Disability Studies Quarterly
Winter 2004, Volume 24, No. 1
Copyright 2004 by the Society
for Disability Studies

What Teachers Never Taught And Writers Feared To Write:
Disability in African American Children's Literature

Kapria Daniels
University of Illinois at Chicago

Abstract: Some African American children's literature reflects the negative stereotypes that are ascribed to individuals with disabilities through the use of implausible, one-dimensional characters that are expected to perform acts of heroism to gain acceptance. The critical use of these and similar texts in educational curriculum is a key step in combating stereotypes about African Americans with disabilities. The impact of established academic institutions on the identity development of African American children with disabilities is discussed.

Children's literature differs from other genres of literature in that the term "children's literature" is ambiguous, used to refer to a wide range of texts. Children's literature includes everything from picture books for infants to more complex novels for teens and young adults. This genre of literature has a number of uses, including language development, comprehension assessment, and a means for addressing equity issues. Books have become more accessible as technology has advanced, and the cost of books has decreased. Less emphasis has been placed on imposing adult values through children's literature; as a result, this genre is increasingly changing to reflect contemporary issues that are important to youth (Credaro, 2001).

Disabled characters began to appear more regularly in children's books after 1975. However, the literature that portrays children with disabilities, particularly African Americans, tends to offer stereotypical depictions where the disabled characters are treated as victims and focus on the miracle cure as a plot device (Pirofski, 2002, p. 2). The majority of children's books written by African American writers that feature African American characters, (referred to hereafter as African American children's literature), that included characters with disabilities were written for children between the ages of 8 and 12 (Pirofski, 2001, p. 2). The topic of disability may be challenging to explain to younger children, the targeted audience of picture books. Because of the complexity and variety of disabilities that exist, introducing the topic through images allows children to understand that people with disabilities are among the many groups of people who make up their community. This may alleviate fear of the unknown and ease potential future anxiety about interacting with people with disabilities (Saunders, 2000, p. 5).

Of the broad range of disabilities that affect the African American community, the most widely discussed topics in children's literature are visual impairments, physical disabilities, and diseases. In Sharon Bell Mathis's 1990 novel Listen for the Fig Tree, the sixteen-year-old main character named Marvina Johnson is blind. Marvina's mother is incapable of dealing with her father's sudden death and turns to alcohol as a means of self-medicating. As a result, Marvina is forced to take over all of the responsibilities of the household at a time when she too is mourning, as well as developing her own identity as an African American woman with a disability. Although Marvina has overcome the hardships of poverty, sexual assault, and verbal abuse throughout this novel, her character is still portrayed as being helpless. She is constantly degraded by her mother and pitied by others in her community.

Mathis' portrayal of individuals who are blind facilitates the stereotype that people with visual impairments are helpless. Throughout the novel Marvina is chastised by her mother for using her cane because it was a visible marker of Marvina's disability. Although the cane was the only resource that Marvina felt enhanced her freedom and independence, Marvina's mother, Mrs. Johnson, felt that Marvina should ask for assistance and have someone to guide her whenever she wanted to go out into the community. Rather than receiving the support that she needs from her mother, Marvina develops a negative self-image; she loses confidence in her abilities as a result of her mother's influence. As the narrative comes to a close Marvina is still portrayed as needing to be assisted and taken care of by her friends and family regardless of how much she has accomplished.

To society, the loss of sight is sometimes equated with the loss of independence. This stereotypical attitude regarding helplessness is sometimes unjustly attributed to people who are blind or have visual impairments. This is because it is not commonly known or understood that technological advances and adjustments to the physical environment allow people with low or complete vision loss to take part in the same activities as the rest of society (Marks, 1999, p. 96).

Listen for the Fig Tree is not the only contemporary African American children's novel that facilitates misconceptions about people with visual impairments. The novel Uncle Shamus by James Duffy (1992) is centered on the life of a recently released blind ex-convict. Uncle Shamus was imprisoned at age 20 after he and his brother had robbed an armored car. While in the Texas state penitentiary, he lost his sight as a result of a machinery accident. Frequently referred to as "the blind man" instead of by his name, Uncle Shamus was constantly under suspicion. The story seems to focus on Shamus' loss of sight as first a punishment for his life of deviance, and then serves as warning and visible marker to others about the fate of one who is seen as having a flawed character.

