Dear Jacqueline Wilson,
I’ve got a confession to make: I, a thirty-seven-year-old woman, spent the Easter weekend watching the CBBC adaptation of your book Katy (a retelling of the What Katy Did stories). I’m sure I’m not the only adult who enjoys your writing – who wouldn’t love your vibrant, believable characters who speak directly to us about their lives and worries?
But I was particularly interested in Katy because it was about her journey becoming a wheelchair user.
I’ve written about my passionate belief that disabled people should be able to tell their own stories, and that where those stories are dramatized, disabled actors should play those roles. Stereotypes are damaging, and we’ve had more than enough portrayals of disability that simply mimic impairment.
I haven’t changed my view, but CBBC’s Katy perhaps softened me slightly. I would of course have loved to see Katy played by a disabled child – and before everyone starts shouting about the need to see her before her accident, if special effects could make dinosaurs repopulate the world in the early 90s, surely in 2018 they can show a wheelchair user walking?
That said, I loved Chloe Lea’s Katy, and the story was so well written that there was minimal impairment-mimicking or over-dramatised tragedy. There were also great performances by disabled actors in other roles.
Children’s TV has also been storming ahead when it comes to representations of disability, whether it’s the wonderful My Life documentary series, Denis’s wheelchair using friend Rubi in Dennis & Gnasher: Unleashed, or the brilliant diversity of the Dumping Ground.
Katy’s story felt emotionally resonant, reflecting the shock and uncertainty a changing body brings, but also the pragmatism, humour and joy that’s possible in the life of a disabled person.
I’m very aware of the systemic barriers which, had this story been written by a less-well-known author, would most likely have prevented it getting onto our bookshelves, let alone onto our screens.
Using your voice and talent to give disabled and non-disabled children believable, authentic characters is something for which I sincerely thank you. The fact that at my age I was still drawn to Katy’s story is evidence of the lack of such characters in our wider cultural world.
I’d like to ask you three favours:
First, please write more Katy stories and ensure these too reflect the lives of disabled children. From my experience as a playworker on inclusive adventure playgrounds for over twenty years, I promise you that these children have way more stories to tell than just how they acquired their impairment.
Secondly, please consider showing disabled people as peripheral characters in stories that don’t relate to their impairments, maybe as friends, parents or teachers. So much of your work shows the beautiful complexity of our world – please let disability be part of this.
Finally, I’m sure you do a lot to support younger writers: please, wherever you can, support disabled authors, particularly those whose intersectional identities might mean they face multiple barriers.
Thank you again for writing Katy.
PS: when you’re ready to create your first character with Tourettes I’m poised and ready to help!