By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Textbook cases of disability

I had missed Dan Golden’s article (sub. req.) in the Wall Street Journal on diversity quotas in textbooks, so I’m glad that Jeff Jacoby decided to write about it today in the Boston Globe.

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?

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  1. Don

    Good grief. . . .

  2. Kevin

    Dan,Isn’t this about the politically correct school boards more than anything else? My understanding is they are directing the publishers as to what they want to see in these books. Publishers want to sell them in their state/city/county, so when the school boards say “jump”, the publishers say “how high”.IMHO, this is PC from the top down. The real culprit here is the politically correct ‘diversity of appearence’ crowd that has no concern for real diversity, that is diversity of thought and opinion. These are the people that dominate education today. Kevin

  3. Dan Kennedy

    Kevin — There are all kinds of diversity, and surely including kids with disabilities and of different ethnic and racial groups is just as “real” as diversity of thought. To me, including disabled kids is especially meaningful — and thus the decision by some publishers to fake it strikes me as pretty cynical.BTW, how are you going to present “diversity of thought” in photos in an elementary-school textbook? BTW2, wouldn’t the abandonment of what you call political correctness lead to photo after photo of white, able-bodied kids? Is that what we ought to be aiming for?

  4. bostonph

    In my experience “diversity of thought” has become code for “creationism” just as “political correctness” has become a convenient scapegoat for any policy the right wing disagrees with. It saves having to come up an argument of substance. The Jacoby version of the article is a particularly egregious example of this. To answer Kevin’s point directly, there’s far more shaping of text books from the Texas State Board of Education than MA school boards. Look it up.

  5. Anonymous

    Dan,I’m with you 100% on your first point. The PC/diversity point I was trying to make was broader than just the photos, it is that the school boards are directing the textbook publishers, photos and text, to include content that fits their PC worldview.KevinPunditReview

  6. bostonph

    Kevin,You’ve got it almost exactly backwards. Text book publishers are mostly driven by the big 3 states (Texas, California, and Florida) when developing content. Texas in particular is subject to intense lobbying by right wing groups. Unfortunately, Texas buys so many textbooks, the state’s version often becomes the national norm.Check out the Web page for “Educational Research Analysts” (aka, for example. Their motto is “public school textbook reform through textbook reviews.” It sounds reasonable until you note their “specific areas of concern”:Scientific weaknesses in evolutionary theoriesPhonics-based reading instructionPrinciples and benefits of free enterpriseOriginal intent of the U.S. ConstitutionRespect for Judeo-Christian moralsEmphasis on abstinence in sex educationPolitically-correct degradation of academicsHere’s a decent article on the topic. are many other examples, particularly around the teaching of evolution. Like this one:

  7. Don

    When the Caucasians become the minority, will they get their quota of pictures?

  8. Amusedbutinformedobserver

    So now the right-wing takes exception with the idea that text books ought to honestly reflect society?I cannot understand why someone would object to a school board or other text-purchasing authority insisting that photographs in text books that it purchases reflect the diversity of society. Political correctness is a red-herring phrase that means nothing; if anyone ought to be outraged by anything, one ought to be outraged by the cynical attempts to whitewash society. I’m no fan of WalMart, but there is something to be said of the chain using real people in its circulars rather than models

  9. Anonymous

    Bostonph, Thanks for the links, they were very helpful. Based on what you provided, I was correct to say that school boards are directing textbooks publishers to include content that fits their worldview, where I was wrong, was in asserting that it was PC content they were dictating. At least in the TX examples you provided, social conservatives were directing publishers to water down, change, alter, remove content they found objectionable, that didn’t fit their world view. I had it backward, the text book publishers are producing books that offer liberal (PC) content and the school boards, at least in the TX example you cited, were pushing back. This doesn’t change my belief that education is still dominated by liberals, at the publishers (news to me, thanks for that) and within the teachers and administrators. For the record, I’m hardly a social or religious conservative. I’m the only person with a show on WRKO who is pro-gay marriage, I’m personally pro-life but as a matter of public policy, pro-choice with limits (parental notification, against partial birth and 3rd trimester) I appreciate the info. You have helped me better understand the issue. KevinPundit Review

  10. bostonph

    I would hardly describe the issues involved as liberal vs. conservative. More as Christian Republican versus those that aren’t. It’s a sign of how warped the discussion has become that “liberal” means “in favor of teaching evolution and sex education.” I’m guessing that you haven’t actually looked at a highschool textbook recently. I’m also guessing that you’re from the Boston area. I moved here from Texas and spent most of my life in the Midwest. Public education there is only dominated by “liberals” if you equate liberalism with questioning and a quest for fairness. The right are FAR more doctrinaire.

  11. Anonymous

    “Public education there is only dominated by “liberals” if you equate liberalism with questioning and a quest for fairness. The right are FAR more doctrinaire.” Do you see the irony in that statement? Doctrinaire means, “dogmatic about others’ acceptance of one’s ideas; fanatical”People on both sides of the aisle fit thet description, as demonstrated by your statement.We are heading down a rat hole here, I’m done.Kevin

  12. bostonph

    Oh come on – you’re the one who jumped to the amazingly odd conclusion that the publishers are “liberals” because they publish textbooks which more or less reflect their target audience.You’re also assuming I’m a “liberal.” As I pointed out, the phrase is meaningless in this context. I grew up in Texas; I’m much closer to the a “small L” libertarian. Guess I should have said “Christian right” and used the sneer quotes. That said, I’ve experienced Christian right groups doing everything from removing the “Wizard of OZ” from school libraries (shows witches as good) to having a teacher disciplined for mentioning the original Christians were Catholics (it confused their child to know that Jesus wasn’t Baptist, apparently). That’s what I mean by doctrinaire. I’m hard pressed to think an example of anything that extreme from the “left.” Opposing the teaching of creationism as science is nowhere near that category.

  13. Dan Kennedy

    The original Christians (pre-Paul) were Jews.

  14. bostonph

    Excellent point. The only person I recall discussing that in Texas is Kinky Friedman, but he’s from Austin, so doesn’t really count. 🙂

  15. DougH

    Kevin,Don’t let Gregg read this– I’m not sure Dan’s poor server could handle it 😉

  16. Dan Kennedy

    Kevin — Scott Allen Miller is pro-gay marriage, too.

  17. Anonymous

    In reality, doctrinaire means:adj: A person inflexibly attached to a practice or theory without regard to its practicality.or noun: a stubborn person of arbitrary or arrogant opinionsThe bostonph usage is correct.

  18. Anonymous

    Thanks Dan, I’ve never heard him discuss the issue.Kevin

  19. Borderline

    Why are textbook publishers being singled out for this? I see Sesame Street doing the same thing — check out the end credits for a very healthy kid spinning around in a wheelchair. Advertising and dramatic programming on television and film almost never portrays disabled people, much less old or ugly people, but diversity always seems to be stressed, often to the point of being unbelievable — ethnically mixed street gangs, etc.

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