How Is the Depiction of Disability Evolving in the Literature?

Researchers from the University of Prešov have completed unique research focused on developing depictions of people with disabilities in the literature. Its results reflect this topic and can be used in inclusive activities

Published on June 01, 2021

Researchers from the Faculty of Education of the University of Prešov have completed an extensive research project focused on human disadvantage in book production for children and young people (original and translated literature from the mid-19th century to 2020). The research showed the historical variability of literary and artistic creative approaches to depicting the topic. Similar research is exceptional in the Central European context. The research results were published in several relevant outputs (project page and their list here). The research project results allow the majority population to know the inner world of people with disabilities in a more detailed way. Describing perceived prejudices and barriers they encounter may contribute to their elimination and creating an inclusive society,” summarize the practical implications of the results lead researcher Professor Zuzana Stanislavová.

One of the project’s main outputs is the monograph “Modifications of the depiction of a person with disabilities in literary and illustrative work for children and youth in Slovakia (1850 – 2020)“. The mentioned publication aims to analyze the history of depicting the health disadvantages of children and youth in Slovakia. The analytical, interpretive view of the changing literary and illustrative portrayal of characters with physical, sensory, and mental difficulties in developing prose for children and youth in Slovakia is complemented by a broader sociocultural framework. It consists of a brief description of the relevant type of disability and an outline of historically conditioned changes in social attitudes towards the disabled. It also summarizes the most common myths about each type of disability in society and offers a short, selective excursion into the history of the subject in adult literature. The core of each chapter interprets changes in the way of thematization of a selected type of disability in literary and illustrative work for children and youth from the middle of the 19th century to the present.

The authors point to indications that integration processes in society have caused, for example, attempts to authentically approach the various sensory experiences of people with sensory disadvantages and the effort to better inform about various aspects of their lives. This trend appears mainly in inclusive books, the content of which is also accessible to disadvantaged readers (e.g., books with tactile illustrations, books that use combinations of images, symbols, and words to tell the story of sensory perception and its disorders, etc.).

Within the research, scientists devoted particular space to the so-called neurodiversity, i.e., a state where the brain functions differently than usual due to heredity, illness, frustration, stress, trauma, or developmental disorder. It turned out that the topic of neurodiversity has been presented in recent years in the most convincing and artistically effective way in the forms that work mainly with artistic images (text-image narration). In the deliberate pictorial reflection of neurodiversity, some books thematize the problem of a person who is unable to respond adequately to a personal crisis (anxiety, depression, mental health disorders, identity disorders, feelings of subjective dissatisfaction with their existence, excruciating doubts about themselves and their environment), problems with social self-realization, etc.).

One of the research results was comprehensive processing of the image of a person with a disadvantage in dramatic genres for children and youth. The scientific monograph The Artistic Image of Human Disadvantage in Drama for Children and Youth (1850-2020) provides an overview of the development of the theme from the beginnings of intentional representation to the present and, in this sense, complements the profile of human disability in prose. The interpretation focuses on capturing the thematization of various forms of disability (physical, sensory, mental, and social – poverty, orphanage, domestic violence, abandonment, racial and religious discrimination, etc.). At the same time, the issue is analyzed against the background of society’s approach to people with disabilities, changes in their attitudes towards them, and the majority of society’s preparation for coexistence with them.

Because the research was necessitated by social practice (integration and inclusion of people with disabilities), a particular part of the project was special pedagogical issues concerning diagnostics and linking literary-theoretical results with research in the unique pedagogical sphere. This line of research was also focused on the use of literature on socially disadvantaged figures of the Roma ethnic group in the emotional education of the young population and in shaping students’ reading competencies in the context of an inclusive school, especially for students with a degree of disadvantage. It was based on the current coexistence of non-Roma pupils of the majority society with Roma pupils from socially disadvantaged backgrounds and marginalized Roma communities. Research has shown that the simultaneous development of the cognitive (IQ) and the emotional intelligence (EQ) of all pupils is of particular importance in this process, and a literary work on the topic of socially disadvantaged Roma characters can be used effectively. Empirical research methods have identified ways in which art literature can help the cognitive and emotional development of socially disadvantaged students (from marginalized Roma communities) with mild or moderate mental disabilities and, at the same time to develop their reading competencies.

The results of the research project thus significantly expand the opportunities that in the process of forming an inclusive society: a) enable the majority population through an artistic depiction of people with different types of alterity to know their inner world more intimately; b) in the interpretation of the interactions of literary characters to perceive the prejudices and barriers they encounter, their consequences and the possibilities of their elimination; c) disadvantaged people themselves reassure that they are an organic and whole part of society.

More information about the project and results here.

Contact the research team:
PhDr. Alexandra Brestovicova, Ph.D.
University of Presov in Presov
Faculty of Education
Centre of Research into Children Language and Culture
Ul. November 17 15
080 01 Prešov
No. 051/7470 535

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