We MUST talk about physical disabilities (differences) with children. If we don’t, they become the elephant in the room. As a result, children mistakenly interpret that these topics are wrong or taboo.
We can read stories that help kids become empathetic to what it’s like to have a physical disability; stories that show not just our differences but more importantly, our similarities.
Of course, adults know that disabilities are NOT wrong. Nor taboo. As we’ll see in these stories, everyone notices differences. Especially curious children. So it’s up to us to discuss and help our children learn about disabilities without stigmas. It’s up to us to answer questions and to help kids see what it might feel like to have a physical disability. This is the a way to ensure that we raise compassionate, empathetic, and kind children.
But I highly recommend real experiences, too — so volunteer with your local Special Olympics. Spend time with a friend in a wheelchair. That sort of thing.
Physical Disabilities in Picture Books
Susan Laughs by Jeanne Willis, illustrated by Tony Ross
Susan is just like you — she plays with friends, she works hard, she doesn’t like when her cat scratches her. Focusing on the similarities helps kids understand Susan and when the last page reveals that Susan also uses a wheelchair, it’s not a big deal.
Jessica’s Box by Peter Carnavas
Jessica is in a wheelchair and her first day at school is very disappointing. She thought she’d make lots of friends with her box and her bear so the next day she put cupcakes in her box. Not even a thank you. Jessica just wanted to disappear into her box. Which turned out to be a great way to start a hide and seek game with a new friend.
Zoom! by Robert Munsch, illustrated by Michael Martchenko
Lauretta’s 92-speed wheelchair gets her a speeding ticket! Which makes her parents tell her she needs a slower chair. But when she speedily gets her brother to the hospital, her parents change their mind.
Boy by Phil Cummings, illustrated by Shane Devries
Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson and Sean Qualls
Emmanuel’s mom helped Emmanuel be strong and believe in himself even though he only had one leg. He hopped 2 miles to school. He learned to ride a bike. He worked to support his family. As an adult, Emmanuel rode 400 miles across his country of Ghana to spread the message that disability is not inability. This is an inspiring true story that is a film called Emmanuel’s Gift.
Keep Your Ear on the Ball by Genevieve Petrillo
Davey is vision impaired and independent. When he tries to play kickball and fails, he learns that it’s not always a bad thing to ask others for help.
The Black Book of Colors by Menen Cottin, illustrated by Rosana Faria
Experience colors with other senses that are NOT vision. As a person with vision impairment, you’ll “see” the colors through touch, taste, smell, and sound. Includes Braille on each page.
Lemon the Duck by Laura Backman, illustrated by Laurence Cleyet-Merle
Born in an elementary school classroom, Lemon is unable to walk. The students love the duck and help her be a happy duck. Great for introducing the topic of special needs.
A Different Little Doggy by Heather Whittaker, illustrated by Scott Alberts
Tax lives her life fully and accepts herself as she is such as trouble with her knees and going blind. This story shows us that it’s not our physical bodies that define us.
I Am Ivan Crocodile by Rene Gouichoux, illustrated by Julia Neuhaus
6-year old Ivan wants to be accepted by his classmates even though he looks and moves differently than them. I haven’t seen this book in person but it looks like a solid choice for building empathy for differences.
Just Because by Rebecca Elliott
Narrated by a younger brother, we learn about his amazing big sister. We eventually figure out that his sister has special needs but that it doesn’t affect how much she is loved by her brother.
Catherine’s Story by Genevieve Moore, illustrated by Karin Littlewood
Catherine can’t talk but she can listen. This book shows the many special attributes of Catherine, a young girl who is multiple disabled.
Physical Disabilities in Chapter Books
Girl, Stolen by April Henry VISION IMPAIRMENT
While 16-year old Cheyenne’s mom runs into the store for her pneumonia medicine, Griffin steals their car with Cheyenne in it. Griffin’s father and his friends hold Cheyenne for ransom in the hopes her famous father will pay up. Cheyenne, who is currently sick and also blind, must use all her other senses to escape. She hopes Griffin will even help her.
