The Disability Experience: Working Toward Belonging by Hannalora Leavitt, Illus. by Belle Wuthrich

Review by Elizabeth Leung

Orca Book Publishers, April 2021

192 pages, paperback, $24.95 CAD, 978-1-459-81928-3

Ages 12+, Grades 6-9

Middle Grade/Young Adult, Non-fiction

My goal in writing this book has been to demystify the world of disability and otherness enough that you will now view PWDs [persons with disabilities] with a discerning eye. You’ll be able to distinguish individual types of disabilities rather than lumping them together. You’ll understand that our independence may look different than yours and that our presence and inclusion are here to stay. The more we PWDs learn and share, the more we benefit.

As resources that explain disabilities to youth are hard to come by, The Disability Experience is a true gem of non-fiction. Author Hannalora Leavitt, who herself is legally blind, provides a succinct overview of the culture and history of disability for young readers. Situated in a Canadian context, she leads readers—both people with disabilities (which she shortens to PWDs) and those who are able-bodied—to better understand the disability experience and how one can become a better ally for people with disabilities.

As opposed to more textbook-like non-fiction, Leavitt writes in the first person. She acts as the reader’s narrative guide, injecting her own voice and experiences throughout the text, which is one of the book’s greatest strengths. Her voice comes from a place of understanding how youth education (especially able-bodied youth education) on disabilities is often very limited. She generously provides teaching moments, covering topics such as: the common types and examples of disabilities, the history of disability, what disability culture and independence for people with disabilities looks like, the various adaptive technologies used by people with disabilities, and the continuous rights advocacy surrounding the politics of disability. In keeping with one of disability culture’s greatest mantras, “nothing about us without us,” Leavitt adds individuality to the more informational statements, by including bios and interviews from individuals with a range of disabled experiences.

However, with a text that is only 200 pages in length, it cannot encompass absolutely everything about the disability experience. While blind, deaf, and mobility-aided experiences are well represented, there are other groups that are not. There are only brief mentions of cognitive disabilities, no mentions of mental health-related disabilities, or use of the term neurodivergent, which has become a popular term in discussing these disabilities. That being said, she does create space to discuss people with disabilities within the LGBTQ+ community, acknowledge that low employment rates plague the disability community, and even medically assisted dying. No book can cover absolutely everything, but Leavitt does manage to cover a wide range of topics in a nuanced and refreshing manner.

In continuing with the theme of accessibility, the structure of the text itself makes the content welcoming to a wide range of readers. The prose is not bogged down with heavily technical language. Key words are bolded and a glossary is provided, along with a list of further resources and an index for quick reference. Chapters are divided into easily digestible sub-headings and the text on each page is broken up by a mixture of full-colour illustrations, photos, and text boxes. The typeface is dark to create maximum contrast on the white page with generous spacing, which is inviting for those with visual impairments or reading difficulties. Illustrator Belle Wuthrich brings a diversity of skin tone, gender, and dress to all the individuals she depicts, and the character’s expressions do well to illustrate discomforts of inaccessibility—as well as how, when accessibility needs are met, those of all bodies and abilities are relaxed and smiling.

The Disability Experience is a great starting point for young readers, especially for able-bodied children, wishing to learn more about people with disabilities generally. With no other resource quite like this on the market, especially from a Canadian perspective, this text would be a valuable classroom and school library reference. Excerpts, or The Disability Experience in its entirety, could be used as teaching material alongside other fiction or non-fiction texts featuring a character or person with a disability. Children particularly passionate about disability awareness and representation may even wish for a personal copy.

Elizabeth Leung is Young Adulting’s Editor-at-Large. A graduate of UBC’s Master of Arts and Children’s Literature Program (MACL), she is currently a PhD student at the University of Cambridge where she is researching representations of dyslexia in children’s and young adult speculative fiction. When not working on her creative or academic projects, she can be found reading, dancing, and consuming lots of coffee. Follow her on twitter @ezlabeth.

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