Ableism isn't easy to talk about. This bold new book shows you how
By Louise Kinross
We Move Together is a picture book that belongs on every child's bookshelf.
In bright, bold images, it follows a group of children, with and without disabilities, navigating their day in an urban environment. They move in different ways—fast, slow, on feet, in wheelchairs, using scooters, bikes and canes. Along the way they work together to overcome obstacles—whether it's learning American Sign Language so everyone can communicate or building a small ramp so wheelchairs can get over a step into the ice cream shop.
The book opens with a powerful quote from disability activists Aurora Levins Morales and Patty Berne at Sins Invalid:
All bodies are unique and essential. All bodies are whole. All bodies have strengths and needs that must be met. We are powerful not despite the complexities of our bodies, but because of them. We move together, with no body left behind. This is disability justice.
It ends with a fabulous, kid-friendly glossary that explains ableism, accessibility, disability arts and culture and how some people communicate with speech and words, while others use gestures, body language, facial expressions and sign language.
It is clear and frank: "It can be hard to live in our world when your body or mind is not considered best."
We interview co-author Kelly Fritsch, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University in Ottawa.
BLOOM: How did you come up with the idea for this book?
Kelly Fritsch: The book came about primarily because I’m a disabled parent and my co-author Anne McGuire and I were sitting in Toronto one day talking about how frustrated we were that we couldn’t find books that we felt engaged with disability community and culture as a way of having some of the conversations we wanted to have about disability with our kids and with our kids’ friends. We thought well, why don't we try to write our own book? We approached Eduardo Trejos, who is a graphic artist, and began the process of trying to map out what a book we could be proud of would look like.
BLOOM: The unifying theme of the book is movement. Can you explain?
Kelly Fritsch: Coming out of the disability justice movement, at the beginning of the book we have the quote from Aurora and Patty about how all bodies are powerful not in spite of, but because of their complexity, and how we move together and nobody is left behind. This is the crux of what we wanted to get across—this idea that if we’re going to move forward for social change, we have to do it together. That means the people who are the most vulnerable and those who face the most barriers have to be the people that we are moving with. We need to forefront all of their needs because the barriers that are constructed don’t have to be there.
We also felt kids are very busy—they're always in movement and have a lot of energy, so we thought one way to tell the story was by following kids as they moved through their life in a city and experienced different barriers. Some of the barriers they’re able to challenge and deal with, and some are a bit tougher to resolve.
We have the scene of the ocean and the problem of plastic straws vs. climate change and environmental pollution. That scene is about how we have to sit together and think about these conflicts because they are real conflicts. We can't just throw disabled people under the bus because they have access needs in order to eat and drink and live well. So how do we have these kinds of tough conversations that ensure that the people who are affected by policy changes are consulted and engaged with?
BLOOM: The pictures are incredibly diverse. What instructions did you give the illustrator?
Kelly Fritsch: One thing that’s unique about our book is that we worked together closely as a team. So while Eduardo was the graphic artist, we had many, many discussions about all of the scenes, and as he marked up potential images we would go back and tweak and change the language. So it was an iterative process. We also circulated the book very widely to disabled parents, to parents who have disabled children, and to disability activists across North America. We made sure every community represented in the book had someone giving us feedback about the representations, so we could be confident about the final product.
BLOOM: Anne sent me a copy to review, but I think it was before you had the glossary at the back.
Kelly Fritsch: We didn't have the glossary in mind at the beginning. We were just going to write a storybook. But there was so much information we wanted to pass on to people that we couldn't include in the story, so the glossary came out of that process. We all live in urban areas. Eduardo and Anne live in downtown Toronto and I live in downtown Ottawa. This is what our communities look like. We wanted the book to reflect the disabled people and the people we encounter in our everyday lives in our streets and parks. In developing some of the central characters of kids, most are based on people we know in our networks. They aren't made up but reflect the diversity that's already around us.
