There isn’t enough disability representation in YA and that needs to change

84% of teens agree…

Last week, we asked you lovely lot whether you thought disability is talked about enough in YA. A huge percentage of you said no, you didn’t think it was.

As well as asking you whether you thought it was talked about enough, we also wanted to hear your thoughts and comments about the topic. So what did you tell us?

Well, we had a flood of replies on the @MaximumPopBooks Twitter account saying that you wished more authors discussed disability in their books. Some of you even said that you’ve NEVER read a book with a disabled character in it.

For those of you who have never read a YA novel with a disabled character in it, that’s all about to change after you take a peek at Penny Joelson’s fantastic guest post.

Penny is the author of ‘I Have No Secrets’, a YA crime novel about Jemma, a 14-year-old girl, with severe cerebral palsy. Jemma’s condition prevents her from moving or communicating. As a result she has a full-time carer to help her with almost everything. Her carer is called Sarah. Things take an incredibly dark turn, however, when Sarah’s boyfriend reveals to Jemma that he murdered someone.

Trapped with a horrific secret, Jemma is unable to do anything about it and goes through loophole after loophole trying to tell everyone the truth.

It’s a thrilling read that highlights how people treat those with a disability differently – even if they don’t necessarily mean to. Just take a moment to think. Have you ever stared at someone a little too long? Or assumed a person had no idea what you were saying because they couldn’t answer back?

MP! believe everyone has at some point in their life. That’s why it’s so important to challenge these behaviours and try to do everything we can to change them. If you don’t believe us, just ask Penny.

Here’s the fantastic piece she wrote for us about disability in YA. Enjoy!

Do we talk about disability enough in YA? 

I am pleased to see disability being talked about more in YA and more YA books with characters who have disabilities being published. However, I still think that there is a long way to go. I hope the response to my book will help to emphasise the wide appeal these books can have.

Comments about ‘I Have No Secrets’ like this from Liz Barnsley on Goodreads: ‘the best thing about it was Jemma whose character voice shone through the entirety of the story,’ show that readers want interesting voices and a strong story. They are looking not just for mirrors but for windows to experiences different to their own.

Rachel on Goodreads said, ‘I think this book was great, I have never read a book from this perspective before but it has opened my eyes.’ Trshava on Goodreads wrote, ‘I’m very happy to see that now we have more books with people with disabilities as main characters because I think it’s very important to show them as normal members of this society, as they are, and I’m especially glad that this book is written for teenagers, which is even more important considering that a lot of them deal with disability and a lot of them have a friend who has a disability and maybe this book could help them.’

When I decided to write from the viewpoint of a character with severe cerebral palsy I felt a big responsibility to do it well and to give an accurate portrayal. I had worked with people with disabilities including cerebral palsy and I also did a lot of research. Most importantly, I got feedback on early drafts and later drafts from people with cerebral palsy.

Since publication, I have been moved by further feedback from readers with disabilities. For example, this from Gemma Foo who is a 21-year-old book blogger and Paralympic horse-rider: ‘I connect so much with Jemma. Not only do we share the same name- we share the same disability too. Thank you so much for writing this, Penny Joelson!’

Gemma says: ‘I think YA books on disability need to be talked about more and for readers and writers alike to encourage their fellow peers to read these disability themed books. It’s refreshing and exciting for me to see books focusing on people with disabilities. As well as “I Have No Secrets,”, one I really loved is Sara Barnard’s “A Quiet Kind of Thunder,” which is about a non-verbal girl who has severe anxiety who meets a hearing-impaired boy from school.’

She continues, ‘It’s really meaningful to me that books like this are being written. It also fills me with love and acceptance that as a person with disabilities we are wholly accepted into this wonderful and amazing place.’

Ellie Simpson, founder of CP Teens, who also has Cerebral Palsy, says that: ‘Growing up, I was a good reader who learned how to read quite fast. I can remember a significant absence of characters with disabilities in the books I read and I vividly remember becoming quite excited if I ever found a book in my school library that included a disabled character. The sooner we start ‘normalising’ disability, i.e. using disabled characters, the sooner children and young people will understand that having a disability doesn’t make anyone any less of a person.’

I hope more characters with disabilities will find their way into YA books – because fiction can play such a powerful role in giving a voice to people whose voices are often not heard.

Let us know whether you think authors talk about disability enough in YA in the comments below. To find out more about ‘I Have No Secrets’ by Penny Joelson click here.

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Written by Emma Matthews

Emma is a freelance journalist at MP.

When she’s not writing articles for Maximum Pop!, you’ll find her attending gigs, geeking out over the latest beauty products and reading feminist literature. Hermione is her favourite Harry Potter character - obviously.

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