Understanding the social model of disability in picture books

Understanding the social model of disability in picture books

Picture books haven’t always shown many representations of disability, but this is gradually improving, which is certainly a good thing. After all, nearly 3 in 20 people worldwide are disabled in some way. However, while it’s important to us that books represent disability, we want them to do so in a positive way. We select books that use the social model of disability, which is important in how people understand and think about disability.

The social model of disability was developed by disabled people and explains how people are not disabled by their impairment or difference but by various elements of society. These include the environment (physical barriers like a lack of ramps), attitude (the perception people have of disabled people), and organisational structures (lack of flexible working, rigid school systems, etc.). These barriers can make life harder and inaccessible for disabled people, while removing them would allow for inclusivity and equality.

The other model of disability is the medical model. In contrast to the social model of disability, the medical model focuses on what’s “wrong” with the person (their disability) and how that can be “fixed” instead of how that person can be included. You might notice this model in books or films if someone complains about being restricted by their disability, such as a wheelchair, while the social model would show how the wheelchair is a tool that allows them to be included.

Of course, there are tools that disabled people use that allow for greater access, such as prosthetics, wheelchairs, and hearing aids, and those shouldn’t be disregarded in any way, but it’s still more important to note how the environment could be adapted to make life easier for everyone.

There’s also the issue of attitude towards disabled people. People’s perceptions of disabled people can sometimes be exceptionally low, where it’s assumed they are unable to do anything for themselves, or exceptionally high, such as proving what they can do or being Paralympians. Consider how a story about a disabled person makes you feel – if it’s exceptionally inspirational or making you feel pity for the person, it could be perpetuating these stereotypes.

 So how do we talk about the social model of disability with children? The important aspect is in how we frame our questions and statements, even when disability is not involved. For instance, it’s not just because someone is short that they can’t get something of the top shelf – it’s because there isn’t a stepladder or stool to allow them to reach. Focus more on how the environment isn’t accessible to that person and what would need to be changed to allow them to be included and able to do what they need to do.

What about picture books that aren’t about disability or show disabled characters? In this case, we can look at the illustrations in picture books to see if they show an accessible environment. It’s important to remember that while the story might not feature a disabled person, disabled people will read the story, and seeing an accessible environment can make them feel included.  

One of our recent book selections does this brilliantly. Valentine’s Guest House by Sam Sharland is all about how different animals show up at a guest house and the hosts realise they need to make some adaptations to make their new visitors feel at home. Larger doors are constructed, an elevator-like system put in, and rooms re-designed to suit each type of animal. While the book isn’t about disability, it very much employs the social model of disability in that it focuses on making the environment more accessible to everyone. Even the sentences in the story are worded in a way to promote this thinking.

So the next time you’re reading a book and there’s a character who is unable to access something because of a difference or disability, remember that it’s the environment that needs to be “fixed” – because the person is exactly how they’re supposed to be.   

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