Early childhood environments have seen an increase in children from diverse backgrounds and lived experiences. Three million children (4.3 percent) with a disability live in the United States (Young & Crankshaw, 2021). American Indian and Alaska Native and Black/African American children comprise the highest disability racial groups, 5.9 percent, and 5.1 percent, respectively (Young & Crankshaw, 2021). This increase has required early childhood centers and educators to create environments more reflective of the students they serve, including students with disabilities. These environments provide learning experiences that meet children’s need for positive self-identity development, thus supporting cognitive, language, physical, social, and emotional development.

Developing Cultural and Disability Identity

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Olufeme Faces His Fears by Hurbert Davis
Speech-Language Impairment-Stuttering—Intended for ages 5-8 years

In the not-so-distant past, individuals with disabilities were negatively perceived by society and often hidden away in institutions or kept at home. Since the mid-20th century, children with disabilities and families are increasingly included when schools consider equity, inclusion, and diversity initiatives. At many schools, there are accommodations available in some form, and a general understanding of disability rights. Nonetheless, children of color with disabilities are not considered intentionally in the care environment. Supports that are culture-affirming and consider the specific needs of families of color are less available. Centers and educators may not be able to address all areas of need, however, thinking about how to help students with disabilities of color develop positive self-identity is important.

Often, children of color with disabilities have challenges developing a positive self-identity due to the multiple social identities they associate with and the existing societal inequalities. It is not common enough that the gifts and richness diversity and disability bring to our society are uplifted. 

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Cassidy and the Mixed Up Numbers
by Dezi Shepperd
On Dyscalculia—Intended for ages 0-6 years

Early childhood educators can support the development of positive self-identity by creating environments that acknowledge both the diversity and disability that children bring to the classroom. Early childhood educators can ask themselves:

  • Do I see and value race, culture, and disability and how they form positive self-identities?
  • Do I promote and develop social-emotional competence, color awareness, and social justice? If so, how?
  • Are books, materials, and toys selected that reflect diversity in race and disability featured and highlighted in my classroom?
  • Are my classroom instruction and activities aimed to be reflective of the diverse identities and abilities of students?
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My Brother Charlie
by Holly Robinson-Peete and Ryan Robinson-Peete
On Autism—Intended for ages 6-10 years

Early childhood educators and families are the first gateways to supporting the overall development of young children. Early childhood educators are expected to create an environment that will positively build children’s identities. One way that teachers have done this is with materials representing the diverse experiences of children in their classroom and from a variety of diverse backgrounds. It is common to see culturally affirming and welcoming posters, crayons, dolls, and children’s books throughout early care centers. These materials, when chosen intentionally, represent individuals in nonstereotypical roles, reflect different cultures, and, more recently, differing abilities. However, adequately acquiring children’s books that can build the identity of children of color with disabilities can be challenging.

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The availability of diversity in children’s books is not keeping pace with the use of children’s literature as a common and standard tool to engage children in their understanding of who they are and where they can belong in the world around them. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (2020), 41 percent of children’s picture books represent whites, 29 percent animals, 12 percent Blacks, 9 percent Asians, and 6 percent Latinx. Children’s books are written and published most often representing the dominant culture and animals. These books are easily found at local libraries, bookstores, and retailers.

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The Sensationally Super Sandy
by Jamiyl and Tracy-Ann Samuels
On Autism—Intended for ages 6-8 years

In contrast, children with disabilities are “the most underrepresented and inadequately portrayed groups in children’s literature” (Blaska, 2004; Dyches, Prater, & Jenson, 2006), representing only 3 percent of books published (Cooperative Children’s Book Center, 2020). Combining disability and other forms of diversity creates an even smaller representation of published and available children’s books.

Why is this so important? Books and media are often one of the first ways children learn to see themselves and their own experiences. Representing children from diverse backgrounds with disabilities would provide an opportunity to embrace diversity and disability by allowing all children to engage in materials that reflect the richness, joy, and challenge of their lives. Consequently, through children’s literature, we can help children develop their identity, interests, language, cognitive skills, and more (Schickedanz & Collins, 2013). As early childhood educators prepare their environments to be equitable and inclusive, one of the primary materials that should continue to be reviewed is the collection of children’s books (Koss, 2015; Souto-Manning & Martell, 2016). It has been well documented that quality literature provides children of color an opportunity to see a reflection of themselves, a mirror image, as valuable members of society (Sims-Bishop, 1990; Tyner, 2021). Books are windows for children to envision the world’s possibilities, “real or imagined, familiar or strange” (Sims-Bishop, 1990), thus creating sliding glass doors for them to imagine they are part of the world created by authors.

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Sensory Seeking Sebastian by Christia DeShields
On ADHD and Proprioceptive Sensory Disorder
Intended for ages 2-6 years

If we know this is the case, what can we do to increase the availability of books that feature children of color with disabilities? One way is by supporting the texts that are available now and uplifting these authors in our school library choices.

It is essential that early childhood educators use culturally responsive teaching practices and strategies for selecting and analyzing inclusive and developmentally appropriate books. Criteria for selecting and evaluating children’s books have been provided by several researchers who either focus on diversity or disability (Aronson et al., 2016; Bland Gunn, 2013; Derman-Sparks, 2016: Ostrosky et al., 2015.) Based on these previous guides, the following criteria have been adapted for selecting children’s books that are diverse and represent children with disabilities. Choose books that:

  • Mirror positive identity across race, disability, gender, age, and other societal attributes.
  • Have high-quality illustrations of characters that are human and represent the multicultural faces of the BIPOC community such as physical features (skin shade, hair texture, facial features), languages, environments, and community celebrations.
  • Are balanced and an accurate portrayal of disability presented in the storyline and illustrations
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    Emery Jack the Copycat
    by Dezi Shepperd
    On Autism—Intended for ages 4-7 years

    Have characters with a strong sense of self and positive disposition that are relatable and believable.

