Books On Disability

In 2012, close to four million Canadians reported having a disability—13.7% of the population. The incidence of self-reported disability spikes dramatically with age, with more than one-sixth of Canadians aged 45–64 having a disability, one-quarter aged 65–74 having one, and more than four in ten having a disability when they pass the age of 75.

These are huge proportions. When one is able-bodied, unaffected by serious physical or mental challenges, it can be difficult to understand the barriers inherent in our society and infrastructure that can make life incredibly frustrating at times for the disabled. But the line between abled and disabled is fine in many ways, much as we tend to forget or look away from this.

Here is a list of books to consider, whether you're disabled, someone who loves/lives with/teaches a disabled person, or simply interested in or engaged with the question of how to better accommodate disability and difference in our communities. The books' focuses span a range of challenges, mental and physical, which individual readers will consider as relating to disability or to difference. The list is by no means comprehensive, and we welcome your suggestions for additions (tweet @49thShelf).

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The Question of Access, by Tanya Titchkosky

Values such as "access" and "inclusion" are unquestioned in the contemporary educational landscape. But many methods of addressing these issues—installing signs, ramps, and accessible washrooms—frame disability only as a problem to be "fixed." The Question of Access investigates the social meanings of access in contemporary university life from the perspective of Cultural Disability Studies.

Through narratives of struggle and analyses of policy and everyday practices, Tanya Titchkosky shows how interpretations of access reproduce conceptions of who belongs, where and when.

Representing "access" as a beginning point for how disability can be rethought, rather than as a mere synonym for justice, The Question of Access allows readers to critically question their own implicit conceptions of disability, non-disability, and access.

 

I'm Walking As Straight As I Can: Transcending Disability in Hollywood and Beyond, by Geri Jewell and Ted Nichelson

Born with cerebral palsy, Geri Jewell inspired a generation of young people when she became the first person with a disability to appear in a recurring role on prime-time television, with her groundbreaking character, Cousin Geri, on the NBC sitcom The Facts of Life. The book's title—I’m Walking As Straight As I Can—has a double meaning, referring to both Jewell's sexuality and her extraordinary struggle growing up with cerebral palsy. This candid memoir details her experiences from her traumatic birth in Buffalo, New York, to her rise to stardom as a stand-up comic to becoming a television star. She documents the harsh realities of show business by recounting the relentless discrimination and abuse she suffered at the hands of people she trusted. Her experiences in the shark-infested waters of Hollywood led her on a journey from the Comedy Store to the White House, followed by a downward spiral, tax problems, drug addiction, marriage, and an accident that nearly claimed her life. When Deadwood creator David Milch recognized Jewell at a pharmacy, he offered her a role in his new HBO series on the spot, and she began to find hope and happiness once again. I'm Walking As Straight As I Can is an inspiring story, told with grace and self-deprecating humor, one that gives readers a rare glimpse of true courage and perseverance.

 

The Deaf House, by Joanne Weber

The Deaf House is Joanne Weber’s life story. It illustrates the work and passion of a woman who grew up deaf and became an advocate for the deaf. It is a story of pain, loss and defeat balanced with joy, gain, and victory. The memoir shows how deafness can be a brutal oppression of the mind. Weber's torment of not knowing exactly where she belonged in Deaf culture is revealed with blunt honesty; she constructed in her imagination “a deaf house”, where deafness was a sense of personhood, not a hearing loss, and language could be scorned and dismissed. After much internal turmoil, Weber realized that her inherent identity was that of a Deaf individual. The Deaf House details the struggles that resulted from her fierce attempt to protect that identity. Combining the narrative tools of a novelist with those of a documentarian, Weber effectively provides the reader with rare insight and profound truths about the lives of the deaf. It is a powerful story of an indomitable woman’s desire to discover her true self.

 

Easy for You to Say: Q and As for Teens Living With Chronic Illness or Disability, by Miriam Kaufman

Easy for You to Say profiles the lives of uniquely challenged teens as they work hard to make sense of the world and their places in it. The questions they pose are frank and courageous, many include street language that teens can identify with and readily understand. The issues front and center in their lives are addressed, such as family, doctors and medical issues, friends and dating, school and work, alcohol and street drugs, medications and sexuality. Useful charts give reliable information on medication interactions and side effects.

 

Lily and the Mixed Up Lettersby Deborah Hodge, illustrated by France Brassard

When Lily was in kindergarten she enjoyed school and she was happy. Now, she’s in grade 2 and she doesn’t feel like she’s good at anything. The trouble is reading. Whenever she tries, the letters jump around and get all mixed up—and so does she.

