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People With Disabilities Mentioned But Remain Invisible in Textbooks


School textbooks serve an important role in ensuring inclusive education. However, research from the University of Gothenburg shows that people with disabilities are largely invisible in the books.

In order to find out how people with disabilities are portrayed in school textbooks, Professor Monica Reichenberg has reviewed books used in Swedish schools by 12–16-year-olds. In total, she has analysed more than 6 300 pages in around 30 textbooks in history, biology, religion and civics. Previous studies have mainly looked at the mentioning and presence of disabilities in school textbooks.

Few Studies on Social Groupings

However, few studies have been carried out on which social groups people with disabilities belong to. Consequently, Reichenberg wanted to study how disabilities are represented in textbooks with respect to type of disability, age, ethnicity and active participation in society. Active participation in society refers to whether a person with a disability regularly engages in activities away from home, such as sport activities, paid work, voting, protesting and spending time with family and friends.

The results show that less than half of the textbooks present individuals with disabilities as active citizens. However, in these books, it is mainly individuals with physical disabilities who are portrayed as active, whereas those with intellectual disabilities are presented as passive participants.

Conveys Values

‘My analysis also shows that people with disabilities represented in the textbooks range from young to old yet only belong to the Swedish majority population,’ says Reichenberg and points out that school textbooks have always been important tools in the forming of children’s social identities.

‘Textbooks also convey values and may for some children be their first contact with people with disabilities. It is also important for schoolchildren with disabilities to be able to identify with the content of the books.’

The analysed textbooks were published in 2005–2016.

The results of the study are presented in an article titled The Representations of Type of Disability, Ethnicity and Age and How These Are Associated with Participation in Textbooks, published in Journal of Special Education and Rehabilitation.