As regular readers of Rethinking Schools publications, we have benefited from many strategies for addressing the prejudices of racism, classism, and sexism. We wondered, however, about a parallel prejudice that rarely gets attention: ableism, or discrimination against people with physical, mental, or emotional disabilities. Using a set of 10 guiding questions we developed (Rethinking Schools 2009), we decided to explore ableist stereotypes in winners of the Caldecott Medal, which is awarded annually to “the most distinguished American picture book for children.” Caldecott winners are often endorsed by schools and libraries, and therefore purchased by many families. Unlike books intended for older audiences, picture books rely heavily on visual art to convey meaning. Children can read these picture books on their own; they don’t necessarily have meanings mediated by an adult. Books with the Caldecott seal may provide children with their first impressions of our diverse society. What hidden messages will they learn about disability?
1. Does the book promote ableism by ignoring people with disabilities?
Sometimes what is not present in a book is as important as what is included. For example, So You Want To Be President? makes no mention of disability in any of the U.S. presidents. After contracting polio at age 39, well before he became president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was never able to move or stand again without the assistance of a wheelchair, braces, or another person. Yet So You Want To Be President? fails to depict or acknowledge his disability.
2. Do the illustrations promote ableism by addressing disability in stereotyped ways?
Look at the hidden messages in images, even among the onlookers in the text. For example, in Peggy Rathmann’s Officer Buckle and Gloria, a young girl in the audience watches in a wheelchair, enjoying the hilarious safety duo as much as everyone else. She does not assume any major role, but is simply there, included without comment as any other child would be. Rathmann’s drawing normalizes disability and reinforces a sense of inclusivity rather than ostracism. Compare this illustration with one towards the end of Madeline’s Rescue that depicts the tiny figure of an elderly lady being pushed in a wheelchair with a neatly coiffed poodle on her lap. The illustration emphasizes dependence, for she is purely tangential, being vigorously pushed by a man in uniform, alone and disconnected in a bustling cityscape.