When Lily’s teacher announces that the children will read in front of their parents, Lily finally finds the courage to tell her mother about her problem. By working together, Lily’s mom, teacher, and friend Grace find a way to help Lily understand that she has very important strengths and talents. With hard work and new confidence, Lily surprises everyone—even herself—by the time the parents come to hear the kids read.

Gentle illustrations by France Brassard realistically portray the fear, isolation, and low self-esteem that children with dyslexia can experience. Deborah Hodge’s Lily and the Mixed-up Letters is a reassuring read for any child in need of a boost in confidence.

 

Cam Tait: Disabled? Hell No, I'm a Sit-Down Comic!, by Cam Tait and Jim Taylor

Long-time journalist Cam Tait has seen some interesting times on the sports beat--rolling alongside Rick Hansen in the Man in Motion tour, playing in fundraising golf tournaments, and tipping back some cold ones with Wayne Gretzky, to name a few. His personal life hasn't lacked excitement either--memorable moments include parasailing, winning a stand-up (or in his case, sit-down) comedy contest, and helping his grandson take his first steps. But he couldn't have done it without the help of his friends. Tait was born with cerebral palsy, unable to sit up, speak or move his arms and legs. But thanks to a revolutionary form of physical therapy that required a 24/7 commitment from his parents and a team of 116 volunteers, he learned to get around in a wheelchair, move his hands and talk. These turned out to be useful skills for a career of prime interviews, crazy deadlines and pranks.

 

Living the Edges, A Disabled Women's Reader, edited by Diane Driedger

This important and ground-breaking collection brings together the diverse voices of women with various disabilities, both physical and mental. Here, Canadian women speak frankly about the societal barriers they encounter in their everyday lives due to social attitudes and physical and systemic inaccessibility. They bring to light the discrimination they experience through sexism, because they are women, and through ableism, because they have disabilities. For them, the personal is definitely political. While society traditionally views having a disability as “weakness” and that women are the “weaker” sex, this collection points to the strength, persistence, and resilience of disabled women living the edges.

 

The Company of Others, by Sandra Shields, preface by Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (PLAN), photography by David Campion

An extraordinary and moving book about the transforming power of family and community on "vulnerable" individuals—the mentally challenged, the mentally ill, the elderly—and how these efforts enrich us as a society.

Company of Others tells the stories, interwoven with photographs, of five such people, who are surrounded by social "circles"—friends and family whose respect, encouragement, and unconditional love gives them a sense of purpose and belonging. Among them are Betty, a First Nations elder whose family makes it possible for her to continue living on the central BC ranch she's made her home for seventy years; Rick, a man in his fifties, who shares his Montreal apartment with two other men, all of whom live with schizophrenia; and Margaret, a woman in her forties with Downs syndrome, whose aging parents' dedication has led to the support of an entire community in small-town Alberta.

The stories told here are profoundly inspiring, giving hope to anyone who is or knows a person who, because of age, health, or disability, has been excluded from having a full and meaningful life. This is not a book about helping those with disabilities, but a proposal for a better way of living together in any community.

 

Absent Citizens, Disability Politics and Policy in Canada, by Michael J. Prince

Disability exists in the shadows of public awareness and at the periphery of policy making. People with disabilities are, in many respects, missing from the theories and practices of social rights, political participation, employment, and civic membership. Absent Citizens brings to light these chronic deficiencies in Canadian society and emphasizes the effects that these omissions have on the lives of citizens with disabilities.

Drawing together elements from feminist studies, political science, public administration, sociology, and urban studies, Michael J. Prince examines mechanisms of exclusion and inclusion, public attitudes on disability, and policy-making processes in the context of disability. Absent Citizens also considers social activism and civic engagements by people with disabilities and disability community organizations, highlighting presence rather than absence and advocating both inquiry and action to ameliorate the marginalization of an often overlooked segment of the Canadian population.

 

The Boy in the Moon, by Ian Brown

Walker Brown was born with a genetic mutation so rare that doctors call it an orphan syndrome: perhaps 300 people around the world also live with it. Walker turns twelve in 2008, but he weighs only 54 pounds, is still in diapers, can’t speak and needs to wear special cuffs on his arms so that he can’t continually hit himself. “Sometimes watching him,” Brown writes, “is like looking at the man in the moon—but you know there is actually no man there. But if Walker is so insubstantial, why does he feel so important? What is he trying to show me?”

In a book that owes its beginnings to Brown’s original Globe and Mail series, he sets out to answer that question, a journey that takes him into deeply touching and troubling territory. “All I really want to know is what goes on inside his off-shaped head,” he writes, “But every time I ask, he somehow persuades me to look into my own.”

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Please also see Andrea Routley's list, Disability in Fiction.

June 23, 2015
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