Reflections on Disability Representation in Young Adult Literature Laura Carroll and Sarah Casteel


Our project examines the use of ableist terms in five young adult novels and the total impact of the use of ableist language on young adult readers. We explore Rudine Sims Bishop’s statement that literature can act as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors through which we understand others and see ourselves. We have used mirror pieces to represent ableist terms used in five young adult novels that feature characters with vision impairment. We assembled these pieces into a windchime to create a visual, tactile, and auditory representation of the data. We used space and position intentionally, using empty space to portray that these books do not create a complete picture of disability representation, and position to indicate that only one of the selected authors has a disability, and that author was not writing about a disability that they have.

"If we truly want literature in our school and public library collections to act as Rudine Sims Bishop’s “mirrors, windows, and sliding-glass doors,” we first have to acknowledge the counter-stories of the people standing in front of those mirrors, windows, and sliding-glass doors, waiting for their chance to break the glass." - Gallagher, 2020, p. 154

Data Set

We used data from Catherine Gallagher’s 2020 master’s project, “Yet Another (Mis)Representation of Disability: A Critical Content Analysis of Blindness/ Vision Impairment in Young Adult Literature.” Specifically, we considered the most frequently used ableist terms in each of the five novels in Gallagher’s analysis

As Gallagher’s analysis mentions, the topic of disability representation in literature, specifically vision impairment, is not adequately covered by current scholarship. The way that people with disabilities are portrayed in literature impacts societal views about people with disabilities and disabilities in general. It also impacts the way that people with disabilities view themselves. Building on Gallagher’s work, we want to bring attention to the ideas that: disabilities can be invisible, the words used to represent disabilities matter in their ability to reinforce or eliminate stereotypes, and the full lived experiences of people with disabilities should be portrayed in literature.


From left to right, the strands represent:

Girl, Stolen by April Henry. The term stupid was used 13 times and there were 25 total ableist terms used in this book. Henry herself is not disabled but did research in order to write this book.

The Ables by Jeremy Scott. The terms crazy and idiot were both used 9 times out of a total of 61 ableist terms in this book. Scott doesn’t identify as disabled but has discussed having hearing loss, anxiety, and depression.

Love and First Sight by Josh Sundquist. The term stupid was used 6 times out of a total of 14 ableist terms. This strand is in the middle representing some form of getting closer to the target of disability representation in literature, since the author identifies as disabled. However he is a cancer survivor who has had his left leg amputated, writing about someone with vision impairment, so this is still not a story about vision impairment told by a person with vision impairment.

Blind by Rachel DeWoskin. The term crazy was used 23 times out of a total of 64 ableist terms. DeWoskin is not disabled and did research to write this book.

Not If I See You First by Eric Lindstrom. The term crazy was used 26 times out of 69 total ableist terms. Lindstrom doesn’t state his disability status or if he conducted research for the book, but has mentioned having mental illness.



While we considered several media for visualizing the data set; however, we felt that a wind chime would allow us to present the data in multiple ways. With a wind chime, we could use sound, touch, and sight to examine ableism in Young Adult literature.

Sarah had an old mirror with which she could create pendants to hang from the windchime. The mirror pieces represent language used in the YA novels. We felt that the mirror pieces would allow us to further examine Rudine Sims Bishop’s ideas of literature as windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors.

Laura created two sketches of potential wind chimes; we ultimately decided to create one wind chime to represent the five books.


While prototyping our design, we encountered several problems that led us to change the direction of our final product.

Initially, we planned to use the size of the mirror pieces to indicate the frequency in which ableist terms were used in each book; however, the mirror pieces were too large to fit on the wind chime.

Additionally, Sarah’s mirror pieces were too heavy to hang from the wind chime using fishing wire, so she purchased smaller, lighter mirror pieces.

Lastly, we planned to etch ableist terms into the mirror pieces using a Dremel, but ultimately decided to stamp terms using black ink, which reflects the printed language in each book.


Laura molds clay into beads. We used the beads to hold string and fishing line in place on the windchime and to add visual and physical weight to the piece.

We began with a windchime frame, to which we added clay beads. The beads functioned as weights and allowed us to emphasize the weight that words carry. Laura constructed the base wind chime frame, including the dowel rod, hook, and center chime. She also created the beads from several different colors of clay, which she had on hand.

Clockwise from left: Sarah assembles supplies and makes measurements. She adds a title to the piece, Ableism, using beads. Then, Sarah prepares to stamp the most frequently used ableist term in each book onto the mirror pieces. Once she has finished stamping, she attaches the mirror pieces to the wind chime with fishing line. To stamp the ableist terms, she used rubber stamps and acrylic paint.

Sarah used fishing line to suspend mirror pieces. Fishing line helps convey the idea that disabilities aren’t always visible, particularly with respect to vision impairment. She stamped the mirror pieces with the most frequent ableist term from each book with acrylic paint. She used washers to mark the ends of the fishing line. The position of the washer/length of fishing line helps indicate how many total ableist terms were used in each text. There are “inspirational” words on each washer, representing one of the stereotypes we see in literature with disabled characters (as inspirational for overcoming or just living with their disability.)

She added more weight to the right side of the wind chime to reiterate the idea that these authors aren’t writing about their own disability, and to emphasize the weight that words carry (since the most ableist terms were used in the books on this side of the windchime).

Courses of Action

For librarians:

Knowing that ableist language is prevalent in YA literature, librarians can evaluate their collections and seek out counter-narratives written by disabled people. Ensure that books that feature disabled characters are accessible to patrons. Librarians can act against ablism through using universal design principles in programming and following web accessibility guidelines. Additionally, librarians can remove ableist language from their own speech and speak up when they hear others using it. Librarians should also listen to youth with disabilities and ask them about their needs.

For authors:

Learn about ableist language and examine its use in your writing. What may seem like a harmless word to describe a character could be a term rooted in historic violence. When writing about a disability you do not have, make sure to speak to others who have this disability. Seek out sensitivity readers and incorporate their feedback. Elevate the works of disabled authors.

Works Cited

Gallagher, C. M. (2020). Yet another (mis)representation of disability: A critical contentanalysis of blindness/vision impairment in young adult literature [Master's paper]. School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Bishop, R. S. (Summer 1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom, 6(3), ix-xi. https://scenicregional.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Mirrors-Windows-and-Sliding-Glass-Doors.pdf


Hill, H. (2013). Disability and accessibility in the library and information science literature: A content analysis. Library & Information Science Research, 35(2), 137–142. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lisr.2012.11.002

Berger, R. (2013). Introducing Disability Studies. Lynne Reinner.

Hehir, T. (2002). Eliminating Ableism in Education. Harvard Educational Review, 72(1).

Dunn, P. A. (2015). Disabling characters: Representations of disability in young adult literature. Peter Lang Inc., International Academic Publishers.

Rosen, S. (2017). Accessibility for justice: Accessibility as a tool for promoting justice in librarianship. In the Library with the Lead Pipe. http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2017/accessibility-for-justice/

Cohen-Rottenberg, R. (2013, September 14). Doing Social Justice: Thoughts on Ableist Language and Why It Matters. Disability and Representation. http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/09/14/ableist-language/

Ballora, M. & Smoot III, G. (2013, February 23). Sound: The Music of the Universe. Huffpost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/sound-the-music-universe_b_2745188

Wypasek, K. (2020, April). We Will [Wind Chime]. K1.Media. https://k1.media/We-Wil

Desjardins, A., & Tihanyi, T. (2019, June). ListeningCups: a case of data tactility and data stories. In Proceedings of the 2019 on Designing Interactive Systems Conference (pp. 147-160).

Created By
Laura Carroll