Although Uncle Shamus had been the accomplice to his brother's robbery plan and the incident had occurred 30 years prior to the setting of this narrative, upon returning to his hometown, Shamus was suspected of having devised another illegal ruse. In actuality, Uncle Shamus returned to his hometown so he could live out the rest of his life in the only place with which he was familiar. While living in the shantytown, Uncle Shamus befriended two neighborhood children. Initially, the children, like the other townspeople, considered Shamus to be shifty and helpless. Instead, Shamus taught them an invaluable life lesson when he tested the children's honesty by asking them for assistance with errands. Shamus showed the children that even someone who is unable to see is fully aware of what is going on around him and that he can still lead a full and productive life.

At the end of the novel Shamus feels that he is entitled to keep the money that he and his brother stole because he paid his debt to society by serving his time in prison. He leaves a portion of the money to the children that have been running his errands and leaves town with the remainder of the money. This story, along with stereotypes of helplessness portrayed in the other stories about individuals with visual impairments, may lead child readers to conclude that people who are blind or have visual impairments are helpless and deviant, especially with there being so few other stories written for children to give them a more accurate understanding of what life for an individual who has a visual impairment is actually like.

In African American children's literature that contains physically disabled characters, the stories are permeated with stereotypes of heroism and cure. While the limitations that a person with a physical disability may experiences might decrease with rehabilitation therapy, surgery, or an assistive technology device, the emphasis for a cure is often overemphasized in literature. Stressing the need for a cure or for more independent mobility diminishes the value of the lives of the people with disabilities.

The value-laden judgments about the lives of people with physical disabilities made by the authors of children's books are exemplified in the novel Project Wheels by Jacqueline Turner Banks (1993). This book focuses on the major project that a sixth-grade class worked on each year. In the year recounted in the novel, the class decided to surprise a fellow classmate with a motorized wheelchair. Although the plot to this story seems to be one of kindness and concern for a fellow classmate, in essence it perpetuates the theme of pity. Tommy, the character for whom the money was being raised, was portrayed as being angry, difficult, and not well liked. This scenario reflects the need for charity that is associated with people with disabilities. Although it was stated in the novel that Tommy would be opposed to being the object of the class project, the fund raising still took place behind Tommy's back. In the end, Tommy and his parents were presented with his new chair during the school dance.

The novel did not explore or attempt to explain why Tommy was perceived to be angry and difficult; instead, it guided the reader to assumption that his disposition grew out of his disability. This story is not only damaging to the self-image of children with disabilities; it also gives children who do not have disabilities the idea that disabled people need to be taken care of and are angry about having a disability.

A more recent children's book about an African American with a disability is W. Christopher Cason's Even Ground (2000). Nine-year-old Olivia Dominoe has a leg length discrepancy that requires her to use a special shoe. Olivia has been the subject of ridicule for many years because of how she walks and the shoes that she wears. After her father receives a promotion, she and her mother move with him to a new neighborhood, where Olivia attends a new school.

Unlike her last school, this school's commitment to diversity and difference eases Olivia's transition to a new school and allays her anxiety about having a disability. Although Olivia makes a new friend, she is still the school bully's object of harassment. Now, Olivia has to deal not only with other people's opinions of her but also with her own guilt about the expenses that her parents incur because of her orthopedic shoes, medications, and medical visits. Just as Olivia is beginning to feel more comfortable about the person she is becoming because of the support of her family, new friend, and teachers, her world comes crashing down around her. Jerry, the school bully, destroys the project that she plans to enter into the science fair contest. This is especially devastating for Olivia because she planned to use her share of prize money to buy a special gift for her parents. She feels that they deserve a gift because of all the things they have sacrificed to provide the special shoes and braces that she needs.

The turning point of the story comes when Olivia rescues Jerry's younger sister from an oncoming train. It is not until this moment that Jerry and the others begin truly to respect Olivia. Olivia's act of heroism becomes the only reason that she is seen as an accepted member of her community. This narrative represents how disabled people are not given respect or believed to able to contribute to society until someone else validates their existence. Unfortunately, for people with disabilities, the societal and familial supports that gave Olivia a strong sense of self and allowed her to accept herself as an African American with a disability are not often found outside of fiction novels. The African American community tends to marginalize persons who would bring the group additional stigmatization (Cohen, 1999, p. 27).

Can I Play, Too? by K. Scott Conover (1998) is one of the few nonfiction African American children's books to address the issue of disability. Teddy, the main character, is given leg braces to strengthen his legs as he is learning to walk. His mother and sisters are very supportive and help Teddy to understand that he is a wonderful person regardless of what the neighborhood children may say about him. When Teddy has his leg braces removed just before his sixth birthday, he still has difficulty in making friends because he is not as fast as the other children. All of these changes for Teddy when he enters the seventh grade after he and his mother relocate. In the new class, Teddy befriends a boy named Dudley June, who has diabetes. Teddy and Dudley quickly became close friends and spend their afternoons playing basketball. However, their afternoon games come to a sudden halt after Dudley must have his leg amputated.

