who was head of children's literature at Booktrust, has helped to co-ordinate the website and has worked with children who have disabilities for the past three years.
She said: "One of the key benefits of the website is that people can share information, resources and their concerns. We can put people in touch with each other. The website is for any child with a disability that affects his or her reading. It is also for parents who are worried about the rate their child is reading.
"We recommend books that are reviewed by a panel of teenage readers. Young people don't always want to read about issues of disabilities but they would like to read about them in stories."