Academic journal article American Annals of the Deaf

Representations of Deaf Characters in Children's Picture Books

Academic journal article American Annals of the Deaf

Representations of Deaf Characters in Children's Picture Books

Article excerpt

PICTURE books can influence how children perceive people of different backgrounds, including people with disabilities whose cultures differ from their own. Researchers have examined the portrayal of multicultural characters with disabilities in children's literature. However, few have specifically considered the portrayal of deaf characters, despite increased inclusion of deaf characters in children's literature over the past two decades. The present study analyzed the portrayal of deaf characters in picture books for children ages 4-8 years. A content analysis of 20 children's picture books was conducted in which the books were analyzed for messages linked to pathological and cultural categories. Results indicated that these books did not portray Deaf characters from a cultural perspective but, rather, highlighted aspects of deafness as a medical condition, one that requires fixing and that perpetuates stereotypes of deafness as a disability.

Children's literature has the potential to strongly affect children's lives. It provides a source from which children acquire information about their own culture and language and even come to understand the culture and language of others. In these ways, literary characters can provide children with a "mirror" image of themselves and their own culture or a "window" into the cultural lives of others (Style, 1996). Traditionally, characters with diverse cultural backgrounds and characters with disabilities have been neglected in children's literature, and when included, they often convey negative stereotypes and provide false cultural information (Kama, 2004; Mendoza & Reese, 2001). Because deaf people have historically been characterized as disabled, deaf characters have been portrayed from a disability rather than cultural perspective (Lane, 2002).

However, with more and more attention being paid to multicultural issues, authors and publishers of children's literature seem to have followed the trend of increasing the production of children's books that include a diverse set of people, places, and events (Nilsson, 2005). Researchers, in turn, have examined how children's books portray characters of different races, ethnicities, and cultures, as well as characters with disabilities. The benefits of including a diverse set of characters are many. For instance, children who are from a marginalized culture can find more representations of themselves and their culture in the books they read, and even children from mainstream cultures can expand their understanding of people and cultures about which they might know little.

In recent years, there has been a growing acceptance of a cultural model of deafness. This includes greater recognition and acceptance of Deaf culture and the Deaf community. Yet children's literature, and the research examining it, seems to lag behind in this area: The research that has been conducted provides limited evidence that Deaf characters in children's literature are portrayed from a cultural perspective, which would highlight the existence and acceptance of Deaf culture, the Deaf community, and the prominence of sign language in the Deaf community (Bailes, 2002). Instead, the majority of deaf and hearing children often grow up being exposed only to a disability or medical perspective of deafness (Lane, Hoffmeister, & Bahan, 1996), in which deafness entails going to the doctor, wearing hearing aids, or even getting cochlear implants. This is problematic because deaf children often grow up with few Deaf role models, and as a result may struggle with their attitudes and beliefs about themselves and about Deaf culture (Lane, 1992). They need positive examples of people who are Deaf, can model Deaf culture and American Sign Language (ASL), and can share knowledge of the rich and successful lives they lead. (See Holcomb, 1997, for more about deaf individuals' identity development.) These models can support deaf children's overall development, and can be provided in children's literature. …

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