Dudley and Teddy remain close and, over the next two years, Dudley learns to play basketball while using his crutches. Teddy grows seven inches over the course of the year and outgrows his nickname, now preferring to be called Ted. With his new sense of confidence and sharpened basketball skills, he makes the varsity basketball team. Between practice, varsity basketball games, and hanging out with the popular crowd, Ted no longer has time for his friend Dudley. One afternoon, while Ted is sitting on the sidelines with the other varsity players, Dudley loses his balance and falls as he is crossing the gymnasium floor to meet Ted. The varsity players laugh and mock Dudley. At this point Ted realizes that he has nothing in common with the varsity basketball players. He quits the team the following day, after explaining to the coach about the disability that he had when he was younger and that he was not comfortable being on a team with a group of people who were so childish.

Although this book attempts to show the transition that took place in Teddy's life as he went from a child with a disability to an able-bodied young adult, and to describe the impact that the experience had on him, it still sends a negative message about people with disabilities. Instead of Teddy being able to bridge the gap between his non-disabled friends and Dudley, Ted had to choose one or the other, giving up his new friends and social status and returning to the world of the marginalized. Therefore, this book may give the wrong impression to children. The book's theme may be interpreted in a manner that suggests that disabled people are not an acceptable part of society and are unable to function in society even after their impairment has been eliminated.

Children's books that deal with diseases have become more prevalent in recent years because of the increasing recognition of the number of children affected by these diseases. Childhood leukemia and other blood diseases have affected the African American community for years; however, until recently these diseases were not discussed on the level that children would be able to understand (Saunders, 2000, p. 27). Virginia Hamilton broached this topic in her novel Bluish (1999). The central character is Natalie, a bi-racial (black and Jewish) fifth grader who has leukemia. Natalie is thin and fragile as a result of several courses of chemotherapy and she uses a wheelchair. Her classmates nickname her "Bluish" because the chemotherapy has created a blue hue under her skin. Although Natalie is the central character, the story is told from the perspective of her classmate, Dreenie.

Dreenie decides to keep a journal about her daily experiences in fifth grade and focuses on Natalie. At first, Dreenie is curious and a little scared of Natalie because she has never met anyone with cancer. As the story progresses, Dreenie and Natalie become friends, and Dreenie's fear of Natalie fades. Natalie shares her fears about her illness and how she has been affected by the side effects of chemotherapy.

Although Natalie is concerned about her future health, she has never accepted the stereotypes that her classmates have about people with disabilities as being accurate, and she has insisted on being independent and treated with respect. After Natalie's hair begins to fall out after the initial series of chemotherapy treatments, she wears caps that she and her mother make. In order to make her classmates feel more at ease with her and her disability, Natalie knits caps for all of the students in her class. Natalie's strong sense of self is exhibited throughout this novel; her pride in her disability identity shows through like the blue veins that led to her nickname. Natalie is comfortable with her position in the disability community and, in turn, opens the dialogue so that her classmates can be educated about the lives of people with disabilities.

Melrose Cooper, another author of African American literature, took an unusual approach to addressing disability in her novel Life Magic (1996). This book is a coming-of-age story exemplifying how members of the disability community can band together and empower one another while working through their individual identity formation processes. Crystal is the central character and the middle child in her family; she feels that she lives in the shadows of her two gifted sisters, especially after finding out that she has a learning disability.

At Crystal's lowest point, her favourite uncle returns to New York from California. Uncle Joe, a free-spirited artist, inspires Crystal to discover her inner strength and talent by revealing to her how he has lived a successful life even though he has the same learning disability and is now living with an even greater challenge: AIDS. Crystal and her uncle became very close in his final months. Uncle Joe passes away before he realizes how his way of understanding the world has inspired Crystal's natural talent for drawing.

Disabled African Americans generally are not recognized for the significant contributions that they make to the community. This is in part due to the fact that African Americans with disabilities are seen as "deficient" and not truly members of the African American community. The counterpart to this idea is that disabled African Americans have multiple identities that play a role in structuring their lived experiences, and that these people are themselves unsure of which community should be held accountable for recognizing their contributions (Cohen, 1999, p. 15).

It is essential for people with acquired disabilities or even others who are just recognizing their role as part of the disability community to be able to find themselves reflected in the literature. Finding oneself in literature is a fundamental part of self-analysis and a crucial part of the identity formation process because it allows a sense of community to develop as one relates to others who have been down similar paths in life. An undeniable sense of empowerment comes with refusing to be silenced and invisible, and the work and experiences of African Americans with disabilities are an integral part of the larger tapestry and history through which knowledge and power are gained (Haughton, 1993, p. 65).

