Inclusive books help to normalise disability and SEN and can be inspiring for children and families, writes Rose Robbins
What is an “Inclusive book”? For the purposes of this article, the kind of inclusive books I will be talking about refer to those produced for children which accurately portray the experiences of children or adults with SEN or disabilities, doing so in an authentic and respectful way. Of course, inclusive books can be more wide-ranging in scope than this, as the “inclusive” name suggests. They can also depict minority ethnicities, religious groups, LGBTQ and other under represented groups within society.
It is clear that there is a dearth of representation of children (and adults) with SEN and disabilities within children’s literature. A recent study of the top 100 children’s bestsellers found that only one book contained a disabled character – who was featured in the background and did not speak or contribute to the story. However, while this may be representative of what is being bought, it is not necessarily a reflection of what is being published. Many great inclusive children’s books exist; they are simply are not as visible as the bestsellers. As government figures show that 15 per cent of school pupils have SEN (Special educational needs in England: January 2019, Department for Education), one would hope that there would be much greater representation overall.
One might argue that fiction should not be strictly concerned with reflecting reality, but when all that children generally see are non-disabled, white and apparently privileged protagonists, you start to question how beneficial this might be to their own sense of self, should this not be the particular box they fit into. I hope to explain here how inclusive books can be beneficial, not only to disabled children and their families, but also to their peers and to society at large.
Benefits of reading and inclusive representation
My brother and I are both autistic and although we are now in our late twenties, we both share a great love of children’s fiction, and picture books in particular. My brother is non-verbal and has limited communication, so it is not clear how much he understands from the books, but I know he loves to be read to and that certain books are more appealing than others. The joy he obviously experiences, and the brief calm that reading sessions provide, are proof enough that these books are beneficial to his wellbeing. In fact, reading books is very well documented to be beneficial to the mental health and overall wellbeing of children, adults and the elderly, with research showing that it can improve sleep and happiness.
Growing up with a developmental difference or learning disability can be socially alienating, so it is important that the books and media that children have access to do not contribute to that feeling of being “other” that many children with SEN and disabilities feel. Finding a sympathetic character in a book can be instantly validating and, by extension, an enduring confidence boost. Inspiring role models do not have to be limited to the non-disabled and neurotypical. For a child, recognising a character with their own condition depicted as the hero in a story is like being told “You can be a protagonist too!”
Books written by authors who have personal experience of SEN or who are disabled themselves are often considerably more accurate and sensitive to the experiences of children, and by existing in the literary world can serve to educate authors who wish to learn. Authors and Illustrators who do not have lived experience, but who wish to include diverse characters, should approach others who have that personal knowledge in order to make their characterisations as authentic as possible. This kind of collaboration should mean that books will have a far greater chance of being inclusive.
We often find within inclusive books two distinct varieties: the “issue book” and the book that contains “incidental inclusion”. The two are separate ideas which require explanation; incidental inclusion involves featuring a diverse character in a piece of fiction, without direct attention being drawn to their diverse features, although they are known to be present; issue books, on the other hand, centre entirely around the character’s particular “difficulty” or “difference”, in an effort to educate or raise awareness and understanding. I believe there is definitely a need for the more direct issue-based books, but I don’t think they serve the purpose of inclusion and diversity as effectively as books which have a more incidental/natural approach. I believe that not only do children prefer reading these kinds of books, but in addition they naturally assert that disability and SEN are normal and everyday, which of course is the reality.
Quality and authenticity
Of course, a book can have a perfectly accurate and sensitive characterisation, but if it is badly written, or if the illustrations are unappealing, then it is not going to be a success with young readers. Creating a book is a difficult task; add to that the pressure of including a sensitive portrayal of SEN or disability (which of course can be subject to changes in acceptable terminology and depiction) and the task can seem quite daunting.
Creating a truly inclusive book is a labour of love, and the results, if put together well, can be so much greater than the sum of its parts. This is one of the reasons that inclusive books are rare, and why they should be supported.
What can families and teachers get from inclusive books?
Picture books are a fantastic resource, especially for promoting connections between children and adults. The communicative device of a book’s illustrations creates a great opportunity for sharing, especially where the child has limited verbal ability.
Certain children’s books are specifically designed for those with SEN and take sensory and communicative ability into account. Some of these titles might include symbols alongside the text or tell social stories. These books can be extremely useful, especially when using reading for educational purposes.
Families should choose books together, have conversations about which books they like to read and which characters they like best. If libraries and bookshops are too much of a sensory overload, there are lots of lists and reviews online.
Some publishers will have activity sheets and teaching guides freely available on their websites. These are usually easy to find, but if you are unsure, you can always contact the publisher, as most will be thrilled to share these kinds of resources for their books.
You can never have too many children’s books and the best way to find a good one is through reading as many as possible (luckily they are a bit shorter than most adult fiction). If you find that your house is becoming a bit over cluttered, you can always pass them on to other families, friends and local schools.
How we can support inclusive books?
Inclusive books have changed a lot over a relatively short period of time as terminology and attitudes have changed, particularly since the introduction of the Social Model of Disability in 1976. There are also many more titles featuring black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) characters within the sub-genre of inclusive books. However, although no up-to-date research exists to state an exact representation, judging by the statistics from picture books in general, it may well still be very poor; only four per cent of the children’s books published in 2017 featured BAME characters according to a recent report by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (Reflecting Realities, February 2018). This is a whole other debate but there is certainly much to be desired when it comes to further representation of cultures and other minority groups within books that are otherwise inclusive of disability.
The best way to encourage more inclusive books, and to support the authors who are currently making them, is to get them into the hands of children. This can be done by buying the books, gifting, borrowing from libraries, raising awareness, rating and reviewing books on online sales and review websites, or simply recommending them to friends and family. Libraries and specialist booksellers will have lists of books on relevant topics, and you can always make recommendations if you feel they are missing out on some useful titles. If you work in a school or library, making efforts to stock inclusive books is a fantastic way to support the authors and publishers who are bringing them to the table.
Benefitting society as a whole
While we need more visibility in the media and popular culture of the unique lives of children with SEN and disabilities, the quality of these depictions is, of course, just as important. The opportunity to look through the “window of a book” into the life of another person is a hugely powerful method of building empathy. Books are an affordable and accessible means to support and empower children, and the memorable ones will travel with them into adulthood.
The power of inclusive books to build empathy is not to be underestimated. Who among us hasn’t been reminded of inspirational characters or familiar situations from fiction at some point in our lives. I am not suggesting that these books can change the world, but without them I believe that task would be a good deal more difficult.
About the author
Rose Robbins is an Inclusion Ambassador for Inclusive Minds, which seeks to promote inclusion, diversity, equality and accessibility in children’s literature. Rose is an author/illustrator and her first book, Me and My Sister, is based on her experience of growing up in a neurodiverse household.