While you can’t really tell from this picture, I was born with cerebral palsy. I could do almost everything any of my friends and classmates did…unless it required any degree of balance. My feet pointed inward, and it was often a battle to remain upright and walking. During Kindergarten I had to wear leg braces (instruments of torture), and my poor mother spent every morning wrestling me into them while I screamed and squirmed.
Like any child with a visible difference, I felt like an outcast in the classroom. My neighbourhood friends were used to my gait and never gave it a second thought, but gym class at school was torture for me. No one picked me for their team (yes, that was standard practice back then), and balancing on the balance beam was simply impossible.
How Read-Alouds Can Help!
When I was a young student, I never saw myself represented in any of the stories read by the classroom teacher; everyone was always happy and able-bodied. It wasn’t until I was about 10 years old that my mother found a non-fiction book about Karen Killilea, a young girl with cerebral palsy. I was thrilled to finally see myself reflected in a book! When I asked my teacher if she would consider reading it to my class, however, I was met with silence. Physical disabilities were not to be discussed, and all my teachers pretended there was no problem.
During my early years of teaching, I found few books that explored diversity….and then came along Wonder by R.J. Palacio. My students could finally hear the inner thoughts of a child with a significant physical impairment, and ponder what daily life was like for Auggie Pullman.
I quickly realized the potential this book had for helping my students explore what it might be like to live with an obvious disability, and was excited enough to write a novel study unit to use with the book. Much of the action in the book took place in Auggie’s classroom, so that my students could also relate to Auggie’s classmates. Through drama, art, music and other subjects readers could find different ways to dig deep into Auggie’s story!
Several years ago another author, Sharon Draper, wrote a fictional book with a main character (Melody) who was born with cerebral palsy. Out of My Mind became an extremely popular book, as it again explored the inner world of a student with a significant physical disability. Unlike me, Melody was non-verbal, although she did use alternative communication methods to try to help her classmates understand her. While I loved this story, and could relate somewhat to Melody’s physical limitations, I struggled to consider what my life would be like if my cerebral palsy was more severe than it is. Reading this story aloud to students allowed me and my students to ponder how frustrating it would be to live without the ability to easily communicate orally. Guess what my next novel study will be!