Tuesday, 19 September 2023

“Helpless and a cripple”: the disabled child in children’s literature

For more than a century, children described as "cripples" were part of children's literature. Othered and constructed as objects of pity, they were there for other child characters and child readers to sympathise with them. Only the child who was disabled as a result of disobedience was not an object of pity. That way, authors sent the clear message that you shall always obey your elders otherwise this horrible fate might be yours. A great many nineteenth-century books asked child readers to either pity the disabled child or to see the temporary disability as a sort of punishment and lesson since suffering would turn them into better persons.

The able-bodied characters and able-bodied readers were superior to the disabled child. A physical norm was communicated, the disabled child was a deviation from the ideal. The Romantic Child was "innocent, unspoiled", often physically attractive and rather contrasted the child whose disability was described in detail.

In Evangelical writing, the attractive innocent often served as a role model for the reader. "Daisie's Pocket Money" from 1902 is a good illustration: 

Daisie is described as’a dear little creature, with flaxen hair and blue eyes’4 – wouldn’t all readers want to be like her - and, if they couldn’t be like her physically, they could emulate her goodness. She saves her pocket money in order to pay for an operation for her friend Edith, who ‘fell and hurt her spine’ and cannot sit up. Her money, of course, is not enough but the ‘great doctor’ is touched by Daisie’s innocent appeal and visits (and cures) Edith anyway.

According to Perry Nodelman, "children's literature represents a massive effort by adults to colonise children to make them believe that they ought to be the way aults would like them to be". Hugh Cunningham sees a manipulation of the public using sentimental appeals on behalf of children, of the homeless, of the disabled. Both, in fact, children's and adult literature did this equally. Robert Pattison points out that these books are political since the child character and the child reader are used "to expose the imperfections of the world" around them and to foster the author's ideologies.

Many of these writers for children were thus doing as Peter Hollindale points out Charles Dickens did for adults, in using the child as ‘a lens or measure by which adult practices can be socially and morally exposed.’  Authors wanted to develop compassionate (and generous) children, but they wanted this to continue into adulthood; the compassionate children of today were to become the child rescuers of tomorrow. (Hillel, 2005)

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- Hillel, M. (2005). "Helpless and a cripple": the disable child in children's literature. In (eds) R. Finlay & Salbayre, S. Stories for Children, Histories of Childhood, Volume 2, (127-137), link
- photograph by Simon Pope (London, 1973-1975) via