BLOOM: It was fun for me to identify some of the disability activists in the pictures. Oh my goodness, that's Alice Wong. And there's Luke Anderson! And Leroy Moore! And even you and Anne and Eduardo appear but in a natural, everyday way. Why?
Kelly Fritsch: This is where the glossary becomes important. In the glossary we name many of the people who appear in the book, because they’ve been central to disability-justice organizing in North America, and fighting for disability rights and for social change for disabled people.
I think that citational, proactive pointing to the people who have been central to making things better is really important and needs to be part of the conversation. These are people who should be recognized for their achievements, but we didn’t do it in the classic children's book way where the book is about 'this great person.' We wanted to show this is a community of people. There's no single person that has done everything. One of the main points of the book is we have to work together to make change and there are many different ways to do that in the culture. We have Canadian blind artist Carmen Papalia who has done such interesting work, and the Tangled art gallery in Toronto, and Alice Wong. Alice's Disability Visibility Project has put disability on the radar of so many people.
BLOOM: I love that these people are seen as regular parts of the community. They're not elevated in some way that suggests they're superheroes and that separates them from the reader. Also, I love the clarity and inclusiveness of the glossary: "The idea that some bodies, minds and ways of moving are better than others often excludes disabled people..." There is no value judgment in how people move in the book, whether slow or fast. We have so much stigma in our culture against slowness. This looks like a book that could be used as part of the curriculum in an elementary school.
Kelly Fritsch: Absolutely yes. That's a huge part of how we want the book to travel. We have an education and learning guide coming out later this week that will be posted to our website. It has a full curriculum for teachers in Grades 1 to 4. The idea there is to give teachers the language and ways to use the book to talk about ableism and to talk about disability culture and community. We also have a whole bunch of activity ideas and discussion prompts.
BLOOM: You have a disability. As a child, did you have access to a book like this?
Kelly Fritsch: No, absolutely not! I very much grew up at a time where as a child I didn’t identify as a disabled person. It was not on my radar that there was a politics associated with disability. I very much had the experience of other kids pointing at me and saying 'What's wrong with you?' and not knowing what to say and feeling ashamed of myself and not knowing why.
Part of this book, for me, is putting out in the world the language to be able to speak about these kinds of questions. Kids are curious and they want to know about difference and I don’t think the desire to know about difference is bad. We need to provide kids and families with tools to speak back to curiosity in ways that open the conversation, as opposed to shutting it down. Let’s make it about a culture and a community and a way of living that is to be celebrated.
BLOOM: Your website talks about how your research focuses on the “generative frictions of disability.” What are those frictions?
Kelly Fritsch: So what I mean there is that I’m not of the opinion that if we just have better attitudes about disability that everyone will be welcome and everything will be great. Ableism is so embedded in our society in so many ways that we have to challenge it. Becoming a more inclusive society for disabled people is going to require that things change, and some of those things are not easy to change.
For example, you were talking about slowness as not being valued. I think if we're going to embrace disability it does mean embracing slowness. That has implications for how we understand work in society. What does it mean to be productive? Should people be given an income whether or not they're able to work? What does it mean to contribute to a community if we're not thinking about it just in terms of work and productivity?
Another example of a friction would be in terms of the ways in which accessibility is not actually a straightforward thing. To solve some kinds of access that people require means that other people won’t be able to be included, whether it's the kind of lighting that’s needed or there's an event that is really noisy, or people are wearing a lot of scents or fragrances.
Accessibility itself is different for different people. People have different access needs and they're not always in alignment. We need to find ways of including people, but also know that we’re not going to be able to 100 per cent include everyone, all the time. How do we have those kinds of negotiations, which I think are generative in that they lead us to better places? When we can have those conversations and we can challenge each other, something good can come out of that.
I'm really interested in the way talking about disability seriously disrupts how we do things.
Don't forget to follow the We Move Together website for more resources.