Shruti Pushkarna: Does literature exclude or misrepresent children with disabilities?

24 Mar,2022

Shruti PushkarnaBy Shruti Pushkarna


In the past, I have talked about disability representation in films, television and news media. If I look back to my childhood, I was most influenced by the books I read. Apart from entertaining, the fictional characters from comics and novels colored my thoughts and behaviour. At times I tried to emulate their traits, imagining myself as part of the plot.


My first and perhaps only memory of a character with disability is Klara from the novel Heidi. She was a wealthy but lonely and frail girl who is assumed to be invalid because she cannot walk. In the end, she is miraculously cured, stands up and starts walking. Somewhere it may have reinforced a medical definition of disability in children’s minds, the idea that Klara wasn’t normal and she had o be made whole and healthy again.


Often discourses on disability inclusion emphasize on the need to sensitize children from an early age. One of the understated advantages of inclusive education is peer acceptance and normalizing the differences in a commonly inhabited environment.


According to a UNICEF report, there are around 240 million children with disabilities globally, which means, one in ten children live with disability. As per Census 2011, out of the 26.8 million persons with disabilities, 2.04 million are children with disabilities. And 75% of them don’t attend schools.


They are physically absent. Children’s books with disabled characters as protagonists can generate empathy in young readers, who otherwise have little exposure and understanding of disability.


I spoke with Aniruddha Sen Gupta, a writer and creator of the Fundoo #4 series, curious as to why he chose to make one of his characters hearing impaired. Aniruddha enjoyed writing from an early age but pursued the interest seriously once he moved from Delhi to Goa. He believes that creative content needs to be inclusive. The medium needs to be the message, and inclusivity needs to be built into the storyline itself.


When and how did you start writing books for children?

The first Fundoo #4 book, Mystery of MindNet came out in 2008 and the second one, Lake of Betrayal came out in 2012. But the books weren’t the first things that happened with these characters. We created these characters for an educational CD ROM with Eklavya Education Foundation on the subject of measurements. They wanted to create stuff which was cross discipline, like in Maths or Physics, and measurement seemed like something that crosses different subject areas. So, we created these characters then, at that time Mani wasn’t conceived to be hearing impaired. Later we started using them for different kinds of projects, the books also came out of that. There was some talk with Cartoon Network also, because we were conceiving Fundoo #4 as a multimedia franchise of sorts.


What was your initial tryst with disability? How did you get sensitised towards it?

Salil Chaturvedi (friend and colleague who is a paraplegic) is the main factor in my understanding of it. We are very close friends, almost like brothers. Most of my understanding comes from interacting with him, and also from working with disability organizations. My mother was almost deaf in one ear for most of her life, it’s been there in my life but I never thought along those lines.


At what point did Mani become a character with disability?

When I wrote the books. We thought let’s have one of the characters with some form of disability, and deafness worked well because we could use it in different ways. The character copes with it and uses the disability as a strength. For example, Mani has the ability to read conversations across a room, that’s the kind of secret ability which helps them in solving mysteries.


How would you define Mani, who is he?

Mani is a lot like me. He likes to have a good time, he uses humour in dealing with the world in many ways. The only difference is that I don’t have a hearing impairment. That is just one element of it. I am not able to deal with certain kinds of everyday issues. If something involves going to an office, I usually get my wife to do it. That characteristic of mine is sort of a limitation. I see Mani in the same light. He can’t hear, that’s it. His mind is not any different just because he can’t hear. He is a bright kid.


And how did you come about choosing deafness as his disability?

Sign language is almost like a code, you use certain things which no one else around you will know. That’s another aspect of Mani’s superpower, all four of them can talk to each other without people knowing what they are saying to each other. When the book was launched, we went to schools for events (promotions) and we had a few routine exercises as part of the book event. One of these activities was to introduce kids to the concept of sign language. We would show them some basic signs, Indian Sign Language alphabets et cetera. At the end of the event we would get them to applause like deaf people. The students and teachers both appreciated this exercise.


In your book, the disabled character and his friends are referred to as ‘misfits’ and ‘fellow outcasts’. The terminology has an ableist ring to it, and that’s probably how the average reader perceives them. What are your views on the portrayal of disability in literature, in terms of stereotypes?

There are two things to this, one is of course, however we may think about it, the fact is that society looks at them in a certain way. So just to reflect the reality of a situation, it’s good to bring that in. Through the course of the book, through the course of what happens to the kids, how they do things, you realise they are not misfits. They are not outcasts, in fact they are probably gifted. It develops a different sort of empathy in the readers for the kids, in the sense that you understand that these words don’t mean what you think they mean. They are words which are thrust upon people for no reason and people have their own abilities and ways of doing things. Various people are disabled in various ways, it doesn’t have to be necessarily a physical or a mental disability. There are things that you can do and things you can’t. And that’s the case here also. And that’s what we are saying through the books, disability doesn’t have to be looked at differently. A person with disability doesn’t have to be discriminated against, based on that.


Usually disabled characters are used to generate fear, pathos, hatred et cetera. In trying to depict disability with a fresh perspective, you are up against all such (mis)representations. Was it challenging to beat that image? How has the response been?

One of the problems I feel in terms of a book about the subject or with characters who are disabled, often they tend to become preachy. I feel to get the message across, the storyline and the characters have to be compelling. That’s what you notice about the Harry Potter books as well. The plot is gripping and all other social messaging becomes apparent later. Children’s books which preach too much won’t work. I tried to keep the setting such so that the kids will relate to it easily, like adventure and mystery. And then bring the issues as a secondary layer. The reactions in schools were positive, with kids talking about someone they know of being disabled at the end of the sessions. I felt that maybe a lightbulb had gone off in their heads.


Literature is said to be an agent of change, capable of influencing attitudes and behaviour. What is the kind of impact you think books and other media can have?

My view is that the first area of impact needs to be in the minds of people who are not disabled. That’s what the books or other forms of media that we are working on, can do. There are several other factors in terms of including people with disabilities in education or employment. It helps to create a picture that prevents people from discriminating. That’s where our main focus is. To make sure people who are not exposed to disability, get an understanding of what it is and how you bring people with disabilities into the mainstream. Just changing mindsets more than anything else.


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