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June Questions - Disability

The theme this month is disability representation in comics and the titles we're discussing are:

  • El Deafo by Cece Bell (Abrams)
  • Stars in Their Eyes by Jessica Walton and Aśka (Freemantle Press)
  • The Oracle Code by Marieke Nijkamp and Manuel Preitano (DC)

Some questions about these books to get the discussion started:

  • How does El Deafo use and subvert the tropes of superhero comics to help readers to both relate to the protagonist and understand how she lives with her disability?
  • Stars in Their Eyes is an Australian publication, is there any difference in the depiction of disability in this book because of this?
  • Barbara Gordon initially became disabled in Batman: The Killing Joke (1988) by Alan Moore in what has since been identified as an example of harming female characters for the character development of male characters, often called ‘fridging’. How much should this inform how we view Barbara Gordon as a disabled character?
  • El Deafo is an autobiographical comic while Stars in Their Eyes and The Oracle Code are both fiction. Is it more important to have depictions of real experiences of disability or representation of fictional disabled characters in our collections?

And some more general questions about disability representation and comics in libraries:

  • All of the books this month have people with disabilities on their creative teams, should we treat these any differently to books that feature disabled characters from abled creators?
  • How do we effectively ensure we are being respectful to disabled people when we promote these books and use them in library programs?
  • Disability as a term encompasses a wide range of physical, mental, emotional, and developmental conditions. Is this a useful term or does this generalisation encourage those without a full understanding of this to view people with disabilities as an homogeneous community? Why or why not, and what are the consequences of this?

Make sure you join the discussion below, I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts on these questions!

Hi everyone! I'm looking forward to discussing this month's topic but before I get stuck in, I thought I would give Accessible Arts a shoutout.

Mostly in response to the question 'How do we effectively ensure we are being respectful to disabled people when we promote these books and use them in library programs?', this made me think of a training session I did when I was in library programs that was on accessible programming. It was scaffolded by a discussion on the social model of disability versus the medical model which, while I had come across these terms before, really deepened my understanding of inclusivity and I can't recommend them enough! I can see now that they have much more varied training offerings than I had seen previously, so you don't just have to work in programs/events for these sessions to be helpful or relevant to you in libraries. I encourage you to check them out 🙂 (They are paid training sessions, but hopefully you can wrangle them as professional development!)

In terms of the 'Disability as a term encompasses a wide range of physical, mental, emotional, and developmental conditions. Is this a useful term or does this generalisation encourage those without a full understanding of this to view people with disabilities as an homogeneous community?' question, I feel like Cece herself covered this very well in her Note From the Author - '...And, I am sure, there are plenty of deaf people who would read the descriptions above and not recognize themselves at all. I am an expert on no one's deafness but my own.' I think this is a really powerful statement and a reminder to treat each person as they are - an individual.

More broadly, I also think El Deafo speaks to the power of graphic novels being used for representation, understanding and empathy. El Deafo takes you right into Cece's experiences of bullying and a lack of understanding so that you almost feel like you are there on the sidelines, as well as showing you her innermost thoughts and experiences on things from watching television to trying to learn at school. I feel like there is so much to learn from that observer effect that can't be captured as comprehensively in a novel (or in this case memoir).

Responding to the prompt on whether real experiences are more important than fictional representations - speaking as a school librarian who regularly deals with reluctant and picky readers, I have to say that fictional representations are incredibly important in their own right. When you’ve got a student who only wants to read superhero comics, something like The Oracle Code is a great way to start conversations, have them think about broader experiences, and serve as a starting point for branching out into memoirs and real experiences. At the same time, it’s helped some teachers who struggle with the ‘I only ever want graphic novels, no “real” books for me’ students, because after reading El Deafo they are often more willing to start exploring our biographies for similar books about people overcoming challenges or living life with different experiences. (Full caveat - that "real" book conversation is a long ongoing battle!)

That last point ties in with the additional/general prompt about viewing disabilities under a general, broad umbrella - in the library I work at, we make an effort when doing displays or curation to include a range of disabilities, and sometimes even go broader than that with the term ‘Free to Be’, which is a permanent display stand we have that features books with characters from all walks of life. It makes me reflect though, on what Jade shared about the social model of disability versus the medical model. We do get the occasional immature tween who decides mental health is a joke, and the ‘Free to Be’ display allows us to use that as a teaching point, but now I’m reflecting if the distinction between the social model and the medical model is something we should be incorporating or considering more.

Those are some really interesting points. For those who haven't come across the term before, the social model of disability looks at how societal elements such as systemic barriers, discriminatory practices, and social exclusion contribute to someone being disabled. This is a very basic overview but the social model views disability as separate from the impairment that the person lives with because the disability is caused by society failing to effectively accommodate the diversity of different abilities that exist within it. This is often contrasted with the medical model of disability which focuses on medical diagnoses and links these with a reduced quality of life despite societal context.

A good example of this is a staircase. The medical model of disability says a wheelchair user is disabled because they can't use the stairs, whereas the social model says that the disabling factor is a lack of alternative access to the staircase to accommodate the wheelchair user's impairment.

I think the interplay between these two models is an interesting way to look at all three of the titles this month, and indeed all books that deal with disability. Which model do they utilise and why? Is it for narrative purposes or effective representation? And what does that mean for how we engage with the work?

I think Stars in Their Eyes addresses this particularly well, because where El Deafo and The Oracle Code focus on the protagonists' disability as a central character trait, Stars in Their Eyes acknowledges the importance of the disability to Maisie but she is far more defined as being a fan in relation to the story being told and her disability is really only a focus when it intersects with this.

I also really like your point, Ekta, about fictional representations being a way to introduce new readers, and especially younger or reluctant readers, to these concepts in a way that could then lead into them engaging with biographies and other non-fiction that explore these topics. (and I can entirely relate to the ongoing struggle about removing the distinction between comics and 'real' books)

Thanks to both Ekta and Jade for their thoughts so far, I'm looking forward to hearing more thoughts about this.