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Portrayal of disabilities in Caldecott books inaccurate, say BYU researchers

The portrayal of disabilities in children's picture books awarded the celebrated Caldecott Medal is largely inaccurate, according to research by two Brigham Young University professors of special education.

Tina T. Dyches and Mary Anne Prater say that characters with disabilities in the oft-read books can give children an inaccurate view of what it's like to have a disability, reinforce negative stereotypes and underrepresent more prevalent disabilities.

Approximately 12 percent of students in public schools have disabilities, which include learning, speech or language impairments, mental retardation or emotional disturbances, among others.

"We don't see a similar representation among characters in these books," said Dyches. "Usually the disabilities that are depicted are readily apparent, like blindness, instead of more common disabilities such as a learning disability or language impairment.

In their paper, Dyches and Prater include helpful tips for teachers and questions they can ask students after reading a Caldecott book that features a character with a disability. The questions are designed to spark constructive discussions about disabilities and clear up any misrepresentation put forth in the book.

"We realize that many of the books are based on fairy tales or are fanciful in nature. However, in three cases, the disability is magically cured at the book's end, which, of course, doesn't happen in real life," said Dyches. "A discussion at the end of the book can help children understand how the book deviates from reality."

Spencer J. Salend, a professor of educational studies at the State University of New York, New Paltz, said that children's literature is an excellent way to teach about individuals with disabilities.

"Drs. Dyches and Prater make it easier for [teachers] to use children's literature by assisting [them] in identifying appropriate books and using them to foster understanding and sensitivity and counter negative stereotypes and misconceptions about individuals with disabilities," said Salend, author of the textbook Creating Inclusive Classrooms. "The valuable information and teaching tips presented in [their research] make it a 'must read' for all teachers striving to create inclusive classrooms in today's diverse schools."

For their study, published in the most recent issue of the online journal Teaching Exceptional Children Plus, Dyches and Prater examined all of the Caldecott books published from 1937 to the present and identified the 11 books that feature major or supporting characters with disabilities. Some of the disabilities portrayed in Caldecott books over the years include blindness, paralysis, limb loss, dwarfism and intellectual disabilities.

Established in 1937, the Randolph J. Caldecott Medal is given to the artist who has created the most distinguished American picture book of the year. Caldecott books enjoy increased sales, influence and longevity.

"The Caldecott winners are, by and large, wonderful books that students, parents and teachers rightly cherish," said Prater. "We are merely saying that this is an issue that requires some attention."

Previous studies have analyzed Caldecott books for representation of gender, ethnicity, class and aging. Dyches and Prater believe that bringing to light the fact that few Caldecott books accurately portray the realities of living with a disability might bring about some change.

"I think this happens because authors aren't thinking about the issue," said Dyches. "Someday soon we hope to see high-quality picture books that include characters with disabilities as an everyday illustration of the human experience – not just an informative look at a person with a disability, but an embrace of such a character like any other character would be embraced."

That's not to say that there aren't any good children's books with characters with disabilities, said Prater.

"We review a lot of children's literature, and although many of the books include characters with disabilities, they don't tend to be as high-quality as those awarded the Caldecott Medal," said Prater. "We want to see both – quality and accuracy."

In 2003, the Deseret Morning News reported that Tina Dyches was co-author of a study that found that children who have a brother or sister with a developmental disability tend to be more cooperative and socially adept. Last year, Dyches led a team of researchers that gained insight into children with developmental disabilities by encouraging them to take pictures of things that are important to them.

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