There is a need for a deeper understanding of identity development as it relates to literature and the educational system. Parham's identity development theory suggests that racial identity development begins in adolescence/early adulthood and is a continuous process (Alston, Bell, and Feist-Price, 1996, p. 13). It could then be logically inferred that the next step in the deconstruction of negative attitudes toward and stereotypes about people with disabilities would be to incorporate African American literature that includes disability representations into urban school curriculums. Considering that students in kindergarten through twelfth grade spend the majority of their time in school, it is easy to understand how the education system plays a role in reproducing and legitimizing social inequalities and systemic discrimination which are justified through a societal ideology of merit, social mobility and individual responsibility (Villegas and Lucas, 2002, p. 22). To understand fully the impact that formal academic institutions have had on the identity development of African Americans with disabilities, an analysis of the historical and theoretical foundation of the American school system is necessary.

Louis Agassiz, a Switzerland-born natural biologist, was one of the first to infer that racial characteristics went beyond differences in skin color and extended to mental capacities. This attitude was embraced by the founders of the American education system (Watkins, 2001, p. 30). Franklin Giddings, a sociologist, realized that education serves a greater function in society than merely to enhance intellectual development; education is also a form of social control. According to Giddings, social education "protects the community against all sorts of baleful influences, against all disorders that might break up a community and against economic burdens that the community is unable to bear" (ibid. p. 78). According to Samuel Chapman Armstrong, one the most notable architects of black education, the culture of African Americans was retrograde, backward, and restraining; thus, African Americans were not able to improve themselves. The only chance for improvement was to bring in more enlightened individuals, making teachers the "major actors in civilization building" (ibid. p. 47).

These theories about African Americans led to the development of curriculum that intentionally omitted Latin, higher mathematics or other courses that would expand their worldview. Instead it focused on the components of a practical English education that would be sufficient to prepare African Americans to be teachers in their community or at least to "clean them up and make them polite and useful" (Watkins, 2001, p. 50). African Americans were thought not to be as intelligent as other races and unable to comprehend academic materials that required analytical or higher order thinking skills. As a result of this inadequate academic training for teachers, their students too were left in the disadvantaged position of never having been taught higher skills. James G. Stokes, a social activist and missionary charity proponent, claimed that, "schools had the additional responsibility to uplift its students individually" (ibid. p. 89).

The current school curriculum guidelines should be evaluated to ensure that schools provide students with an engaging and appealing curriculum that affirms individual feelings of self-worth. This rings especially true today, now that the diversity in American schools is increasing dramatically. Presently, most of the 5.3 million students with disabilities spend at least a portion of their day in classrooms with nondisabled students, and at least one third of the school-age population in the United States is non-white (Kluth and Straut, 2001, p. 43).

The role of current traditional educational curriculum is to teach mathematics, science, history, English, health/recreation, and social science. The instructional use of literature is to enhance language development through interactions with others, to create and interpret texts, and to develop understandings about the world and ourselves (Credaro, 2001, p. 1). Currently, there is a movement under way to develop a "standardized curriculum," based on the belief that this will cure the perceived shortcomings of public education (Marzano, 2002, p. 6). However, the definition of a standardized curriculum does not extend to educational guidelines beyond each community's local school district. This has been problematic because it is difficult to build upon a weak or nonexistent educational base, making the measurement of student achievement unreasonable and nearly impossible to measure. This perpetuates and exacerbates the difficulties that African Americans with disabilities face. When these students do not receive quality and life-enhancing education, their life chances are jeopardized, resulting in lower expectations, lower levels of achievement, decreased likelihood of postsecondary education, and more limited employment (Patton, 1998, p. 25). Therefore, the incorporation of disability representations into current school curriculum is essential so that the lives of people with disabilities are valued, their experiences are included in our history and their voices are heard.

This is not to suggest that diversity should be addressed by the addition of a few specialized courses; rather, it should be infused throughout the entire curriculum. Textbooks and other resources should be checked for bias, and teaching strategies should reflect the cultural diversity in each school (Day-Vines, 2000, p. 4). While analyzing the curriculum to address the inaccuracies, omissions and distortions and broadening it to include multiple perspectives, careful attention should be paid that the planners do not fall prey to the "illusion of inclusion" (Haughton, 1993, p. 63). A new set of enlightened cultural filters and discourses is needed to replace the language now used to maintain the legitimacy of current education in social and political arrangements. It is essential that these discourses include important ethical themes heretofore missing from most disproportional narratives (Patton, 1998, p. 27).

