BY MARINA REYNOLDS
I remember the day a woman from Hearing Australia came to my son’s Year 1 class to explain to his peers why he had this funny-looking thing in his ear and how it would change his life.
I remember clearly how the picture book she read these little five and six-year olds impacted on their understanding and on the way they treated him after.
Never underestimate the power of books. Words really can and do change lives, and this was never more true than when Oliver Gets Hearing Aids was read to my son’s class.
The year before, he was diagnosed with 80% hearing loss in one ear but we never caught on until an innocent sharing of iPod earphones with me one day. He couldn’t hear the music that was blasting out - I just happened to have placed the one earphone in his deaf ear.
We had no clue, until that point, that anything was amiss: His incredibly astute and experienced Prep teacher suspected nothing as he’d always automatically place himself with his “good” ear to her, and he’d learned to lip read.
He didn’t know anything was wrong - he’d been that way since birth. After testing we got him fitted for a hearing aid and it was unveiled to his Year 1 classmates with a special visit from a Hearing Australia teacher who let the kids “hear” what our son heard before and after the aid was turned on, explained it was necessary, then read them the story.
They had lots of questions but the whole experience was positive. His entire class - and the school and staff - were supportive and he was never made to feel “different”.
But it was watching the little faces when Oliver Gets Hearing Aids was being read, that you could see they understood and accepted that being deaf and wearing this funny thing in your ear was completely okay. New kids to the school were often “educated” by his classmates should anyone inquire.
That is the power of the word and how important it is to not only show young children living with disabilities that they just have different abilities, but to show their peers and people of all ages that looking or behaving differently, or, in our case, having an “odd thing” in their ear, was nothing to be afraid of or a reason to treat anyone differently.
So, just imagine how vital and powerful that message would be if stories, like Oliver Gets Hearing Aids (by Maureen Cassidy Riski, Nikolas Klakow), were written by people with first-hand experience of disabilities FOR young people with similar disabilities, and their peers?
Coincidently, both authors, while not having hearing difficulties themselves, are deeply involved in the audiology profession. The book is dedicated to Dr. Riski’s brother, Patrick, who is hearing impaired. It was Patrick's hearing and speech professionals that shaped her career as a paediatric audiologist.
However, I should mention they are American authors, not Australian, and it’s Aussie children’s authors living with a disability we are trying to track down.
There are a multitude of Australian authors out there who have put their thoughts to paper and written books for kids (and adults!) to help them recognise their abilities and also help others accept, acknowledge and understand what the disability means in language they understand.
For children of all ages, you can’t go past Source Kids for a great list of books aimed at understanding various disabilities.
Australian author and illustrator Mo Johnson and Anabelle Josse, who wrote Noah’s Garden, feature on the list of reading material for youngsters at Source Kids.
Noah and his family are living in The Children’s Hospital because his new sister, Jessica, was born with a serious medical condition. Normal family life is suspended indefinitely for Noah, but in the true spirit of childhood, he spends his days in the hospital garden, creating an imaginary world, longing for the day when Jess can join him.
Noah’s Garden is based on the author’s observations of her friends’ experiences in a Melbourne Hospital where they lived for seven months after their daughter, Jessica, was born.
As such, it’s written as a tribute to all the families who have to stay in hospitals for long periods of time and for whom gardens become an oasis where children can play and families can attempt to have regular lives, even for the briefest of times.
For older readers, Me, Antman & Fleabag, by Gayle Kennedy, of the Wongaibon people of south west New South Wales, is a powerful tale.
Gayle uses a series of engaging vignettes to describe her life as a First Nations woman who had polio.
She was sent away for treatment. When she returned, her parents seemed like strangers. Although the subject matter sounds heavy, this humorous and accessible work is rich with stories about the importance of family (including dogs!) and the impact of racism.
It is also an important book because it chronicles some of the experiences of First Nations people living with a disability. It won the David Unaipon award in 2006.
Fiction and non-fiction works about disability are often hampered by stereotypical representations, as outlined by The Conversation.
A disability is frequently presented as something to “overcome”, or used to characterise someone (ever notice all those evil characters portrayed as disfigured?),The Conversation reports.
These representations obscure the joys, frustrations and creativity of living with a disability.
Dutch author Corinne Duyvis started the #OwnVoices movement on Twitter because she was frustrated that calls for diversity within the publishing industry did not extend to diverse authors.
Originating in discussions of young adult fiction, #OwnVoices aims to highlight books written by authors who share a marginalised identity with the protagonist.
Life writing also provides firsthand accounts of disability, showing what it is like to navigate a world designed for able-bodied people.
These books help people living with a disability learn more about their condition, and create community.
Australia has an established literary tradition of writing about disability.
Here are four other books by Australian writers with first-hand knowledge, that reveal insights into their lives and disabilities:
This is just a tip of the iceberg - This list of Aussie authors living with disability and their books are by no means comprehensive.
A Google search returns a multitude of picture books by overseas authors either living with disabilities or carers of children with a disability, but narrowing the search is a bit sparser, it seems.
We’re after Australian authors living with a disability who have penned books for children about their disability. We know they are out there - help us find them!
Perhaps you are living with a disability and have written a book or are a self-published author? Or do you know of an Aussie writer who should be mentioned here?
Don’t forget to include a bit about yourself and your book/s and even a photo, as well as contact details in case we need to know more or readers want to get in touch!