Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2006, Volume 26, No. 4
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Janz, Heidi. (2004). Sparrows on Wheels. Edmonton (Canada): Doc Crip Press. 250 pgs. Softcover. $20.00. ISBN 0973640006.

Reviewed by Johnson Cheu, Michigan State University

In the author's note to Wheels, Janz writes, "[Wheels] is, in a sense, a historical novel, in addition to being semi-autobiographical. It's a story that offers readers...glimpses of what life was like for those who grew-up in the pre-integration era, and hence were educated primarily in so-called special schools" (p. i). On that level, the level of historical novel and "insider" knowledge, the novel succeeds. On another level, that of an engaging, well-developed, novel with fleshed-out characters, fully-drawn and fully-realized, that's where Wheels sputters and nearly stalls.

I'll admit it. As a child who also began my formal education in segregated schooling in the early 1970s, I wanted to like this novel, if for no other reason than that, I believe, its protagonist Tallia mirrored so much of my own early life: a feisty child with cerebral palsy who aspired to be a writer, and whose writing was eventually touted by the community. Unlike me, however, Tallia fights valiantly to stay in her school with necessary aides, rather than becoming "integrated" or "mainstreamed" into a school with "normal" children. This, despite the fact that her class–composed of four classmates and herself, and making an entire grade level for the school–eventually dwindles to just her, the other kids (three with Muscular Dystrophy) either being mainstreamed or dying. I, myself, remember no such valiant fight; all was decided for me by the school district and mostly faceless administrators.

It is the debate for or against inclusion that forms the central conflict of the novel. Tallia's friend Jo-Anne wants inclusion; Tallia doesn't. Through both of these characters, Janz lays out many of the pro and cons of the debate, and at novel's end, the reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions; inclusion doesn't wind up being a "one-size-fits-all" proposition, even if it's meant to. A typical scene:

Jo-Anne: 'But that doesn't change the fact that this place is a joke as a school....All it usually means to 'graduate' from this place is that you're too old to go to school so you get to sit home and watch TV all day.'

Tallia: 'But I still don't think everybody rushing out to become normal by getting integrated into regular schools is going to solve everything for everybody....we're still going to be crips and we're still going to have to deal with crip problems...It's not like integration is suddenly going to make those problems all go away and make us all normal' (pp. 134-135).

In fact, as a complement or opposing narrative to theories of inclusion taught in university-level school of education curricula, this book would generate much discussion. And there's something very real about these and other exchanges that make the issues the characters discuss highly resonant.

Yet, much of the novel has these debates at its center and little else. There's little interiority to any of the characters. Sure, we see stereotypes: the benevolent Vice Principal and Tallia's teacher, the no-nonsense nurse who see the kids as charges more than as people, Tallia's beleaguered yet spirited mother, and witty brother. But readers aren't given many clues or explanations of these characters' motivations for their behavior or their actions. We don't see much of Tallia's family life to even show how she gets her feistiness, and we see even less of Jo-Anne's life outside of school. So we have two main characters who have very defined opinions about the inclusion debate, but not much color to the characters to see how those opinions are arrived at. And when Tallia's mother succumbs to the opinions of "professionals," where is the spirited mother? Or the Vice-Principal who touts Tallia–why did he get into the profession? What drives him?

To be sure, many of these characters are secondary, and perhaps, if much happened in the novel besides Tallia's school days, I wouldn't crave more fleshed-out characters. In the end, though, one is left with a novel that presents an important issue, and does that quite well. But when one looks to see if there's more to the story, that's where the sparrow needs to sing with more depth.

Copyright (c) 2006 Johnson Cheu

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