Disabled Characters in YA Literature

Writer Carly Okyle was born with cerebral palsy—a movement disorder—in 1985. She writes of how growing up, she wasn't exposed to disabled characters in books and television and how the media landscape has changed over time, with disability hitting the mainstream, including some worthy book titles.

Writer Carly Okyle was born with cerebral palsy.

When I was born with cerebral palsy—a movement disorder—in 1985, my parents didn’t know much about it. My mom told me that the only time she’d heard the phrase “cerebral palsy” was during a fundraising telethon, and all she could picture was paralyzed children in wheelchairs with twisted limbs, unable to speak. Due to early-intervention therapy, an operation, and some luck, I turned out to be a far cry from my mom’s mental pictures. I can walk—and dance and go bowling—and I’m able to speak on my own. (It’s getting me to stop talking that’s tricky.) As a child of the late 80s and 90s, I didn’t see people with disabilities reflected in the media. The main character Corky on the ABC series “Life Goes On” (1989-1993) was groundbreaking, but the show stood alone. If I ever saw a disabled character on television, it was typically for one episode, as a sort of heavy-handed PSA about how disabled people are pretty cool, and how we're people, too. Similarly, as a child, there weren’t many books for me to read that featured disabled characters. Sure, there were biographies about Helen Keller, and I loved the “Little House on the Prairie” television series, although Mary Ingall’s blindness didn’t occur until late in the series—but I don’t remember having option to read fiction about disabled kids having adventures. Times have progressed, though. Shows like ABC's “Switched at Birth," FOX's “Glee,” AMC's extremely popular but discontinued series “Breaking Bad,” and NBC's “Parenthood,” all prominently feature characters with a range of disabilities. More importantly, those characters are more than their difficulties. They’re fleshed out—they fight with friends, fall in love, have trouble in school, and enjoy a night out. They’re not shoehorned into the television program as a teaching aid. And now, with the American Library Association's Schneider Family Book Award recognizing books featuring disabled protagonists, there at least exists the official nod within the library world toward recognizing the disabled community in literature. It's a start. Reading and carrying literature in libraries that do disabled characters "right" is something librarians can initiate as part of their own nod toward recognizing the disabled community. Here are a four titles that do disabled characters right:
AlCaponeDoesMyShirts_PenguinAl Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko (Penguin, 2004) – I read this book in college as part of a "Children’s Literature" course. The main character, Moose Flanagan, moves with his family to live on Alcatraz island, where his dad works as a guard at the prison. Moose tries to adjust to his new life while helping to take care of his older sister, Natalie, who has severe autism. The story takes place in 1935, when Autism Spectrum Disorder was not understood the way it is now. Moose and his frenemy Piper—the prison warden’s daughter—try to figure out a way to get Natalie the education she needs. What struck me about this book is that it shows how the people around the person with the disability are affected. Siblings and parents should be able to air their frustrations, and this book shows that point of view well—the love and the confusion, the protectiveness, and the anger. FreaktheMighty_ScholasticFreak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick (Scholastic, 1993) – Truth be told, my first introduction to this book was through a movie based on the novel called The Mighty. The film has star power (Meat Loaf, James Gandolfini, and Sharon Stone, for starters), but the book carries weight, too. Max, the narrator, is a teenager with a learning disability. He befriends Kevin, a boy in his grade whose disability affects his body instead of his brain. Their friendship is an example of total acceptance and can teach kids with disabilities to focus on their strengths instead of letting their weaknesses define them. The duo gets the best of the neighborhood bully and catches a criminal, proving that disabled does not equal helpless. HurtGoHappy_StarscapeHurt Go Happy by Ginny Rorby (Starscape, 2006) – In this book we meet Joey Willis, a teenager who has been deaf since she was six. Joey tries to get by through lip reading, but the only person she can talk with easily and comfortably is her mother, and Joey’s mom refuses to let her learn sign language. One day, Joey is looking for mushrooms in the woods behind her house when she meets Dr. Charles Mansell and his pet chimpanzee, Sukari, who communicates through sign language. The two inspire Joey to fight for her independence, and later, Joey must fight for Sukari’s freedom, too. I found the writing impressive, because it really drives home how isolated Joey feels. The book also touches on sensitive ideas—a hearing parent’s fear of losing her daughter to the world of deaf culture, old ingrained notions about stigma, and the idea of love transcending boundaries (even between species)—thoughtfully and fairly, from all sides. Disabilities are complicated, and this book doesn’t sugarcoat the gray areas. AMangoShapedSpace-LBA Mango Shaped Space by Wendy Mass (Little Brown, 2003) – Mia Winchill has synesthesia, meaning that she sees certain colors and shapes for different sounds, numbers, and words. This makes math and French classes difficult at school, but it also makes her a great artist. Mia is initially embarrassed of what makes her different—after an especially humiliating experience in third grade math class, she hadn't admitted seeing colors since. Eventually, though, she tells her parents the truth, and they learn that Mia is not alone. Mia begins to embrace her unique gifts, sometimes so much so that she forgets about schoolwork and friends. The book stands out, not only for the unique condition it covers, but also for the way it shows the challenging process of coming to accept yourself for all that you are.
Personally, I’m thrilled that people with disabilities have a bigger presence in media these days, both in books and on television. (Although, sociopolitical benefits aside, these books are just great, well-written narratives on their own.) Simply being exposed to differences—like deafness or Down Syndrome—through the media can dispel ignorance and fear from people who have never gotten to know anyone with these conditions. The media is a tool to change social attitudes and ease acceptance of the disabled community, and in my lifetime, I've felt and witnessed the change.
Carly Okyle is a freelance journalist who has written for FamilyCircle.com, YourTango.com, and Guideposts magazine. Her blog “The D Card” is candid look at living with disability issues.
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Tracy Bell

