My life changed Thanksgiving Day 2003. While I was attending a work retreat with my husband at a resort in Mexico my children, who were with their grandparents in Orlando, were in a terrible car accident. My five-year-old son escaped with only a bruise. My ten-year-old daughter suffered a T11 spinal cord injury and was paralyzed. In an instant, she could no longer walk.
I was a teacher at the time. After a holiday season spent in rehab, we were all ready to jump back into our lives and return to school. By January my daughter, Arielle, was back in her fourth-grade classroom with her friends and a new set of wheels.
Arielle was an avid reader. I had always loved finding the right books for my kids and my students. After the accident, I began to search for characters with differing physical abilities.
People were treating Arielle different. To me, she was still the intelligent, social, vibrant child who talked to everyone and lit up a room with her presence. I desperately wanted people to see her and not the wheelchair, but that wasn’t always the case. To some she was invisible. Our lives revolved around learning about accessibility, advocating for it and teaching others about disability. We also had to navigate our feelings about Arielle being able to walk again one day. In other words, would Arielle grow up feeling less than if we took her out of school and placed her in a full-time physical therapy program with no guarantee of recovery? Or would it be better to let her be a kid and teach her self-acceptance from the seat of her wheelchair? When Arielle told me, she wished there were more books with characters who used wheelchairs I kept searching.
I found THE SECRET GARDEN by Frances Hodgson Burnett which Arielle loved.
Then a storyteller came to our school and introduced us to PETEY by Ben Michaelson.
PETEY takes place from 1920-1990. It’s about Petey Corbin who is born with cerebral palsy and sent to live in an insane asylum. Despite a challenging life Petey keeps a positive attitude and shows kindness to his friend Calvin and all his caretakers. Eventually, Petey meets a lonely eighth-grade boy, Trevor, and the two become friends.
When Arielle reached middle school, her adventurous spirit led her to try volleyball, road racing, and skate parks. It’s no wonder her favorite books were the MAXIMUM RIDE series. She liked the characters because they had different physical bodies. It was during this time that I began writing a middle-grade novel about a young girl who used a wheelchair.
I searched for more books that contained characters with differing physical abilities and found THE LITTLE LAME PRINCE AND HIS TRAVELING CLOAK by Dinah Maria Mulock Craik. It’s the story of a young boy who is paralyzed and exiled in a tower. Then a fairy godmother gives him a magic cloak so he can see the world. Prince Dolor gains wisdom and compassion through his adventures and eventually ends up ruling the land.
OUT OF MY MIND by Sharon Draper was published in 2010. It’s the story of young Melody who was born with cerebral palsy. OUT OF MY MIND has won numerous book awards and was on the New York Times Best Seller list for almost two years.
As part of my research for this post, I asked Arielle to ask her teammates at The University of Illinois if they were influenced by any books that contained characters with differing physical abilities. Some of the favorite books they mentioned were HARRY POTTER, MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN, and HATCHET. One person remembered liking a picture book with a character that used a wheelchair, A VERY SPECIAL CRITTER by Mercer Mayer and Gina Mayer. It was published in 1993.
I found through my school visits that students from kindergarten to high school are very interested in learning about the lives of people with different physical abilities. There’s no judgment just curiosity. We end up having wonderful discussions. I leave knowing the next time those students encounter a flight of stairs or an accessible parking space they’ll view it differently because they had a chance to walk in someone else’s shoes—shoes that don’t touch the ground.
K.D. Rausin is a former teacher living in sunny Cape Coral, Florida. MYSTIC, her middle grade fantasy, and Elle & Buddy, her picture book, both feature strong female protagonists who use wheelchairs.