We asked Dr John Quicke, author of Disability in Modern Children’s Fiction, to look at in-print information books on children with special needs and to comment on them in the light of current educational policy.
The National Curriculum Council’s guidelines for special educational needs – A Curriculum for All – contain few surprises. They reflect the trend in recent years towards ensuring that all pupils have access to a common entitlement, whatever their difficulties or disabilities. Legally the National Curriculum can be modified or lifted for individual pupils or groups, but the Council hopes that such exceptional arrangements can be kept to a minimum. The aim is to build on the principles of the Warnock Report and Education Act 1981 and to encourage more pupils with special educational needs to become fully integrated in the mainstream.
The National Curriculum should help in this respect by providing continuity from class to class and school to school, a curricular language which all pupils, teachers and parents can share and a common framework for recording individual progress. However, whether it can be implemented in such a way as to meet the needs of all pupils and especially those with learning difficulties and disabilities, only time will tell. A Curriculum for All spells out some of these needs. Above all what is required is a learning environment characterized by a climate of warmth and support where all pupils feel valued. To achieve this it’s not only teachers who need to become more empathetic. Pupils, too, must become more sensitive to their peers, including those with special educational needs. There’s no doubt that, apart from teacher attitudes, the key to successful integration is the attitude of peers. If peer attitudes are positive, then integration can work even in an environment which is relatively unfavourable resource-wise.
It’s in the light of these considerations that the books which are the subject of this review will be discussed. The main aim of most of them is to convey factual information about a disability or difficulty in a real life context. Some handicaps are clearly more difficult to teach about than others. Blindness and deafness, for example, are probably easier than mental handicap, eczema and asthma. The fact that there are proportionally more factual and fictional books published each year on the former than the latter is a pity but probably to be expected. At least three publishers – Bodley Head, Dinosaur and Hamish Hamilton – are to be commended for including stories about children with eczema – one of the most stigmatising conditions – in their collections (Anna, I have Eczema and Rob has Eczema).
Some currently available books are clearly intended for infant or pre-school children. We do not know enough about young children’s conceptions of disability to predict how individuals might respond to Nigel Snell’s cartoon characters (Rob has Eczema, Ann visits the Speech Therapist and Peter gets a Hearing Aid). Experience tells us that as long as the material is in an appealing form, it doesn’t matter too much about the amount of information they impart. To adult eyes they may seem flippant and superficial but, cherished and read repeatedly by an understanding adult and with sympathetic adult commentary, they could well make a positive impact in the formative years. The same is true of the Althea books (I have a Mental Handicap, I have Eczema, I have Epilepsy) which are for somewhat older children than their format might suggest. Other useful books for the primary classroom are Our Riding Centre by Sue Corbett and My Special Playgroup by Pamela Dowling, which focus on particular activities rather than individuals.
However, even for younger ages we have to consider carefully our criteria for choosing and using books. Detailed information about the disability itself may not be necessary, but the impression conveyed about how children with disabilities are perceived and how they should be treated by others is an important matter. Sometimes authors unwittingly reinforce notions about such children which may impede rather than enhance their acceptance in the mainstream school. One has doubts for example about the way asthma is handled in Wheezy by Michael Charlton. We see William going to special asthma swimming classes on Saturdays, but in real life such segregated activities are not typical and not usually necessary for asthmatic children. In Palle Peterson’s Sally Can’t See no explanation is given as to why she has to go to a special residential school for the blind. Most of the activities she engages in could just as easily be carried out with appropriate arrangements in the ordinary school – swimming, athletics, cleaning out the budgie, riding, etc. And the specialist activities – feeling shapes of lions, numbers and countries – seem to be at too low an educational level for her. First published in 1975 and still in print, this book is now out of step with current thinking. Probably the most problematical book, however, is Pam Adams’ Who Cares about Disabled People?. This not only portrays a whole range of `handicaps’ but takes on board alcohol and drug abuse and the evils of smoking and junk food all in the first ten pages, with one short line of text devoted to each problem! Some form of stereotyping is probably unavoidable when the message is simplified for young children, but it’s unfortunate that, yet again, mental handicap is portrayed as messy eating. This is in marked contrast to the sensitivity with which this particular form of disability ‘is handled in Althea’s I have a Mental Handicap.
Those books which are more story-like, e.g. The Trouble with Josh by Carolyn Nystrom, make for a more exciting read, but there’s a danger of them falling between two stools. In trying to impart information and tell a story they do neither very well. In a story one of the main aims presumably is to show that disabled children have their loves and laughs and differ from other children only in so far as all individuals differ to some extent. The presentation of facts must surely be subsumed under this main aim and as far as possible must be integrated into the story in such a way that it’s not interruptive of plot development. Whole pages devoted to explaining away a disability can be a turn off for a young child who wants to get on with the story if story is what he or she has been led to expect.
For older children, Franklin Watts have published two wide-ranging series – `One World’ and `Living With’. The former are all written by Brenda Pettenuzzo and cover not only Blindness and Deafness but also Asthma, Epilepsy, Diabetes, Cerebral Palsy, Cystic Fibrosis, Down’s Syndrome, Muscular Dystrophy and Spina Bifida. Each book focuses on the actual life and experiences of a particular young person – for instance, I have Cerebral Palsy is about Maria Hill who lives in East London. The texts include a great deal of useful information but fail to tell us much about each child’s personality. The publishers claim that the individuals `tell the story in their own words’ but though each page starts with a token sentence in the first person, the text then lapses into conventional third person descriptive narrative which lacks a feeling of genuine individuality. Each book uses specially commissioned colour photographs and has an appendix listing more detailed `facts’ about the disability and giving information about relevant organisations. This series answers many of the questions that children ask about disability and, with its focus on `real’ people, it might appeal particularly to those who themselves have a disability or who have a disabled sibling or relative.