In addition to the knowledge that children bring to school derived from their cultural experiences (Villegas and Lucas, 2002, p. 25), much of what they learn about diversity is taught, or at least reinforced, in formal educational settings. According to Villegas and Lucas, students are more apt to engage in the learning process when instructional topics have relevance to their lives. When subject matter is not taught in this relevant way, the information seems to have little or no bearing on the world beyond the school walls, and students may not find any value in academic knowledge and therefore become resistant to learning. This is especially problematic for African American students with disabilities. Students who are members of historically oppressed groups may find it difficult to understand the social and economic rewards of education. This is because these students have seen little evidence of people who are similar to them and for whom school has served as a path to a better life (ibid. p. 27).

Writers and educators play an important role in filling in the holes that the current education system has created. There is now a significant need for writers to speak out about the social injustices that they observe and that African Americans with disabilities face. African American writers should no longer fear discrimination as a result of proclaiming their culture and addressing the issues that significantly affect their community. It is only through their courage and perseverance in writing about these issues that the oppressed will be uplifted and the silenced will be given a voice. Additionally educators must seek out these texts to supplement the perspectives currently represented in their curriculum and expose their students and colleagues to these works.

Exposure to literature about African Americans with disabilities may give these people access to the rich texture of the lives, hopes, aspirations, dreams, disappointments, pains, and joys of people with whom they share similar characteristics. Using literature to initiate meaningful discussions about disability in their community may improve the identity formation process for African American students with disabilities. This may also help young African Americans with disabilities to have a more positive self-identity as they reach adulthood, in addition to giving non-minority students a broader frame of reference to think through new ideas and to better understand the world.

Analyzing literature is an effective method to enhance the development of critical thinking, analytical and writing skills, as well as to address equity issues. Distinguishing between what is exposed as the "truth" and what is accurate about people with disabilities could change the way in which society thinks about individuals with disabilities from being considered insignificant to the educational process and other facets of society, to being regarded as a worthy diversity issue that should be included (Villegas and Lucas, 2002, p. 30). Although conceptualizing ways to combat discrimination is helpful, it is even more important to find ways to change these concepts into practical applications and then to implement them. It is the responsibility of each member of society to become more culturally conscious by taking the initiative to learn about and accept others who have differences.

As we learn to value and honor all life, instead of imposing judgments on the quality of life of others, we will reach a place in society where we will no longer need to justify our existence. When we allow and encourage people to live authentic lives in which they can have a multidimensional and fully developed identities, our history and society will be greatly enriched.


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Banks, Jacqueline. 1993. Project Wheels. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Cason, W. Christopher. 2000. Even Ground. Lincoln, NE: Writers Club Press.

Cohen, Cathy. 1999. The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Conover, K. Scott. 1998. Can I Play, Too? Ypsilanti, MI: Proctor Publications.

Cooper, Melrose. 1996. Life Magic. New York: Henry Holt & Company.

Credaro, Amanda. 2001. The instructional use of children's literature. Retrieved October 7, 2002, from www.geocities.com/athens/styx/7534/UNIVERSITY/Tiship/kid_lit_use.html

Day-Vines, Norma. 2000. Ethics, power, and privilege: Salient issues in the development of multicultural competencies for teachers serving African American children with disabilities. Teacher Education and Special Education 23:3-18.

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Marks, Deborah. 1999. Disability: Controversial Debates and Psychosocial Perspectives. London: Routledge.

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Mathis, Sharon. 1990. Listen For the Fig Tree. New York: Puffin Books.

Patton, James. 1998. The disproportionate representation of African Americans in special education: Looking behind the curtain for understanding and solutions. Journal of Special Education 32:25-31.

Pirofski, Kira. 2002. Multicultural literature and the children's literary canon. Retrieved October 21, 2002, from www.edchange.org/multicultural/papers/literature.html

Pirofski, Kira. 2001. Race, gender, and disability in today's children's literature. Retrieved October 7, 2002, from www.edchange.org/multicultural/papers/literature2.html

Saunders, Kathy. 2000. Happy Ever Afters: A Storybook Guide to Teaching Children About Disability. Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books Limited.

Villegas, Ana Maria and Tamara Lucas. 2002. Preparing culturally responsive teachers: Rethinking the curriculum. Journal of Teacher Education 53:20-32.

Watkins, William. 2001. The White Architects of Black Education: Ideology and Power in America, 1865-1954. New York: Teachers College Press.

Biographical note:

Kapria Daniels is a graduate student who is currently enrolled at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the Disability and Human Development program and is also enrolled at National-Louis University in the Masters of Arts in Teaching program through the Academy for Urban School Leadership.

Copyright (c) 2004 Kapria Daniels

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