Children's fiction

30th June 2000 at 01:00
Kathy Saunders explains to Diana Hinds how teachers can use stories to explore disability

Introducing able-bodied children to the idea of disability can be a vexed matter for teachers. Disability is not mentioned specifically in the national curriculum, and, as a general topic, is so beset by nervous and muddled thinking about what is - or is not - politically correct that many teachers may simply decide to give it a wide berth.

Then, when a child with a disability suddenly joins the class, the teacher reaches anxiously for the nearest how-to manual. Children's books about disability, they soon discover, are few and far between, although Franklin Watts recently published Friends, a series for young children, giving some down-to-earth information about various disabilities in the guise of slight, workaday stories.

But to help children develop a deeper and more comfortable understanding of what living with disability is like, Kathy Saunders argues, teachers need look no further than much of the children's fiction on the shelves around them. Her new book, Happy Ever Afters, explores the possibilities. Books need not deal explicitly with disabled characters to lend themselves to empathetic discussion about disability; it is more important to know the kinds of issues to look out for, how to evaluate the way authors treat them, and the questions to ask.

Physically-disabled herself since early childhood, Kathy Saunders says she became much more conscious of the difficulties of being disabled following the birth of her two daughters, now aged 11 and 12. Watching them read she was struck "by the way my experience was not really mirrored in what they were reading". She resolved to write something that would help teachers evaluate the portrayals of disability in children's fiction. "Unless we start looking at the books we give children to read, misconceptions about disability will continue to be seeded in the population," she says.

Authors sometimes have a problem with disabled characters, she maintains, and even without being fully aware of it, can allow them to become the focus for negative ideas. Unless parents or teachers pick up on these misconceptions or stereotypes and discuss them with pupils, they unwittingly become part of the problem - for instance, associating disability only with helplessness, struggle andother negative experiences.

Stereotypes combine to make able-bodied children think of disability as far removed from and irrelevant to their own lives. "If they then come close to a real-life situation that involves disability, they can feel at a loss," says Kathy Saunders, "and feelings of dislike, fear, disrespect can start to grow."

Children's classics, if not critically discussed, can contribute to inaccurate ideas taking shape in children's minds. In Heidi, for instance, written in 1880, Kathy Saunders highlights Johanna Spyri's "all or nothing" attitude to disability, whereby Clara, the book suggests, can only be completely happy when she is no longer disabled and has no further need of her wheelchair.

Contemporary children's fiction can also carry negative messages. Kathy Saunders is critical of Precious Potter: the heaviest cat in the world by Rose Impey, in which a heavyweight cat breaks all the equipment when he tries various jobs, and ends up as a famous circus attraction.

"It mocks the difficulty disabled people find in getting work, and the image of people who do not conform to the narrow, socially constructed norm."

Other titles are much more positive and useful, and Kathy Saunders helpfully lists a large number of these in her book, together with her analyses and suggested questions. She has also designed what she calls the DICSEY code, offering a framework for evaluation divided into six key areas: disability, image, control, society, enabled, young carer.

Although this may seem a little cumbersome at first sight, the aim is that it should act only as a tool and a prompt for teachers until they gain more confidence in discussing disability.

She hopes not that disability will be treated as an isolated topic in school, but that it can be talked about, little and often, in relation to other topics. "The important thing is that an awareness of disability is drawn into the general experience of non-disabled children, laying the foundations for greater understanding later in their lives."

Kathy Saunders is also developing a website exploring links between children's perceptions of disability and the books they read: http:web.ukonline. co.ukhappyeverafters

Happy Ever Afters: a storybook guide to teaching children about disability is published by Trentham Books pound;8.95

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