How Books Can Help Children Develop Empathy for Children with Disabilities
For many of us who grew up with Nancy Drew and Enid Blyton, most of our heroes were usually white, wholesome, and lived in a perfect world with sun-soaked hills and beautiful English villages, where they solved mysteries and had crazy adventures.
However, children’s books today are filled with more diversity, complexity, and inclusivity to match our realities. An encouraging and heartening trend that is increasing, is the number of books that feature children with special needs or disabilities intending to build a more empathetic society.
A Diverse Platform Of Stories—Indian Publishing
For many years now, independent publishers in India have been writing and crafting stories that are neither the norm nor part of mainstream literature. It is only natural that they have been expanding on the concept of inclusion for children with special needs and disabilities.
In 1999, a publishing company in India called Tulika Books featured a book of a child with cerebral palsy called “Why Are You Afraid to Hold My Hand”, written by an author called Sheila Dhir. Nowadays there is an increasing number of publishers that are creating more of these stories. More books are featuring children with a disability—a child trying to overcome a stammer, stories about visually impaired children, and books where children are in a wheelchair.
There are also those books where children with disabilities and special needs are portrayed as heroes everyone can look up to, such as “Wings to Fly” by Sowmya Rajendran and “Neel on Wheels” by Lavanya Kartik.
These are some amongst the many diverse books that are available today. Although they might not change the perspective of the world overnight, their presence may indeed be very significant.
Stories That Open Minds And New Perspectives
An occupational therapist named Raviraj, who works with children with disabilities at Ummeed Child Development Centre, believes that these new books can be a conversation starter about inclusion, disability, and accepting diversity.
“Children with disabilities are as much a part of society as any other children, and their inclusion in books creates a narrative in which they are an intrinsic part of a diverse society.” —Raviraj
Read-aloud books can provoke curiosity and prompt discussions at early stages as the first step of creating awareness and empathy. In India, a book club for children run by Archana Arti discusses each child’s perception when interpreting disability. When the children read some of the books about a child on the spectrum, they were curious and had some questions. Arti got them on a video call with the author of those books so they could understand the story better.
Sensitive And Respectful Portrayals Encourage Empathy And Dismisses Stereotype
Empathy would only be possible if these books portrayed the children with respect and sensitivity. Publishers that are thoughtful create stories that portray disabilities to align with universal themes. Therapist Raviraj mentions that,
“The stories we picked as winners were the ones which explored the world deeply…and which showed, as the series name emphasises, that kids with disability are not defined by it, but are ‘children first’ with the same desires and needs.”
It is true that writers, editors and illustrators of children’s books have to make sure to watch out for the danger of reducing disability, poverty, caste, class, and gender into stereotypes. This is because stereotypical attitudes and points of view can often creep into the story in many ways that even they are unaware of.
Importance Of Seeing One’s Self In Stories
Raviraj also believes that the character of these disabled children portrayed in books will go a long way to help other disabled children feel included in society. It is important for children with disabilities to see themselves in children’s books, but it is also for other children to see them and accept them as ‘one of us’.
This is the seventh part of a series of articles on empathy.
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