I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years talking about representation in fiction, specifically the representation of disabled characters in children’s literature. I’ve spoken on panels, written blog posts, and co-founded Disability in Kidlit, which serves as a resource on the topic. As an adult, I feel that the accurate representation of disabled characters and the recognition, in particular, of disabled authors writing about experiences similar to theirs is incredibly important.
As a child, though, I thought about it only rarely. Not because I didn’t care or because I couldn’t recognize inauthentic depictions of disability (specifically blindness). I could. But it’s hard to discuss representation in fiction when your access to said depictions is so limited.
Being legally blind, I find visually reading a book to be exhausting at best and impossible at worst. Audiobooks have, for a long time, been my primary source of reading material. The trouble here is, while audiobooks are more accessible now than they were when I was a child, they are still more expensive than most physical books. On top of that, not all libraries carry a wide selection or have audiobook lending programs set up. This makes access to audiobooks quite limited for those living in poverty, as I did growing up and as many other disabled children and adults do.
It should be noted that audiobooks aren’t important just for blind people. Physically reading a book can be difficult for those with a variety of disabilities, from learning disabilities to physical disabilities that can make holding a book for an extended amount of time challenging.
Audiobooks are not the only option, of course. There are other programs and organizations devoted to making books accessible for those with disabilities. But not all children or librarians are aware that these programs exist. Personally, I had no idea that I had any options outside of mainstream audiobooks until I was well into my high school years.
Add to this the fact that many (perhaps even most) books are not made into audiobooks. So even if someone is privileged enough to have great access to them, their options are still more limited than an average reader’s.
As you might imagine, this makes having any sort of productive conversation about representation that includes disabled readers a challenge. How can we be a part of the discussion when so many stories that claim to represent us aren’t accessible?
As a teenager, I couldn’t be bothered to worry about representation because my choices were already so limited. As an adult (and a writer), I spend a lot more time thinking about depictions of disabled characters, but I still don’t even have access to many of those stories.
Discussions about representation are important. But first, there must be access.