Bringing disability representation to literature


MUNCIE, Ind. — A team of future writers and educators at Ball State University, including Rossburg resident Katelyn Warner, worked for an entire semester to better represent people with disabilities in youth and young adult literature, which culminated in a fully accessible, multi-feature website.

“I can’t watch a video online without wondering why the creator didn’t add subtitles or captions for someone who is deaf. When I’m reading a popular book, I wonder why there isn’t a non-normative character,” Warner said.

“This project completely changed the way I look at the world and its accessibility and representation. I want to make sure that everyone, no matter their limitations, can easily obtain the information they want and need, and can see themselves positively reflected in literature.”

According to the 2016 Disabilities Statistics Annual Report, 12.6 percent of the U.S. population has a disability. Yet, only 10 of 500 award-winning children’s novels, or 0.02 percent, published between 1987 and 1991 had a disabled character, noted Dr. Darolyn Jones, the faculty mentor and an assistant teaching professor of English.

“Children’s books with disability representation are valuable for every child,” Jones said. “They help us understand all of the ‘characters’ in our classroom, in our community, and in our world, yet disability is too often not recognized as part of the diversity culture. Our students poured their passion into combating this problem.”

Warner, an English education student who just finished her sophomore year, began her disability representation research by re-reading the books she was exposed to as a child, researching how people with disabilities are generally portrayed in fiction, and studying the disability rights movement. She also examined children’s reading spaces to examine representative books and analyze the universal design for learning.

The immersive learning project partnered with Burris Laboratory School and Brooks School Elementary to introduce disability-representative books to elementary and middle school level students, and promote written reflection.

Their research findings, plus Burris and Brooks School students’ reflections, are featured on the website, which was constructed to be as accessible as possible. Features such as dyslexia-friendly fonts, audio clips, and closed-captioning videos enable visitors with visual, hearing, and reading impairments to easily access content.

The website also includes book critiques, book reviews, book trailers, and free, downloadable stories with disability representation — all written and produced by the student team. Cindy Baldwin, a leading children’s and young adult writer discusses the books readers with disabilities deserve on the site.

Since February, the team has presented its work at Birmingham, Ala., and Fishers, Ind.; in June, the team will present at the national Children’s Literature Conference in Indianapolis.

“This project sparked a passion in me,” Warner said. “I wish to learn and understand more about educating those with learning disabilities – and I strive to become an activist for those with disabilities and create a world where they feel empowered and can thrive.”

Visit the team’s website at

Katelyn Warner Warner

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