  • Are age-appropriate with social and culturally relevant content that develops an understanding of social justice.
  • Have experiences and settings that are varied and engaging, recognizing different aspects of daily life.
  • Have authors or illustrators that are people of color, have a disability, or lived experience that adds to the cultural and identity perspective.
  • Have vocabulary is age-appropriate, first-person language is used, and words carry messages of inclusivity, anti-racism, anti-bias equity, and social justice perspectives.

Books representing children of color with disabilities can be hard to find but not impossible.

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I Am Sheriauna
by Sherylee Honeyghan and Ana Patankar
Congenital Amputee—Intended for ages 6-8 years

One resource to begin your search is Colours of Us (coloursofus.com). This website is dedicated to multicultural books for children as young as babies through high school. When selecting a book, a direct link to an affiliate site is provided where purchases can be made.

Educators have the opportunity to create learning environments that are safe and secure and promote a sense of belonging for every child. Educators can create high-quality supportive environments utilizing books to support a strengths-based approach that is culturally responsive and increases the levels of acceptance for children with disabilities. Children are received and perceived more positively when all children are exposed to the benefits and gifts of children of differing abilities, identities, and backgrounds.

References

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King For A Day
by Rukhsana Khan
On Physical disabilities—Intended for ages 4-7 years

Aronson, K., Sibley-O’Brien, A., & Breau, A., (2016). 8 tips for choosing” good” picture books featuring Black and Indigenous people and People of Color (BIPOC).
embracerace.org

Bishop, R.S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom, 6(3), ix-xi.

Bland, C.M. & Gann, L.A. (2013). From standing out to being just one of the gang: Guidelines for selecting inclusive picture books. Childhood Education, 254-259.

Blaska, J.K. (2004). Children’s literature that includes characters with disabilities or illnesses. Disability Studies Quarterly, 24(1).

Cooperative Children’s Book Center (2020). Children’s books by and about people of color published in the United States. ccbc.education.wisc.edu

Derman-Sparks, L. (2016). Guide for selecting anti-bias children’s books. Social Justice Books: A teaching for change project. teachingforchange.org

Derman-Sparks, L., Edwards, J.O., & Goins, C.M. (2020). Teaching about identity, racism, and fairness: Engaging young children in anti-bias education. American Educator. aft.org

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Davis Speaks: A Brother with Autism
by Teisha Glover and Nicholas Glover
On Autism—Intended for ages 3-12 years

Dyches, T.T., Prater, M.A. & Jenson, J. (2006). Portrayal of disabilities in Caldecott Books. Teaching Exceptional Children Plus, 2(5), article 2.

Epstein, A. (2014). The Intentional Teacher: Choosing the Best Strategies for Young Children’s Learning. (Rev. Ed). NAEYC.

Hemmeter, M.L., Santos, R.M., & Ostrosky, M.M. (2008). Preparing early childhood educators to address young children’s social-emotional development and challenging behavior. Journal of Early Intervention, 30, 321-340.

Koss, M.D. (2015). Diversity in contemporary picture books: A content analysis. Journal of Children’s Literature, 41(1), 32-42.

Montgomery, W. (2001). Creating culturally responsive, inclusive classrooms. Teaching Exceptional Children, 33(4), 4-9.

Ostrosky, M.M., Mouzourou, C., Dorsey, E., Favazza, P.C., Leboeff, L.M. (2015). Pick a book, any book: Using children’s books to support positive attitudes towards peers with disabilities. Young Exceptional Children, 18(1), 30-43.

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My Friend Suhana: A Story of Friendship and Cerebral Palsy
by Shaila Abdullah and Aanyah Abdullah
On Cerebral Palsy—Intended for ages 5-8 years

Price, C.L., Ostrosky, M.M., & Santos, R.M. (2016). Reflecting on books that include characters with disabilities. Young Children, 71(2), 30-37.

Schickedanz, J.A. & Collins, M.F. (2013). Much more than the ABC’s: The early stages of  reading and writing. NAEYC.

Souto-Manning, M. & Martell, J. (2016). Reading, Writing and Talk: Inclusive Teaching Strategies for Diverse Learners, K-2. Teachers College Press.

Tyner, M. (2021). The CCBC’s diversity statistics: New categories, new data. The Horn Book Magazine.
hbook.com

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) database. ed.gov

Young, N.A.E. & Crankshaw, K. (2021). Disability rates highest among American Indian and Alaska Native children and children living in poverty. census.gov

LaShorage Shaffer, Ph.D., is an associate professor in early childhood/early childhood special education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in early childhood, early childhood special education, and special education in the department of education. She has served as the faculty director of the Early Childhood Education Center on campus. Shaffer has led or co-led several research projects supporting stakeholders across the educational spectrum. Her research activities are in the areas of utilizing evidence-based practices to enhance teaching, social and emotional development, challenging behavior, supporting culturally and linguistically diverse populations, personnel preparation, policy for children at-risk and with special needs and their families, and professional development. As an educator and researcher, Shaffer strongly believes in providing both pre-service and in-service professionals with the educational knowledge, pedagogy, and the ability to develop a strong philosophical stance which are core components of supporting children with and without disabilities and their families.

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