Books about disability should be staples in every classroom and bookshelf to broaden our understanding and help us learn about disabilities we’re either not as familiar with or that are invisible. Like many though, I’m still learning, so please let me know if there is anything I have missed or if anything is wrongly worded and needs changing.
People with an intellectual disability may have difficulty communicating, learning, and retaining information. Examples include:
- Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
- Developmental delay
- Down syndrome
A physical disability may affect someone’s physical capacity and/or mobility. Examples include:
- Acquired brain injury
- Cerebral palsy
- Cystic fibrosis
- Multiple sclerosis (MS)
- Muscular dystrophy
- Spina bifida
- Spinal cord injury (SCI)
- Tourette syndrome
Mental illness can affect a person’s emotional state, their behaviours, and how they think/feel. Examples include:
- Bipolar disorder
- Eating disorders (body dysmorphic disorder, bulimia, anorexia)
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
A sensory disability can affect one or more senses; sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste or spatial awareness.
- Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
- Blindness and low vision
- Hearing loss and deafness
- Sensory processing disorder
- Speech loss or impairment
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but rather a starting point. Next, I researched books that included characters with one or more of the above disabilities, both those that I’ve read and would like to read. I then reached out to the Bookstagram community asking for their suggestions and recommendations; you’ll find those here too.
For books about disability, my top recommendation is:
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
Genre: Fast-paced murder mystery
Quick summary: Christopher is on a mission to solve the murder of his neighbour’s dog, Wellington. Like Sherlock Holmes, he knows exactly what he needs to do to find the culprit. However, Christopher lives his life by very strict rules and will have to leave his comfort zone behind if he wants to find answers, and not just about who murdered Wellington.
I first read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time way before I joined Goodreads, (circa 2010) and have read it multiple times since. I studied it at school, saw it on stage (AMAZING), have two editions (one of few multi-copies on my bookshelf) and love it more and more with each re-read. The way Christopher draws us into his world and helps us see things from his perspective is nothing short of brilliant. It’s simple, yet very thought-provoking. It might not have the most unpredictable storyline, but this one isn’t about the plot; it’s about Christopher, a highly intelligent and logical 15-year-old who navigates the world a little differently.
Although it’s not specified, Christopher’s actions, patterns, and routine suggest he is autistic and most likely has Asperger syndrome.
Also recommended by @Books.Voices.
More must-read disability books
Here are some other books that feature characters with disabilities that I highly recommend:
Rosie Loves Jack by Mel Darbon
Genre: Young adult romance
Rose and Jack are in love and can’t bear to be apart. But after an incident at school, Jack is torn from Rose’s life, leaving no word behind. When she finds some hidden postcards in her father’s possession, Rose runs away to find Jack. Along the way, she meets kind people but also bad people who don’t want her to leave.
Rose has Down Syndrome which makes people underestimate her independence. I’d recommend this for older fans of Jaqueline Wilson (and 100% adults too).
Read my full review of Rosie Loves Jack.
Also recommended by @ReadingWithKT.
Out of my Mind by Sharon Draper
Genre: Middle grade
Melody is different to most kids but refuses to be defined by her disability. She’s smarter than people think and she’s determined to prove it, just by less conventional means.
Melody has cerebral palsy and is wheelchair-bound and non-verbal. She may not be able to talk, but this book does a great job of giving her a voice. The plot is basic and the writing is a little dated but the morals are strong – accept people for who they are, never judge someone just because they aren’t what you deem ‘normal,’ and always, always be kind.
Also recommended by @Reading_Relish.
The Shock of the Fall by Mark Haddon
Genre: Contemporary fiction
The Shock of the Fall is Matthew’s metafictional account of his life up to that moment, written while living in a mental institution. It started with his brother’s death – an accident that has forever eaten away at Matthew as he was partly to blame. From there, we see his demise into an illness that has taken hold of him as he tries to piece together each part of his life.
The narrator in this book suffers from schizophrenia, while his brother has Down Syndrome. It does a great job at putting you in Matthew’s shoes and giving you an insight into his jumbled thoughts and internal conflicts. It has a non-linear structure to mimic Matthew’s thoughts as he writes whatever memories and feelings enter his head at that given time.
Kokomo by Victoria Hannan
Genre: Contemporary cultural fiction
Kokomo is a fresh Australian debut that explores family, love, and long-kept secrets. When Mina finds out her mother has left the house for the first time in 12 years, she catches the next flight back to Melbourne, desperate to uncover the truth. But the reunion is stilted as Mina’s mother remains a closed book. They will both have to face a painful past in order to find the deeply buried answers.
Mina’s mother, Elaine, has agoraphobia and hasn’t left the house since her husband’s death. This is a real poignant book with a strong mother-daughter dynamic – highly recommend for literary fiction lovers.
