Earlier this week, television viewers across America were introduced to Sesame Street’s newest Muppet, Julia – an autistic character who befriends Elmo and Big Bird. Embracing the advice of autism organisations, the producers successfully portray the differences in behaviours, social interactions, communications and sensory sensitivities. In doing so, Sesame Street has introduced a generation of non-disabled children to a disabled character.

I suspect that some parents across the pond were anxiously anticipating the follow-up questions, only to be surprised that few were forthcoming. We often forget that children are wrapped in their own wee worlds and are accepting by nature.  It is when the grown-ups get involved that prejudices emerge and empathy dissipates.

For that reason, Julia is important – vital in fact. Introducing our children to an array of disabled characters during their early years can help dispel intolerance, leading in the long-run to a more inclusive society.

Herein, however, lies a problem. When I asked a group of parents, with non-disabled children, how they approached the subject of disability, most were ‘reactionary’ and used the Paralympics or a character from their favourite soap as an example that could be used to explain differences.

When I asked specifically about children’s programmes with disabled characters, most were aware of Mr Tumble, the Something Special character who uses sign language, and some knew of Hannah Sparkes, the wheelchair user from Fireman Sam. Beyond that, it was agreed that disabled characters are a rarity in children’s programming.

Finding a children’s book with disabled characters, away from specialised websites, can be an even tougher task. If you think back to the books you enjoyed as a child, or even as an adult, you’d be hard pushed to find many featuring a disabled person.

I recall a recent visit to Britain’s largest book retailer in Aberdeen. I wanted to buy a picture book which included disabled characters for my youngest brother who has Down’s syndrome. There were hundreds of books; an entire bookcase was dedicated to the works of one author, but not a single children’s picture book had a disabled character. When I approached staff for assistance, they apologised and awkwardly directed me online.

It seems that where disabled protagonists are lacking in children’s TV programmes, disabled people are more or less absent as main characters in children’s picture books and novels.

Great stories have the power to connect us, to raise awareness, to make people feel and act. Instead of dreading the embarrassment of the inevitable awkward questions in the supermarket, parents of non-disabled children can use books to open up discussions and reduce the stigma around disability.

It’s important for parents of disabled children too. As a child, I cannot remember stories with characters that I could relate to.

Here’s to more Julias

About Hoolet

Hoolet is a modern publishing company. Our company is built to inhabit the digital age. This is not the business as usual. Stories are our focus, but delivery is what makes us different.

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Shortly, we will be offering a range of resources to encourage children to engage with our stories and reading in general. Keep an eye on this area for more information as we bring these resources together.

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