Arlene on the Scene is a children’s book about disability and embracing differences. The author, Carol Liu, talks to Disability Horizons about the book and how she’s using it to teach children understanding.
The printed sign hanging eye level on the gate was quite clear: “only one person in the batting cage at a time.” But I ventured in anyway to help my six year old swing the bat like a real ballplayer, like only his mother could show him. He swung all right, great follow through, all the way around to my face.
I had a beauty of a black eye for a week. It transformed me, into… well, depended on who was staring at me. Some may have correctly thought I was one of those people who ignored clear safety warnings. But some looked at me with pity. Was I a survivor of an accident? Domestic violence? Some looked with an eerie curiosity. What was this suburban mum doing with a black eye?
The experience taught me many things. Yes, my son is on his own in the batting cage from now on! But it also made me realise the inextricable link between the opinion of others and our own self-image. We are, to a certain extent, comprised of how others see us.
I thought of this as I watched my kids and my friend’s daughter, Grace, play one summer day. Both my friend and her daughter have Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a progressive peripheral neuropathy that impacts mobility. Young Grace had on her new leg braces, having been recently told she should start wearing them full-time. So, at nine years old, she had undergone a tremendous transformation. She now appeared to some others to be… “that girl with the leg braces.”
What would that do to her self-image? Having recently felt the intense gawks from my whole black-eye experience, and having seen my friend ensure innumerable stares herself because of her wheelchair, we couldn’t help but worry how Grace would be transformed on the inside. Would she remain powerful and empowered, despite the stares and the well-intentioned sympathy she might receive from others?
We wanted to do something to help, to create a guidebook of sorts for Grace’s fellow school friends. Thus began an incredibly fun collaboration between myself, my friend Marybeth Caldarone, and her wonderful daughter Grace, and the result is the book Arlene On the Scene, soon to become a series with the sequel due out in the spring of 2013. Our premise: take a typical heroine girl, slap some leg braces on her and see what happens.
Ours was a lofty goal: redefine disability for young readers. Define it so that the word doesn’t even apply anymore. Can we transform, in our own minds, disability as difference, akin to race, religion, culture, personality, favourite topping on a pizza?
It seems worth a try. I now visit primary schools across the country and use the book as a launching pad to talk honestly about how we view disability, and how we can view it differently. I find it helpful to first bring to the surface our own reactions toward those who are different from us or who have different abilities.
Then I explore with the kids the difference between sympathy and empathy, a key concept. Sympathy can sometimes create distance, I tell students. It has its purpose, but there’s one step beyond sympathy that we can strive for; that’s true understanding, real empathy. I show the kids how to practice empathy and apply it to everyday situations, starting first with the fictional character Arlene, just to get used to it before we turn our attention to each other for real.
I’ve spent some time with the issue of empathy through my work as a therapist for kids with emotional and behavioural challenges. While we’d like to think there is a natural empathy spring bubbling through all of us, empathy is not always our first reaction, especially when confronted with differences that we don’t understand, differences that make us feel uncomfortable. So I believe we need to actually practice empathy, just like piano or handwriting. Or batting baseballs.
By Carol Liu