Before Her Eyes by Jack Jordan
Genre: Small town thriller
As far as thrillers go, Before Her Eyes definitely has a unique angle. The main character, Naomi, is a blind witness to a murder and is the only person who can identify the killer. She can’t understand whether the killer let her live because he knew she couldn’t see him, or if he is taking her along for the murder-fuelled ride.
With short chapters, a fast pace and an easy storytelling style, this book has all the ingredients of a gritty, twisty thriller.
Tim by Colleen McCullough
Genre: Romance set in Australia
Mary, a single middle-aged woman enjoys being alone, until beautiful and gentle Tim unexpectedly emerges into her life. This unlikely pairing is a testament to true love and one that leaves your heart bursting.
Tim is mentally impaired with the mind of a child. He has so much love to give but struggles to find his place around people his age (and older) who mock and pity him.
If you can, listen to the audiobook for this one – the narration by Kate Hood is fantastic.
Note: as this book was published in 1974, there is offensive language, however, this reflects the way people spoke in the 70s.
Also recommended by @ButBooksAreBetter2.
The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker by Joanna Nell
Genre: Contemporary fiction set on a cruise
The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker follows Evelyn’s search aboard the Golden Sunset to find her lost husband. Armed with a trusty map and her very comfortable ‘Find Henry’ shoes, Evelyn makes her way around the liner, experiencing more than a few mishaps while recalling past memories of her and Henry’s exciting adventures.
Evelyn suffers from dementia and the author does an incredible job of transporting the reader into Evelyn’s mind and giving us an insight into how it must feel to both suffer from and witness someone living with dementia.
Wonder by R.J Palacio
Genre: Young adult coming-of-age
Wonder is a heart-warming story about an ordinary boy trying to find his place in the world. At 10 years old, Auggie begs his parents to let his start mainstream school, as he wants to be treated like everyone else. While many of Auggie’s peers only see what’s on the outside, a select few realise just how special Auggie is when treated like any other kid.
Auggie has a condition called mandibulofacial dysostosis, or Treacher Collins Syndrome which affects the development of bones and other facial tissues.
This is a truly heartwarming novel about an ordinary boy trying to find his place in the world.
Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris
Genre: Psychological thriller
Behind Closed Doors is the type of realistic thriller that keeps you up at night. From the outside, Jack and Grace appear to have the perfect marriage, the perfect house, the perfect life. Always together, never apart. But inside, it’s a very different story…
This is one of my all-time favourite thrillers – pacey (without a rushed ending), suspense from page to page, and a plot that will keep you up well into the night.
There is a character in this novel (Grace’s younger sister, Millie) who has Down Syndrome.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Genre: Classic historical fiction
Of Mice and Men follows two drifters, Lennie and George, in search of work during the Great Depression. Their joint dream is to live off their own land, but just when that dream is close enough to touch, it all goes wrong due to Lennie’s misunderstanding of the world and his own sheer strength.
First published in 1937, this book explores a range of topics controversial in the era, including racism, mental illness, and the class system.
Lennie is intellectually disabled and described as being ‘simple-minded,’ which was likely the term when this book was published. In modern-day, he is characterised as possibly having autism and/or schizophrenia.
Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon
Genre: Young adult
In Everything Everything, Maddie has Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, sometimes referred to as ‘bubble baby’ disease.
She’s basically allergic to the world, which forces her to be entirely housebound. When Olly moves in next door, their connection is undeniable and Maddie is faced with a choice that could jeopardise her entire existence.
If you’re looking for a book to devour in a day and love an old-fashioned romance (think The Fault in Our Stars), then this one’s for you.
Recommended books about disability from the book community
I put the question to my Bookstagram followers and asked for their top recommendations for disability books. Get ready to max out your library holds…
- Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, recommended by @Books.Voices (character with Autism Spectrum Disorder)
- Still Alice by Lisa Genova, recommended by @We.Should.Be.Reading (character has early onset Alzheimer’s disease)
- Turtles All The Way Down by John Green, recommended by @BookChara (character with anxiety and OCD)
- The Seven [Imperfect] Rules of Elvira Carr by Frances Maynard, recommended by @KP.BookCorner (character with autism)
- House Rules by Jodi Picoult, recommended by @Bookworm.Bekah (character with Asperger’s Syndrome)
- A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll, recommended by @ReadingWithKT (character with autism)
- Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, recommended by @Reading_Relish (character with dyslexia)
- Dark Pines series by Will Dean, recommended by @ButBooksAreBetter2 (reporter who is deaf)
- Not a Sound by Heather Gudenkauf, recommended by @ButBooksAreBetter2 (character who is deaf)
- Truly Devious series by Maureen Johnson recommended by @BookChara (character with anxiety)
- The Ordinary Doll by Mario Kiefer, recommended by @aVictorianSoul (character with a physical disability)
We hope we’ve inspired you to pick up one (or more) of these books and explore a story from a different perspective. This is such an important and under-read topic that we should be promoting and educating ourselves and others on as we expand our reading.
Which books about disability have you read? Are there any here you’ll be adding to your list?