Who Was Helen Keller? by Gare Thompson, illustrated by Nancy Harrison VISION IMPAIRMENT
This is the inspiring true story of Helen Keller, a woman who was deaf and blind, and learned to speak and read.
The Baking Life of Amelie Day by Vanessa Curtis CYSTIC FIBROSIS
I enjoyed this book so much! The writing flows, the plot is engaging, the characters are fascinating — especially Amelie — and learning about living with Cystic Fibrosis is quite eye-opening. Amelie loves to bake (could you guess from the title?) and she’s made it to the semi-finals of a teen baking contest in New York City. Unfortunately, her health deteriorates (which happens when you have CF) and her mom won’t let Amelie compete.
Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick PHYSICAL DIFFERENCE
This is a moving story of a friendship between a large boy with learning disabilities and a very small boy with physical disabilities. Together, they overcome the bullying at school. Sad but powerful.
Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper CEREBRAL PALSY
Just because Melody can’t walk or talk due to cerebral palsy doesn’t mean she isn’t smart — and she is smart! She’s just sick of people thinking she’s dumb and wants out of the trap of her mind. She finds a way to communicate but is still treated poorly by her peers. Realistic, sometimes very painful, and important for everyone to read. GREAT class book or book club book.
El Deafo by Cece Bell and David Lasky HEARING IMPAIRMENT
A multiple award-winning graphic novel, Cece Bell shares the story of growing up with a hearing impairment, using a very bulky hearing aid, and finding her place in the world. Funny and moving, this is a beautiful coming-of-age story of courage and determination.
Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling PHYSICAL DIFFERENCE
Soul Surfer by Bethany Hamilton PHYSICAL DIFFERENCE
Surfer, Bethany, loses her arm to a shark attack. In this book we learn her story and how she continued on with her life, surfing and living life to the fullest.
Wonder by R.J. Palacio PHYSICAL DIFFERENCE
When he starts public school in fifth grade, Auggie is teased because his face doesn’t look like that of other kids. He changes throughout the story, deciding to stop hating his face to focusing on humor and kindness which transforms his classmates and community as well. This touching story is life-changing, encouraging empathy and kindness in readers as well.
Paperboy by Vince Vawter SPEECH
Based on the author’s life experience, we glimpse a pivotal time for 11- year old Vince one summer when he takes over his friend’s paper route, meets a writer, discovers prejudice, and closely watches the adults around him all from the experience of a having a profound stutter and difficulty speaking. This is a well-written coming of age novel that addresses SO MANY issues making it another great book recommendation for the classroom or book club.
Window Boy by Andrea White CEREBRAL PALSY
Sam is an English boy with cerebral palsy during the 1960s. He’s not allowed to attend school, and is even institutionalized by his mother, but he dreams of more, buoyed in his mind by his hero Winston Churchill and a passion for basketball.
Blindsided by Priscilla Cummings VISION IMPAIRMENT
14-year old Natalie is losing her eyesight and fears her new reality. She slowly accepts her new situation despite many challenging situations, learns Braille, learns how to use a cane, and is prepared for when she loses her sight for good.
Beholding Bee by Kimberly Newton Fusco BIRTHMARK
Bee is an orphaned girl who runs away from the exploitive traveling circus. She’s sensitive about the birthmark on her face, and feels like an outsider everywhere she goes. Fortunately, she finds two “aunts” who help Bee find her inner strength and show her the meaning of love.
The Running Dream by Wendell Van Draanen PHYSICAL DIFFERENCE
When Jessica loses a leg in a car accident, she’s treated differently — as if she were invisible, just like she treated another girl named Rosa, who has CP. This book will help you, like Jessica, see people for who they are, not what their physical conditions are.
Any other books you’d like to see on this list?
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