Social Justice and Disability – Evaluating Materials and Media with Characters with Disabilities

When we talk about social justice, one of the most often overlooked populations are people with disabilities. The 2014 Disability Status Report for the United States from Cornell University reported that, “In 2014, the overall percentage (prevalence rate) of people with a disability of all ages in the US was 12.6 percent.” The National Health Institute of Mental Health reported in 2015, “Fully 20 percent—1 in 5—of children ages 13-18 currently have and/or previously had a seriously debilitating mental disorder.” These percentages are not reflected in publishing trends.

Social Justice and Disability - Evaluating Materials and Media with Characters with Disabilities

Representation of any marginalized groups accurately and sympathetically can remove some of the prejudice surrounding them, so including books and media with these characters in our collections is essential. Everyone deserves to see their experiences reflected, as well as studies have shown that reading literary fiction improves empathy. People with disabilities experience some of the highest rates of discrimination and microaggressions. Intersect being disabled with also being a person of color, First/Native Nations, LGBTQ, and/or female and the transgressions can increase. Activist and Vlogger Annie Elainey discusses here in a video Why is Disability Representation So White? #DisabilityTooWhite the many issues that people are experiencing because of lack of representation. (Also, be sure to check out her sources.)

Accurate representation can be a tricky thing, especially if it is not a story or experience that is being written by a person with a similar disability. In January, Lee & Low Books reported results of a 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey about the social makeup of the publishing and book reviewing in North America. In the industry overall, 92% identified as nondisabled, so we can assess that a good portion of the writing, editing, and reviewing books with disabled characters are being done by nondisabled folks. Alaina Leary wrote a great piece for The Establishment titled Why The Publishing Industry Can’t Get Disability Right that is also a must read.

Readers, writers, and advocates of young adult literature should be paying attention to the site Disability in Kidlit.


The team of authors at Disability in Kidlit state that they are “dedicated to discussing the portrayal of disability in middle grade and young adult literature. We publish articles, reviews, interviews, and discussions examining this topic from various angles—and always from the disabled perspective.” They are a go-to for reviews and to learn about some of the more problematic representations in books. They have their “Honor Roll” of titles that they “enthusiastically recommend.” You can also follow them on Tumblr, Twitter, and Goodreads.

Tropes are one thing that popup up regularly in stories that have disabled characters. Tropes are literary devices that are “a shortcut for describing situations the storyteller can reasonably assume the audience will recognize.” (An example often seen in young adult fiction is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.) But as Kayla Whaley from Disability in Kidlit wrote, “tropes are some of the only representations of disability people see, which is very dangerous. After all, the media we consume greatly impacts how we view the world, so seeing these tropes only reinforces ableism and ignorance.”

When evaluating books with disabled characters watch out for these:

  • Characters used as “inspiration porn”: The website The Mighty describes inspiration porn as “a term used to describe society’s tendency to reduce people with disabilities to objects of inspiration.” This can be objectifying, and is often done so that the nondisabled have an emotional reaction, but still seeing disabled people as “other” and “less than.”
  • Along with inspiration porn is Disability-as-educational-tool. As s.e. Smith writes this is when “a disabled character is being used to educate other characters, give them some kind of motivation, or teach a Very Special Lesson to other characters and/or readers, that character is being abused.” Along with inspiration porn, it “reinforces the idea that this is the role of disabled people in society, to teach and educate the people around them, rather than to live as just another person navigating a sometimes complex and always diverse environment.” This can often come in the form of a disabled relative whose sole purpose of the story is for the main character to have a growth experience, or to serve as a foil to others characterization in how they treat them.
  • The Disabled Saint: as Kayla Whaley wrote for the Children’s Book Council: this is “the good little cripple, perfect in personality in spite of being wholly imperfect physically.” This creates a character that is often “innocent and pure and forever denied their humanity.”
  • Disabled Villian or Evil Cripple: TV Tropes writes that the disability  is often used symbolically “since a ‘crippled’ body can be used to represent a ‘crippled’ soul — and indeed, a disabled villain is usually put in contrast to a morally upright and physically ‘perfect’ hero.”
  • The Trope of Curing Disability: Marieke Nijkamp writes this is often “the characters are cured because they’re better than they were at the start of the book: kinder, gentler, braver. And finally, finally, they’re normal and whole.” Crystal Dennis on her blog Crystal Chats talks about how a major problem of this trope is that it says that “Disabilities are a problem that need to be fixed.”
  • The Damaged Disable Person: Kody Keplinger writes where “the disabled character is a brooding, broken character, scarred both physically and mentally.” This leads to a stereotype that disabled people can’t be happy or have complexity of emotions.

For vetted titles and problematic books reviewed, seek out the opinions at Disability in Kidlit. Also, the Schneider Family Book Award is another source for a select few titles as they award they “honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.”

–Danielle Jones, currently reading Rani Patel In Full Effect by Sonia Patel