Newbery Books Misrepresent Children with Disabilities
PROVO, Utah – Despite an increasingly positive portrayal of characters with disabilities in Newbery Award-winning books, there still is not an accurate representation of the nearly 7 million children with disabilities attending U.S. public schools, according to a study released by Brigham Young University professors of special education.
Professors Tina Dyches, Mary Anne Prater, Melissa Heath, and former graduate student, Melissa Leininger, published their study in the December issue of Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities. They studied Newbery Award and Honor books published in 1975 through 2009 and found that the representation of characters with disabilities is not proportionate to the current U.S. population of students with disabilities.
“We are hoping that this will be a call to authors,” Dyches said. “ We’ve got so many wonderful authors in the world and we would love to see more inclusive characterizations in high quality books, where kids with disabilities are being recognized for who they are and not just the limitations of their disabilities.”Along with their findings of disproportionate representation, the study revealed that racial representation in the books is not demonstrative of the diverse students receiving special education services. The team found that white students with disabilities were overrepresented, while black and Hispanic students were underrepresented and Asian/Pacific Islander and American Indian/Alaskan Native students with disabilities were not present at all.
Along with an inaccurate representation of students with disabilities, the study also found a concerning theme of elimination of the characters with disabilities through death, being sent away or a discovery of a miraculous cure. In most cases, the character with the disability did not tell the story, and was often used in supporting roles that facilitated the emotional growth of other characters.
Prater and Dyches both have an interest and concern with the messages that are being sent to children through the books they read.
“We know that children learn a lot from models who are like them,” Dyches said.
“We’d like to see children with disabilities more accurately depicted and representative of what is found in schools. This includes portraying more individuals with learning and speech/language impairments.”
In 2006, Prater and Dyches published a similar study about the portrayal of characters with disabilities in Caldecott books. They found that many Caldecott Medal and Honor books could possibly give children an inaccurate view of what it is like to have a disability, reinforce negative stereotypes and underrepresent more prevalent disabilities.
“Students will be able to more fully understand disabilities and their classmates with disabilities if these characters are portrayed accurately in the best of children’s literature,” Dyches said.
10 January 2010
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