Great article! I appreciate your candid thoughts. I will share this with my colleagues!

Posted : May 09, 2014 04:58

Carolyn Sun

Thanks, Tracy. I appreciate the feedback.

Posted : May 14, 2014 01:00

Carly Okyle

Thanks for reading, Tracy! I'm glad you liked the article, and I hope your colleagues do, too. :o)

Posted : May 14, 2014 01:20

Debbie Graham

I would hesitate to put synesthesia on the same level as other physical conditions. Although it can be 'differentiating' just like being color blind (as is my son), it is hardly presents a similar degree of challenge. Dyslexia creates reading/writing difficulties. Synesthesia enhances abilities. Although it is great to learn to overcome this condition, quite frankly it is one of the few conditions people feel they would enjoy having! I realize that this was put on because of the 'self acceptance' message, but quite frankly, being heavy is a bigger burden.

Posted : May 09, 2014 01:22

Carolyn Sun

Debbie, I would agree-synesthesia is definitely not akin to dyslexia and other disabilities, and I would love to feel what it is like for a day or two. But, it is eye-opening to have a character in a book who has it, because many kids and adults don't even know what synesthesia is. And being different is so often the source of shame for many children and adults. But, I think you have a wonderfully valid point, and if you wish to suggest YA books you've read with heavy characters, please share here!

Posted : May 14, 2014 01:07

Carly Okyle

Hi Debbie. Thanks for reading and commenting. You definitely have a point in that synesthesia is not the same as other disabilities, because it seems to help more than it hinders. You're also right in that there is no shortage of conditions -- being heavy or dyslexic, for example -- that deserve to be reflected in books. In researching some titles for this piece, I found that there are quite a few titles that address dyslexia for young adults (this list is just the start: http://dyslexia.yale.edu/EDU_YPbooks.html). Even without the "disability angle," though, A Mango Shaped Space is a great read. I hope you get a chance to check it out.

Posted : May 14, 2014 01:41

Karen Morris

"Out of My Mind," by Sharon Draper, sprang immediately to mind! Melody, a smart girl with a disability, finally gets the technology which allows her to write and speak and , eventually be on the academic team of her school. She deals with incompetent or insensitive teachers and classmates throughout the book. Very compelling read.

Posted : May 09, 2014 01:02

Tracy Bell

I immediately thought of this powerful book by Sharon Draper as well.

Posted : May 09, 2014 04:50

Carolyn Sun

I am so happy there are more books with characters with disabilities. Thanks, Karen and Tracey.

Posted : May 14, 2014 12:59

Carly Okyle

Hi. Thanks for suggesting these books. I'm really looking forward to getting a chance to read them, and I'm excited that there are now many more books out with disabled characters. Keep the suggestions coming!

Posted : May 14, 2014 01:14


We'll be able to add Cammie McGovern's wonderful book, "Say What You Will," to the list comes out this summer.

Posted : May 09, 2014 12:36


Yes! I was going to say the same thing. It is just terrific.

Posted : May 09, 2014 12:49

Carolyn Sun

Erica and Dawn, Thank you for suggesting it. I will keep my eye out!

Posted : May 14, 2014 12:58


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