Highlighting Stories of Characters with Varying Abilities

By guest blogger Meg Ackemann

Growing up, I was rarely exposed to stories featuring characters whose lives were very different from my own. I recall only a few stories that featured characters with exceptionalities. Those that did focused mostly on the exceptionality of the character and how they overcame obstacles in their lives, rather than their everyday joy and humanity. As a future educator, I have a responsibility to find and make available more inclusive stories including books featuring characters with exceptionalities so my students can become more knowledgeable, understanding, and equity-oriented citizens. This collection highlights stories of characters with varying abilities.

El Deafo by Cece Bell

This graphic novel is about a young girl who is coming to terms with being deaf and eventually embraces a positive outlook on life. As a child, Cece becomes sick with Meningitis causing her to lose her hearing ability. Afterward, she struggled to develop true friendships. She ultimately finds that she can use her hearing loss as a superpower rather than a disability. Cece becomes confident and stands up for herself. At the end of the story, she and her peers realize that she is more like them than different.

Growing up with hearing loss, there were no characters in books or in TV shows that I could relate to. In spring 2021, I participated in an El Deafo book club with a group of elementary students who live with hearing loss. The students related to Cece, and they admired the strong, kind, and funny main character. This story inspired these young children to be more confident as well. El Deafo highlights the hearing loss community and demonstrates how Cece, as well as other individuals with hearing loss, are really not much different than those who have full hearing.

Freddie and the Fairy by Julia Donaldson

This book is about a young boy named Freddie and his encounters with a fairy who is hard of hearing. The fairy promises to grant Freddie some wishes but is unable to fulfill those wishes because she has difficulty hearing what Freddie is asking. She would almost get the request right but would substitute key letters in words, such as hearing ‘cat’ instead of ‘bat’. Freddie’s frustration with the fairy increases throughout the story until a magical Queen Fairy appears and shares three rules that people must follow when speaking to others so they can be understood:

1. Do not mumble.

2.Do not turn your head away.

3. Do not cover your mouth.

These rules are helpful for young speakers and could be applied to any situation.

This book introduces young children to new ideas and offers concrete suggestions to have their voices heard and help them communicate more effectively with people with hearing loss.

As a child, I frequently did not hear things properly and tended to have experiences like those of the fairy. It was frustrating for me when I would ask my peers to repeat themselves and they would just yell what they had said again rather than enunciating so that I could understand. This book would have been a comfort to me and a guide for my friends.

Hello Goodbye Dog by Maria Gianferrari

This book is about Zara, a young girl who uses a wheelchair and has a service animal named Moose. Zara and Moose love to spend time together. But when Zara goes to school, Moose cannot handle being away from her, so he follows her. But dogs are not allowed at school and Moose gets sent home. Moose misses Zara so much that he makes his way to school again and again and is sent home each time. Although Zara is in a wheelchair and has a service animal, she is not defined by this exceptionality.

Tune it Out by Jamie Sumner

Lu, a young girl with a sensory processing disorder (SPD) lives with her mother in the back of a truck. Because of their nomadic life, Lu has missed almost a year of school. Lu’s mother is a waitress and Lu earns tips singing at open mic nights. When the police and social services discover how they are living, Lu is taken from her mother and forced to live with her aunt and uncle. She is enrolled in a new school and makes new friends. As she comes to terms with all the abrupt changes in her life, Lu learns how to accommodate her needs. Readers discover how Lu combats discomfort with loud sounds and physical touch. The author highlights Lu’s incredible ability to sing in such detail that you wish you could hear it yourself.

Right Now, I am Fine by Daniela Owen and written by Gülce Baycik

This book features a child coping with the anxiety of living through the COVID pandemic and all of the uncertainty they face. The author offers breathing techniques and alternative behaviors for children to avoid sitting with worry. It does not diminish the feelings a child may face, but reminds the child that the problems are often out of their control and they are okay in that exact moment. Readers are reminded that anxiety is a normal feeling but does not need to be a constant state of being.

I grew up as a very anxious person and I never knew how to deal with my anxieties. Being exposed to coping mechanisms and breathing strategies would have been very helpful.

Emmanuel’s Dream by Laurie Ann Thompson

Emmanuel’s Dream is a true story about a young boy in who was born in Ghana with a physical disability. He was unable to use one of his legs which left him unable to walk. With encouragement and assistance from his mother, he surprised everyone. At that time people did not have much respect or hope for people who were considered disabled, but Emmanuel persisted. He ended up breaking many stereotypes and becoming a role model for many people, including those with disabilities.

A Different Little Doggy by Heather Whittaker

This is a story about Taz, a dog with disabilities. As the story progresses, Taz points out how her friends are all different, but happy. The book ends on a positive note that emphasizes that although they are all different, they are still happy and accepting of others.

A Different Little Doggy by [Heather Whittaker, Scott Alberts]

Just Ask! by Sonia Sotomayor

This beautifully illustrated book begins with the author, Supreme Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor sharing about her own experiences with being diagnosed with Diabetes as a child. The affirming story celebrates the many abilities and differences we have as human beings and features children with asthma, physical disability, hearing and vision impairment, dyslexia, autism, stuttering, Tourette’s syndrome, ADHD, nut allergies, and Down syndrome.

Float by Pixar

This is a short film about a father and his son who has special abilities. Although the father is fascinated by how his son is able to float, he is also embarrassed and hides his son from the world. He keeps him hidden in their home and will only take him outside if he is physically held down by rocks. One day they go to a park and the son escapes from his rocks and starts floating around the park. The father freaks out and yells at the son “Why can’t you be normal?” In that moment the father realized he was wrong, and that he should love his son for exactly who he is and appreciate every part of him and his abilities.

Cababa, K. (Producer), & Rubio, B. (Director). (2019). Float. Pixar Animation Studios.

Meg Ackermann is studying to become a teacher at Furman University. She will graduate in 2022 and plans to pursue a Masters in Special Education.

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