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People First: Disabilities in YA Lit

“You’re really pretty for someone in a wheel chair.”

As hard as it is for some to believe, YA novels are not all supernatural romance books about sparkly vampires or good vs evil, save-the-world-by-finding-the-chosen-one-and-watching-him/her/it uncover-special-powers-intended-to-overcome-the-forces-of-darkness novels. Okay, maybe lots of them fall into these categories, and, if we’re honest, we all have our favorites among them. However, many YA novels offer a deeper and more realistic look at life, self-discovery, and what it means to move toward adulthood as a part of a larger community. They help the reader see the world from a different perspective. One of these perspectives is that of a person with a disability.

I know there is controversy surrounding the correct terminology to use when discussing this topic, so let me start with this. I will be using person-first language (“person with disabilities” instead of “disabled person”) because we’re all people first. Also, while terms like “other-abled” or “differently-abled” may be apt and appropriate, I won’t be using them here.

YA literature is famous for tackling issues and not shying away from uncomfortable topics, which, for some, includes disabilities. So how has the world of YA literature presented the perspective of those with disabilities? The short answer is: in a variety of ways. Of course, we’re not just going with the short answer.

Many YA novels include characters who not only have disabilities, but thrive in spite of them or as a result of them. One of these books is The Running Dream (2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults, 2012 Schneider Family Book Award winner) by Wendelin van Draanen, in which track star Jessica loses her leg in a bus accident and must work through the trauma to recapture her life. More importantly, she must face up to and overcome her own discrimination against a classmate, Rosa, who has cerebral palsy. Rosa writes to Jessica as their friendship blooms, “I wish people would see me and not my condition.” I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but will say it’s only as a result of Jessica’s disability that she is able to truly see that every person has worth and deserves a place in the human community.

Not all disabilities are physical or obvious at a glance. In Francisco X. Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World (2010 Top Ten Books for Young Adults, 2010 Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults, 2010 Schneider Family Book Award winner), the reader meets a young man, Marcelo, who lives with a mental disability: a form of Asperger’s Syndrome. In this novel, Marcelo is forced into a summer job at his father’s law firm where he learns that he can function in the real world, away from his comfortable special education school. He meets people of varying ethics, falls in love, and discovers truths about his father he didn’t know before — in a nutshell, he grows up.

Some authors, like James Patterson in the Maximum Ride series, have been able to successfully include characters with disabilities into a sci-fi YA world. Iggy, who is not the main character, is blind and a part of the “flock” — a group of hybrid human-avian kids who have wings and can fly. He’s an integral part of the team with his love of explosions and bomb-making abilities. I don’t recall the other characters learning any lessons about ethics or community as a result of his blindness. He’s just their friend, and that’s the beauty of it.

I can’t cover this topic without including Five Flavors of Dumb (2013 Popular Paperbacks nominee) by Antony John. In this very smart and laugh-out-loud funny book, the main character, Piper, takes on the task of managing the school’s most popular rock band, Dumb. The catch: Piper is totally deaf. On top of the managing gig, she’s struggling with her parents’ decision to use her college fund to buy cochlear implants for her baby sister, who is hearing impaired, and to decipher the very obvious clues of a boy who has a crush on her. She’s just a regular (whatever that means) high school girl who is also deaf.

So how has the world of YA literature presented the perspective of those with disabilities? With humor, compassion, and a realism that reminds the reader these are people first who just happen to have a disability.

Concerning the opening quote: Kathryn Shelley, author of Prom Queen, shared with me that a stranger actually said this to her. By the way, Kathryn uses a wheel chair to get around just like her main character, Ophelia.

— Michelle Blank, currently reading Feed by M.T. Anderson and listening to Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

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Michelle Blank

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  1. Why! that is quite nice of you to say that, but I am not in a wheel chair yet. I’m planning on not taking that route, when I end up in one I will inform you. But for now I am walking, gardening and maintaining a high positive attatitude. So presently I will be writing some very informational reference on what, how, a person lives with chronic daily pain battling a disease such as Rheumatic illness. Not just Arthritis. You see, this is where the ignorance is from the public, when they hear that someone is sufering from Arthritis they all think they have the same condition and everyone swears about all their pains which is attributed to Arthritis/Arthritis. So you will be able to see the kind of information I will be projecting to the entire public.

    Guess what!, they just might learn something from me.

  2. Dee Dee Davis Dee Dee Davis

    It is nice to see more characters with disabilities. My own hearing loss is considered severe. I’ve had hearing aids since the age of four. Growing up, I never came across a deaf or hard of hearing character. My mother once gave me a book about a girl in a wheelchair and I hated it because it focused on the disability (or in this case a girl becoming disabled).

    I would love to see a disabled character but not focused on the disability, yet still brings to light all the limitations and “benefits” of a certain disability. Just for quick clarification, I can turn people “off” with a flip of a switch; it’s like the mute button on the TV. Talk about a sanity savior! On the lighter side of things, my life is a laugh track with the things I think people say. :-) I mean, sometimes I’m almost normal it’s scary.

  3. Michelle Blank Michelle Blank

    Dee Dee, thanks for your comment. I agree that books need to always focus on the characters, never on the disabilities. I love your comment about ‘turning people off’. I guess ‘other abled’ is in some ways true. I certainly can’t do that, though at times I wish I could:)

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