When I was younger, I always hoped that one day I’d read a book about someone just like me.
I did find characters who were pretty similar to me – the brunette teenage girls who loved reading and writing – but there was always one important trait that I could never find in any protagonist of all the books I read when I grew up.
I could never find a book with a main character who had my disability.
OK – so what? So I never read a book about someone who I could relate to on that level. Does that really matter? Well, it did to me.
Exposure to differences, to diversity, is where our best education happens. Books aimed at teenagers growing up – the young adult (YA) genre – are revolutionary because they can offer voices and viewpoints that can challenge ignorance, that can give comfort, and that can make the world a more inclusive place for all those who feel sidelined by society, and especially those who are growing up different. They can teach, and do so much, as well as having entertaining and wonderful stories to boot.
But there was never something out there that could show me that I wasn’t alone, to teach me that my disability wasn’t something to be ashamed of, even though I stuck out like a sore thumb in the very small English countryside community where I grew into my early teens.
But more than that, it meant that nor were there any characters that my peers could read about, where they could learn that my disability wasn’t something to be scared of, either. Which lead to some very awkward questions, and I felt quite isolated as a result.
Having just one main character who was like me in a book that I read growing up would have made a huge difference; it would have shown me that other people out there understood and could show me the way, instead of which I had to figure out most things on my own. And even if I have figured out that my disability is fine now, I’m proud of myself, now, that is why I am still going on about this – why this still needs saying over and over again.
Things have undoubtedly changed in recent years, and I’m very proud of that fact. There are a lot more books around to provide comfort to many disabled children who won’t have to crave representation of people just like them as I did. But are there enough of those books? No.
One day I’d love there to be so many disabled protagonists that every disabled person can find comfort in being able to read about someone who is just like them.
One day I’d like more disabled characters who are upfront about the discrimination they face, so that people understand that ableism is a big issue in today’s society, and I’m not constantly told that I’m overreacting when I voice my opinions on it.
One day I’d like to read a disabled character who has my disability (quadriplegia, cerebral palsy) so I can finally find that voice that I’ve been looking for since I was 12.
While I wish it was a more popular genre when I was growing up, it’s amazing to see how YA is now growing into a genre that is happy to challenge perceptions, and allow so many diverse characters into the world and the hands of teenagers that need to hear those voices.
Of course there are still ways that I’d like to see representations of disability improve, but even though there’s still a long way to go, we do now have voices out there, actual representation that can be a comfort and make a difference.
Thank you to those authors who chose to make these characters a reality, and I hope to join you with my own disabled characters one day. Let’s be that difference, and maybe one day everyone can have a voice that they will treasure forever, because it’s just like theirs. – Guardian News & Media