Book Events · Panel Notes

What’s the story? Listening to Deaf and Disabled Children.

Please note these are the notes I took during the panel, all of these are my jottings down and are not direct quotes from any panel member

Hosted by Alexandra Strick, Booktrust Consultant – organisation’s ongoing consultant on all aspects of disability and inclusion

Julia Donaldson – Author
Rebecca Atkinson – Writer
Ros Asquith – Illustrator
Lauren Metcalfe – Action Deafness Books
Aminder Virdee – runs sessions in school around disability equality, London Ambassador for the Trailblazers network at the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign
Joyce Dunbar – author of over 80 books (now a severe/profoundly deaf lipreader)

Signed Stories, National Deaf Children’s Society, Life and Dead, Sense, Sign Health, Action on Hearing Loss and Deaf Kidz International are all supporters.

Every children’s laureate expected to have special interests, hers are performance, libraries and deafness. Already felt informed and had views on first two but on deafness felt it was going to be a journey of discovery.

Started off by doing a lot of thinking, remembers saying she wanted there to be more books for deaf children – son said but deaf children can read any book, reading is not dependent on hearing. But actually the preschool sharing stories is so important and is listening based. So not as simple as that. Found there are a number of websites with signed stories ( Does feel these websites could benefit from linking with each other.

Went to Edinburgh Festival, saw a signer on stage and chatted with her. Edinburgh Book Festival now has consultation to ask which sessions should be signed, she’s going to talk to other events now e.g. Bath Festival to see if this can be adopted as a way of working.

Exhibition at Seven Stories included screens with signing, from some words to whole stories. Hearing children entirely fascinated by the signs.

Next year on World Book Day hopes for theme of children acting out stories and that one strand of this will be signed stories.

Feels there is a danger of just sitting deaf children in front of a screen to watch signing so is keen that there are picture books suitable and appealing for deaf children so that they can still have that experience of sitting on the adult’s knee and enjoying the sharing of the book.

Important to realise there is such a wide spectrum of deafness, there is no typical deaf child. When a child is in a signing household there isn’t so much of an issue of communication but resources may not be there, deaf parents who were taught in a different time may have different attitudes to reading or poor reading skills themselves. Majority of deaf children born into hearing family so they have a huge amount to learn about all forms of communicating including how to enjoy books with their children.

Constantly being approached by families asking what are appropriate resources for their children, so important to have deaf characters so children feel there is someone like them. With older children important to think about we move from picture books so visual aids are removed, need to continue to have picture books that are suitable for older children.

Most deaf children are born with same potential as hearing children but when you look at deaf adults average reading age is 8 so we’re letting these children down. Much of what we pick up is incidental, a lot of this is missed by deaf children

Two key areas 1 – representation of deaf and disabled children in books, 2 – how deaf children are accessing books. Not just important for deaf children to see deaf characters but for hearing children to see good and positive representations of deaf people. She has been teaching her hearing children how to communicate with her using Julia’s book Freddie and the Fairy. Some deaf children grow up thinking they will be hearing as adults ‘cos they don’t know any deaf adults. Feels screens means there’s the potential for a leveller to improve access to children so there’s a balance to be found. Maybe the option for eBooks with a little signer in the corner?

Alexandra: Looking at representation and positive images, Joyce how important is sign access to books? How can more publishers be supported?

Very difficult, bottom line for publishers is commercial. Disability is not commercial, produced a book in 1986 (Moonbird) took 6 years for this to be picked up by a publisher, still hasn’t earned back its advance. Feels deaf people not just unable to hear but unable to be heard. Feels deaf people continue to be invisible.

Alexandra: Do you find there are a lot of books featuring deaf or disabled characters?

Very rare, usually comes from a concerted effort from a group of individuals. Elizabeth Laird’s idea gave Joyce and Rebecca the opportunity to tell a story together. Feels every minority group has made a lot of progress but there is still so far to go.

Alexandra: When you do highlight the books you then have to consider how the books match the scope of individuals, there aren’t anywhere near enough books to come close to representing the range of experience. Feels she often talks about deaf and disabled children and forgets that these grow into deaf and disabled adults and that these people are probably even less represented.

So important for these to be represented, included children’s fiction showing disabled adults – children may have disabled parents or grandparents. Wouldn’t it be great to see a deaf superhero?!

Also about those incidental characters, books about teaching others about deafness etc, but so great to see a character who just happens to be deaf rather than aiming to explicitly educate. Need things to be more incidental.

Alexandra: Ros, I know this is something you have interest in with interest in diversity.

Not deaf herself but one of earliest jobs was working with adults with severe learning disabilities, horrified by how badly they were treated, introduced by mental age e.g. this is Pam she has a mental age of 2. Gave her early interest in all these areas, when she asked the adults what they most wanted their response was that they wanted to eat off proper plates, they were all given paper plates. Tries hard to subvert expectations.

Now including far more disabled children, sometimes this is in the foreground, sometimes in the background. Focus is on the child not the disability. Should not be about being worthy, or PC. Need to be able to be light-hearted or have a laugh. (Max’s Dream Day picture – inhaler on bedside table, wears glasses, I didn’t even notice!)

Alexandra: Becoming increasingly aware of challenge of getting these changes in publishing, can’t expect individuals to be experts in every area of disability. Books worth noting:

• The Raging Quiet by Sherryl Jordan
• Twinkle Twinkle little Star (Sign & Singalong) by Annie Kubler
• Freddie and the Fairy by Julia Donaldson – excellent messages about communication particularly with deaf people
• Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick told half by prose, half by pictures, pictures do not match words they actually tell story – style previously used by author, not developed especially for deaf children
• Read My Lips
• The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean
• Goat Goes To Playgroup by Julia Donaldson and Nick Sharratt
• Moonbird by Joyce Dunbar and Jane Ray
• Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin
• Best Friends by Mark Jacobs
• It’s Okay to be Different by Todd Par

Julia: deaf children were thrilled to see Monkey wearing a hearing aid in Goat Goes To Playgroup.

Alexandra: discussion with Aminder was hugely valuable, she and her brother both very strongly involved in working with changing attitudes from a young age.

Positive portrayal is a big drive personally, she and her brother were put in front of assembly at school and it was pointed out that they were disabled, because of this they spent a lot of time isolated, children scared of hurting them. Recently got passionate about seeing positive representations in books, as a child she never saw this, always negative stereotypes e.g. Long John Silver with wooden leg and eye patch, Hunchback of Notre Dame – Disney changed the story so that Quasimodo did not get the girl. Working in many schools teaching about disability awareness and how important it is from an early age, needs to be integrated in stories but not the sole focus.

Alexandra: Important for us all to be working on this, not just changing publishers changing everyone. – Booktrust web resource on books and disability.

‘What’s The Story?’ resource coming at the end of May.

Other useful resources:
Letterbox Library
Healthy Books
In The Picture

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