Such children may also be reassured by the directly factual approach of the recently published `Living With’ series – aimed more at the secondary age group. Titles here include Blindness, Deafness, Diabetes, Heart Disease, Allergies, Physical Handicap and Arthritis. Each consists of thirty pages packed with information mostly about the physical and medical aspects of the disability and illustrated with coloured diagrams and photographs. If enthused by this series the child would learn a great deal about the workings of the human body in addition to the disability focused upon. It’s worth noting that this content could readily be related to the National Curriculum attainment targets in Science and the cross curricular theme of Health Education. On the other hand excessive use of medical jargon may be off-putting even to children who were interested in the topic. For example, half a page of text on page 4 of Arthritis contains words like bacterial, auto-immune, rheumatoid, ankylosing, spondylitis and osteoarthritis; the other half is a drawing of a skeleton with a further eighteen technical terms attached, e.g. mandible, humerus, ulna, radius, clavicle, scapula, etc. Also, such a medically oriented approach doesn’t seem compatible with the explicit aim of the series which is to `look at contemporary issues regarding health and disability and society’s changing attitudes towards them’. Knowing the facts does not in itself necessarily lead to greater understanding and a more positive attitude. These books should perhaps be read in conjunction with the `One World’ series.
We should not underestimate the difficulty of teaching about disability in a way which is not counterproductive. Practice in this area is particularly prone to the `sentimental’ approach which reinforces pupils’ stereotypes rather than weakens them and encourages patronizing attitudes whilst undermining attempts to foster compassion and critical understanding.
In general, it would seem more appropriate for the emphasis always to be on human relationships rather than on technical information about disability. Even in books for young children, the disabled character should be portrayed as having interests and experiences (in addition to those specifically associated with his or her disability) with which a `normal’ child can identify.
Dr John Quicke is an educational psychologist and senior lecturer in education at the Division of Education, Sheffield University. He recently published the results of a two-year curriculum project exploring different approaches to teaching about mental handicap in three comprehensive schools: Challenging Prejudice through Education: the story of a mental handicap awareness project, Falmer Press, 1990, 185000 692 X, £20.00; 185111 693 8, £9.95 pbk.
Details of books mentioned
Anna, Margaret Wadhams, Bodley Head, 1986, 0 370 30612 0, £5.95
I have Eczema, Althea, Dinosaur, 1988, 0 85122 712 0, £1.75 pbk
Rob has Eczema, Nigel Snell, Hamish Hamilton, 1989, 0 241 12503 0, £4.50
Ann visits the Speech Therapist, Nigel Snell, Hamish Hamilton, 1983, 0 241 11029 7, £3.50
Peter gets a Hearing Aid, Nigel Snell, Hamish Hamilton, 1979, 0 241 89918 4, £3.50; 0 241 11190 0, 85p pbk
I have a Mental Handicap, Althea, Dinosaur, 1987, 0 85122 685 X, £1.75 pbk
I have Epilepsy, Althea, Dinosaur, 1987, 0 85122 672 8, £1.75 pbk
Our Riding Centre, Sue Corbett, Hamish Hamilton, 1988, 0 241 12442 5, £4.95
My Special Playgroup, Pamela Dowling, Hamish Hamilton, 1985, 0 241 11645 7, £4.95
Wheezy, Michael Charlton, Bodley Head, 1986, 0 370 31150 7, £5.95
Sally Can’t See, Palle Peterson, A & C Black, 1975, 0 7136 1661 X, £4.95
Who Cares about Disabled People? Pam Adams, Childs Play, 1989, 0 85953 3611, £2.95
The Trouble with Josh, Carolyn Nystrom, Lion, 1989, 0 7459 1313 X, £4.95
I am Blind, 1988, 0 86313 698 2
I am Deaf, 1987, 0 86313 5714
I have Asthma, 1988, 0 86313 745 8
I have Cerebral Palsy, 1988, 0 86313 699 0
I have Cystic Fibrosis, 1988, 0 86313 746 6
I have Diabetes, 1987, 0 86313 5617
I have Down’s Syndrome, 1987, 0 86313 572 2
I have Epilepsy, 1989, 0 86313 870 5
I have Muscular Dystrophy, 1987, 0 86313 8713
I have Spina Bifida, 1987, 0 86313 562 5
Brenda Pettenuzzo, Franklin Watts `One World’ series, £5.95 each
Living with Allergies, Dr T White, 1990, 0 7496 0098 5
Living with Arthritis, John Shenkman, 1990, 0 7496 0100 0
Living with Blindness, Steve Parker, 1989, 0 7496 0043 8
Living with Deafness, Barbara Taylor, 1989, 0 7496 0042 X
Living with Diabetes, Barbara Taylor, 1989, 0 7496 0044 6
Living with Heart Disease, Steve Parker, 1989, 0 7496 0045 4
Living with Physical Handicap, John Shenkman, 1990, 0 7496 01019 Franklin Watts, £6.95 each