College of Education > News and Publications > News: Oct. - Dec. 2011 > Disability in Literature is the Topic of Yenika-Agbaw’s Research

Disability in Literature is the Topic of Yenika-Agbaw’s Research

The phenomenon of disability is largely absent in the literacy curricula in the schools, notes Vivian Yenika-Agbaw.

yenika-agbaw_sml.jpgby Joe Savrock (October 2011)

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - People with disabilities are just one part of the mix that composes social diversity. But the phenomenon of disability is largely absent in the literacy curricula in the schools, notes a Penn State researcher.

Vivian Yenika-Agbaw, associate professor of language and literacy education, addresses the topic of disability in a book she recently co-edited with Mary Napoli, associate professor of education and reading at Penn State Harrisburg. The book, African and African American Children's and Adolescent Literature in the Classroom: A Critical Guide (Peter Lang Publishers, 2011) is a compilation of essays that examine current understanding of multicultural texts in an age of increased globalization.

Yenika-Agbaw authored one of the book’s chapters. She says she wrote the chapter, titled “Disability in Africana Adolescent Literature,” as an effort to fill a “cultural gap” by relating how disability is represented or misrepresented in Africana adolescent novels.

Although Yenika-Agbaw acknowledges an increase in literature on disability, her chapter refers to disability as a “culture” that is consistently absent in the literacy curricula at many schools, in Africa and other parts of the world. Furthermore, her chapter discusses the differing perceptions of disability in Africana literature (Africa and African Diaspora). Novels originating in Africa tend to frame disability as an unnatural phenomenon, but African American adolescent literature looks at disability as natural, explains Yenika-Agbaw.

Yenika-Agbaw sees this difference, she says, “as a reflection of perhaps African belief systems that are linked to the supernatural but at once reinforced by colonialism, and shaped by environmental factors. Therefore, in the novels, African characters are shown to interpret disability based upon their traditional belief systems while African American characters seek out medical and empirical explanations.”

Yenika-Agbaw also discusses how race may contribute to marginalizing of characters—being black and disabled, she suggests, may subject a person to double marginalization in society. “Unfortunately, as a society, we tend to ignore children who are victims of these kinds of social exclusion,” she says.

Yenika-Agbaw hopes to see educators widen the scope of their literature curricula to include texts featuring main characters with disabilities. A more inclusive literary selection would expose students to a fuller picture of human diversity and could dispel the faulty implication that people with disability are “invisible and voiceless,” she believes.

“Literature can be a powerful teaching and learning tool to further enhance our understanding of culture and society,” she notes. “If educators socialize children on the principles of equity, then these future leaders of our global community may be more prone to respecting our collective humanity regardless of our varied racial and bodily forms.”

Yenika-Agbaw suggests that teachers can engage their students in the following activities:

  • Divide the students into groups of four and ask them to research existing policies that relate to people with disabilities. Two students could perform library and archival research while the other two interview members of their community on their views of existing policies. Then ask the students to propose major changes to policies that they deem may continue to marginalize people with disabilities.
  • Since a person’s disability can affect an entire family, students could keep an interactive blog of the experience from a sibling’s perspective.