Pleased to meet you

7th April 2000 at 01:00
FRIENDS SERIES: At the Seaside Christopher has Down's Syndrome, Birthday Party Alexandra has a Food Allergy, Going on a School Trip Georgia is Blind, Going Shopping Sara Uses a Wheelchair, Going Swimming Rowan is Deaf, Playing in a Band Dominic has Asthma

MAKING IT! SERIES: Artist Cherry has Down's Syndrome, Athlete Ada has Asthma, Business Woman Jennifer has a Food Allergy, Cricketer Dan is Physically Disabled, Judo Champion Ian is Blind, Zoo Keeper Katy is Deaf. Franklin Watts pound;9.99 each

An author wanting to put children with a disability into a book has two basic options: either you include the child along with able-bodied children, without drawing particular attention to the disability, as Michael Foreman does to powerful effect in his story book Seal Singer, where the protagonist is in a wheelchair; or you can be altogether up front about the disability, in the interests of making children better informed.

Franklin Watts adopts the latter approach in its helpful new series, Friends: "Meet Georgia who is blind", "Meet Dom who has asthma", declare the books' front covers, right on target.

Meeting children with a disability is, after all, very much a reality for today's primary school children, with the political accent on inclusion not segregation and, crucially, all these children are potential friends.

"Georgia and Kamilla are best friends," begins Going on a School Trip. "Georgia cannot see well. She wears glasses to help, but everything is still very blurred."

The book then charts, with real-life photographs of the two girls, a school strawberry-picking expedition, in which Kamilla helps describe the field to her friend. Georgia feels and smells the strawberries and, back in the classroom, helps Kamilla with her spelling.

A second series, Making It!, looks at adults with disabilities, who have distinguished themselves in their chosen careers - a blind judo champion, for instance, and a Down's syndrome artist preparing for an exhibition.

"Ten years ago, people tended to be a bit apprehensive about how children with difficulties would cope," says Beverley Mathias, director of REACH (the National Advice Centre for Children with Reading Difficulties), who acted as a consultant for both series. "Now they are going into mainstream school and, rightly, taking their place in everything they want to do. There is more openness now and an expectation that these children will cope in the best way they ca."

Children are often less deflected by another child's disability than are some adults, responding naturally and straightforwardly. But children can also feel concern about an illness or disability - for instance, another child having an asthma attack - if they have not been told enough about it.

These books provide an excellent starting point for building greater understanding - as well as, of course, a boost for the child with the disability: "everyone likes to find themselves in the books they read," says Beverley Mathias. Teachers could find them particularly valuable for a primary class welcoming a new member with a disability, both before and after the child arrives.

"Once things are explained properly to them," Beverley Mathias emphasises, "children can be extremely helpful."

The books include suggestions at the back on trying to help, together with some basic facts, and addresses for further information. With a deaf friend, for instance, a child can be reminded always to face them while talking so the deaf child can lip-read, as well as be encouraged to learn a bit of sign language.

If their friend has asthma, they should know where they keep their "puffers", and be aware that if an attack lasts more than five or 10 minutes, they may have to call 999 for an ambulance.

The texts are fairly plain, but clear and easy to read for most six-year-olds, and not overloaded with information. Relevant charities - such as the Royal National Institute for the Blind, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, the National Asthma Campaign - were consulted, to ensure all medical information is accurate and sufficiently general.

The photographs throughout are engaging and informative and do not shy away from either the disabilities themselves (the cricketer, for instance, who uses an attachment on his misshapen arm) or the everyday difficulties they can present, like the mother carrying a child with muscular dystrophy up the stairs in a clothes shop because there is no lift.

Overall, the books' emphasis is on children and adults with disabilities having fun and succeeding in life.

"I like the way the books use real people and real-life situations," says Anne Hodgson, senior information development officer at the RNID, who advised on Zoo Keeper and Going Swimming."The books are a good way of putting over information without it becoming too learning-based."

REACH helpline: 0845 6040414

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