Golden — and Jacoby — devote a considerable amount of space to requirements that photos of children from various ethnic and racial groups be included. But I want to focus on rules that kids with disabilities be depicted — and that, incredibly, publishers often get around this by photographing able-bodied children in wheelchairs. Golden writes:
Thomas Hehir, a Harvard professor of education and former director of special education at the U.S. Department of Education, says the able-bodied models in wheelchairs don’t resemble most disabled children, who have conditions such as cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy that “affect their appearance in other ways. I look at the pictures in the textbooks and I say, ‘This doesn’t look like a kid I know. How did this kid become disabled?'”
[Company spokesman Collin] Earnst says Houghton Mifflin enlists able-bodied models for the disabled only as a last resort, and “makes a very strong effort” to photograph disabled children. It has “done casting” at Children’s Hospital in Boston, and featured a Down syndrome child in one textbook, he says. But he says it is “challenging” and “expensive” to find disabled models, because there are few talent agencies for them.
Laura Rakauskas, whose son has modeled for textbooks, said she attended a photo shoot for a Houghton math book where organizers sought a girl to pose in a wheelchair. She said several mothers refused on their children’s behalf before a volunteer came forward. She says she wasn’t troubled because seeing able-bodied children in a wheelchair is a “gentle introduction” to disability for students who haven’t encountered it.
I’m sorry, but this is pandering — benign pandering, but pandering nevertheless. In fact, any child who attends a decent-size school is likely to encounter fellow students with real disabilities. They don’t need a “gentle introduction.” Including kids with disabilities in textbooks is potentially a good thing, but not if it’s used to promote unrealistic ideas of what disability is about. If anything, it could help lead to unfair expectations about what disabled kids ought to be able to do.
One of my daughter’s classmates, for instance, has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a progressive, often fatal disorder. Over the years Nick has gone from walking to using a wheelchair. He has a service dog with him in school. It’s a terrible situation for him and his family, of course, but it’s been a valuable — and real — lesson for his fellow students.
When I was growing up, one of our classmates, Terri, was in a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy. Terri was a smart kid who participated in activities as best as she could. But as Golden and Jacoby observe, no one would confuse her with one of the able-bodied kids that textbook publishers put in wheelchairs to fill their quotas.
Golden and Jacoby invoke “political correctness” to explain the dysfunction at work in the textbook diversity campaign. Well, I guess. But I’d say that cynicism is a more apt description. For instance, check out this bit from Golden:
“Make sure physically challenged people are visible enough to comply with state requirements” and “appear on right-hand pages for a ‘thumb test,'” McGraw-Hill 2004 guidelines advise. Translation: Time-pressed state officials sometimes use their thumbs to flip through the pages speedily looking for images of minorities or the disabled. Generally, this results in examining only the right-hand pages.
Yes, parents, this is how your children’s textbooks are being chosen. Gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling, doesn’t it?
Update: Jay Fitzgerald doesn’t think this is a big deal. “Don’t you kind of assume that most people assume all the photos are staged?” he asks. But Jay — isn’t it offensive when disabled kids, already somewhat excluded from the culture, are shunted aside so that more “normal”-looking able-bodied children are put in wheelchairs — and the purpose is to fill a diversity quota?