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Disabling Characters

Representations of Disability in Young Adult Literature


Patricia A. Dunn

Disabling Characters provides detailed analyses of selected young adult (YA) novels and short stories. It looks at the relative agency of the disabled character, the behavior of the other characters, the environment in which the character must live, the assumptions that seem to be underlying certain scenes, and the extent to which the book challenges or perpetuates an unsatisfactory status quo. Class discussions about disability-themed literature, however well intentioned, have the potential to reinforce harmful myths or stereotypes about disability. In contrast, discussions informed by a critical disability studies perspective can help readers develop more sophisticated views of disability and contribute to a more just and inclusive society. The book examines discussion questions, lesson plans, study guides, and other supplemental materials aimed at students studying these texts, and it suggests more critical questions to pose about these texts and the positive and/or negative work they do, perhaps subliminally, in our culture. This book is a much-needed addition to college classes in YA literature, literary analysis, methods of teaching literature, disability studies, cultural studies, contemporary criticism, special education, and adolescent literacy.
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Chapter 3. Awakening Stories: “The Scarlet Ibis” and The Cay




In this chapter I discuss two pieces of older fiction which were both written in the mid-20th century, won prizes, and are still read widely in schools today: “The Scarlet Ibis,” an anthologized short story by James Hurst, and The Cay, a short children’s novel by Theodore Taylor. “The Scarlet Ibis” is often taught in ninth grade and The Cay usually in fifth or other middle grades. While not in a strict category of “young adult” that requires texts be written specifically for young adults or teens, these pieces are both stories in which the adult narrator has an epiphany regarding something from his childhood. He comes to regret the way he treated someone else when he was a boy. Both pieces have a character with an impairment. In “The Scarlet Ibis” that character is the narrator’s brother, referred to as “an invalid” who was born “with a tiny body which was red and shriveled like an old man’s.” In The Cay, the narrator becomes blind when he’s hit on the head by a timber during a ship wreck but then is cured at the end of the story. To my knowledge, neither author had a disability.

Regarding these two canonical pieces, it’s important to analyze the reception documents that shape classroom discussion as well as the texts themselves. To what extent do these texts and their accompanying classroom activities challenge or cement “disabled” and...

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