How can children’s literature help kids understand the challenges of their classmates with disabilities?

Growing up in the 1950s, there were a lot of topics people just didn’t talk about. One such topic was disabilities. Often, we were told not to stare at individuals with differences because it was impolite. People just didn’t talk about being differently abled back then. Today, there are more open discussions, and there are some books on the market for school-aged children on a variety of topics involving disabilities. Why did it take so long?

Beverly Cleary is quoted as having said, “If you don’t see the book you want on the shelves, write it.” ( A celebrated author with many awards including a Newbery, Ms. Cleary grew up on a farm in a town that didn’t even have a library. Yet, she was determined to tell the stories she felt worthy of sharing. This 103 year old author’s books have sold over 91 million copies.

Toni Morrison once tweeted the following, ” “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” She won a Pulitzer prize for her book Beloved, and she and her now deceased son Slade wrote several children’s books. She is a recipient of the President’s Medal of Freedom along with many other honors. Having grown up in a steel town, her family didn’t even own a televison until she was grown. She knew she had stories that must be told.

Children need to see themselves in stories.

Also, these stories need to be told to help children in the mainstream understand the world of a child with special needs.

Here are some ways these stories in children’s literature can help both the child with the disability and his or her classmates:

  1. Show examples of specific disabilities for classmates to observe
  2. Show examples of specific disabilities so children with special needs feel represented
  3. Foster a better understanding of differences
  4. Open discussions after reading these stories to help classmates understand how they can communicate and interact optimally with a child with a disability
  5. Initiate discussions about bullying
  6. Help classmates become more sensitive to challenges

When I taught college-level English and MLA Research, I always used diversity as a theme for my classes. So it would seem natural that when I decided to write a children’s book it would include include persons with disabilities.

I am happy to announce that my book entitled The Legend of Eddie the Whale is expected to go live on later this month. I will keep you posted.

My book includes examples of a sax player with a cochlear implant, a mother and daughter telling each other “I Love You” in American Sign Language, a homeless man as well as other examples of diversity.

So the connection to these quotes by Beverly Cleary and Toni Morrison is that I am hoping to continue the trend and to write stories about disabilities and other forms of diversity because there are many stories that still need to be told.

Let’s keep moving forward. These stories are long overdue.

(Illustration by Chris Hammond)

An Open Letter of Thanks to Dan Rather for Bringing Hearing Loss to the Forefront of a Discussion


Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Dear Dan Rather,

In late January you were a guest speaker at my local Barnes & Noble store to discuss What Unites Us, a book authored by you & Elliot Kirschner (   The crowds arrived early, and people began to line up well before starting time.

I am a late-deafened baby boomer, but I am a bilateral cochlear implant recipient, so I can function pretty well while wearing my devices.  Due to my less-than-perfect hearing, I arrive at these events well in advance to ensure good seating.  On this particular evening, I was able to get a second-row seat in the center of the event area.  Eager and ready, I pulled out a small microphone that serves as an assistive device to supplement my cochlear devices.  Needless to say, staying connected to our world is a priority those of us who suffer from profound hearing loss need to keep up with.

As the program began, the crowds clapped and you were seated.  It took a few small adjustments to make sure the store’s microphone for the event was working optimally.  I sat in my seat feeling somewhat conspicuous pointing my personal microphone in your direction.  As you looked straight ahead, I did my best to hear the program and get the full benefit from assistive technology. But wait.  Did I spot at least one hearing aid when you turned your head?  Perhaps then, you would understand why I was pointing this tiny device in your direction.  I was trying to get the full benefit of your words.

Right before the questions from the audience began, you stated you had a confession to make.  You informed the audience that your hearing is not what it used to be, preparing them for the possibility of not hearing a question or even answering it inappropriately through no fault of your own.  Then you went on to tell the audience about Walter Cronkite who suffered from hearing loss in his lifetime.  You added a humorous story that so many of us whose hearing is not what it used to be can relate to.

But it didn’t end there.  A young man in the audience with a small child opened a discussion about race.  He said that he looked around the room and there were few people in the audience that looked like people “where he comes from.”  It was so important that the young child with him could witness your insightful response.  It was also important to me that this young child heard you speak openly about your own hearing loss, sometimes with the humor we all need to keep things in perspective.

Finally, often on social media I see young people with hearing loss or culturally Deaf individuals ask what kind of job someone with hearing loss can do.  You validated the point that persons with hearing loss can be whatever they want to be just by being present and speaking candidly.  Hearing loss is a disability, and unfortunately issues concerning persons with disabilities is an often forgotten part of discussions about diversity.

Getting back to that small child, through your words, the next generation was reminded that although change often comes slowly, an open discussion gives a voice to those of us who have felt on the outskirts of society for whatever reason.  Mr. Rather, that is something that unites us, and I thank you.

With gratitude,

Mary Grace Whalen

Dan Rather’s website is  

Here is a link to a humorous story Dan Rather has posted on hearing loss and aging: