So Loud a Silence
Library Services to Latino Youth with Disabilities
Thursday, December 15, 2011
by: Dr. Jamie Campbell Naidoo & Allison Ladd

Section: News Articles

Fall/Winter 2011

Dr. Jamie Campbell Naidoo is an Assistant & Foster-EBSCO Endowed Professor School of Library & Information Studies University of Alabama. He received his Ph.D. in Communication and Information Studies from the University of Alabama and holds a Masters of Library and Information Studies from the University of Alabama.

Allison Ladd is a recent graduate from the University of Alabama School of Library and Information Studies with a special interest in library services to differently abled youth.

Victoria Goes To Brazil by Maria de Fatima Campos

My Pal, Victor/Mi Amigo Victor by Diane Gonzales

Featherless/Desplumado by Juan Felipe Herrera

Skate Fate by Juan Felipe Herrera

The Treasure on Gold Street by Lee Merrill Byrd

Becoming Naomi Leon By Pam Munoz Ryan

Border Crossing by Jessica Anderson

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork

According to the latest information from the U.S. Census Bureau approximately 8% or 4 million Latinos have a cognitive or physical disability[i]. In 2010, an estimated 608 thousand Latino children and young adults were diagnosed with one of these disabilities.[ii]  Just like any other cultural group, Latinos suffer from intellectual disabilities that affect learning capabilities; physical disabilities that can limit mobility, sight, hearing, etc.; and emotional disabilities that influence mental capacities. However, unlike other cultural groups, Latinos will often not seek assistance from healthcare facilities or community organizations for youth in their familia that have a disability; as a result these families have the potential to become a silent minority not fully realizing the benefits available to them.

Latinos will often not seek assistance from healthcare facilities or community organizations for youth in their familia that have a disability

Proyecto Visión, the Latino organization dedicated to serving Latino youth with disabilities, explains that part of this hesitancy stems from Latino’s strong community and family support system, which assists parents with disabled youth. The organization also suggests that Latinos have a sense of cultural pride that prevents them from “burdening the system” with family problems such as having a disabled child.[iii] Consequently, many Latino youth with disabilities do not receive the accommodations that they could receive under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

For public and school libraries interested in serving Latino children and young adults with disabilities and their families, this means that librarians will have to make a concerted effort to reach out to this population. One way to do this is through targeted programming, services, and collections for Latino youth with disabilities. Targeted programming and services can include collaborations and outreach activities with community organizations specializing in serving Latino families with disabled youth such as those listed at the end of this article, or working with the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) to obtain Braille books representing individuals with disabilities as well as the Latino culture or talking children’s and young adult books in Spanish. This last suggestion allows opportunities for disabled Latino youth to have equal access to culturally relevant materials and also provides a chance for these youth to see reflections of their daily experiences within the library. For disabled Latino youth that do not need the services of the NLS, libraries can provide culturally relevant books in their collections that represent Latino children and young adults with cognitive and physical disabilities. The remainder of this article profiles a few of these titles that librarians may want to add to their youth collections.

Latino Children’s and Young Adults Books Featuring Characters with Disabilities

Representing a Latina child with cultural roots in South America, Victoria Goes to Brazil, written by Maria de Fatima Campos, chronicles a young girl with Down’s Syndrome who travels with her mother to Brazil to visit her relatives in the southern part of the country. Throughout the book, readers and Victoria are introduced to art, capoeira, rural and urban life, native animals, street children, and indigenous crops. The fact that Victoria has Down’s is never mentioned in the narrative; rather, full-color photographs depict the beautiful diversity and various cultural aspects of Brazil while successfully conveying that a Latino child with a disability enjoys life no differently than any other child.

My Pal, Victor/Mi Amigo Victor, written by Diane Gonzales and illustrated by Robert Sweetland, features a Latino boy with a physical disability. This picture book is a great example of a story in which the main character is a person with a disability who is not defined by his handicap. In fact, the reader does not know that Victor is in a wheelchair until the very end of the story which focuses on the many things Victor can do like play games and ride roller coasters. Some picture books include illustrations of children in wheelchairs or with forearm crutches as evidence of representing disabled youth. However, these types of books often do not examine the experiences of these youth within the narrative. Books such as My Pal Victorconvey the life of a disabled child to readers, mirroring the daily experiences of Latino children with disabilities. Unfortunately, while the books is bilingual Spanish and English and the characters appear Latino in the illustrations, very few elements of Latino culture appear in the book, other than a brief reference to Mayan pyramids. The boys in My Pal, Victorcould be any boy of any ethnicity, but they just happen to physically reflect a “Latin look.”

Another picture book that presents a Latino boy with a disability is Juan Felipe Herrera’s Featherless/Desplumado, which describes a young boy named Tomasito whose spina bifida keeps him wheelchair bound. Whereas readers do not know Victor is in a wheelchair in My Pal Victor, Tomasito’s disability is addressed head-on as he struggles with the anxiety and emotional stress of not fitting in with his other classmates. Herrera’s poetic narrative captures the boy’s pain but also his joy as he finally discovers that he can do many things like play soccer while bound to his wheelchair. Similar to Gonzales’ picture book, few cultural elements define the characters in the book as Latino other than their names. Nonetheless, the book does fill a gap in the existing literature.

Herrera describes another wheelchair bound Latino youth in his recent young adult book Skate Fate. The novel in verse follows a Chicano teen Lucky Z as he recounts moments of his life before and after a drag racing accident, which has left him in a wheelchair. Not for the faint of heart, the slams of poetry describe his prior drug abuse and various observations on a variety of topics from his perspective as a youth with a disability. Unlike the other youth books about Latinos with disabilities, Herrera presents a contemporary hipster that has experienced life as a “disabled” and as a “fully-functioning” youth. This specific feature makes the book very appealing to Latino youth in a similar situation.

The Treasure on Gold Street/ El Tesoro en la Calle d’Oro,written by Lee Merrill Byrd, is a touching story about a very special Latina neighbor with a cognitive disability. The main character of this story is a young girl, Hannah, who often plays with her neighbor Isabel, a woman who is cognitively disabled. Isabel loves to interact with the children that live on the street and is well known by all of the residents of Gold Street. Hannah enjoys spending time with Isabel because she is a fun and entertaining adult that still thinks like a child. When a neighborhood girl teases Isabel, Hannah stands up for her friend and at Isabel’s birthday party the extended community show support for their “treasure” on Gold Street. Isabel’s condition is portrayed in a very positive manner and there is more Latino culture represented in this picture book than in My Pal, Victor or Featherless. While some of these aspects focus on specific foods, the overarching Latino cultural elements presented are a strong sense of familia, pertenencia, and community that embraces Isabel just the way she is. The book is perfect for discussion starters about how children can interact with someone with a disability.

Another book featuring a Latino character with a disability is Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Muñoz Ryan. The main character of the book, Naomi, has a brother who suffers from physical disabilities. One of Owen’s legs is shorter than the other leg which creates difficulty walking, his head is tilted to one side, and his voice sounds “froggy.” However, Naomi is very quick to point out that Owen is at the top of his class academically. Owen struggles with bullying and misconceptions that he suffers from a learning disability because he “looks disabled;” but his sister and grandmother encourage him not to be influenced by the negative opinions of others. The novel for upper elementary children offers a glimpse into the life of a Latino child who is physically disabled, providing both a mirror which reflects the experiences of Latino youth with disabilities and a window for able-bodied children to learn about the experiences of a child with a disability. Latino culture is prevalent throughout the novel including the use of Spanish, a strong sense of family, a setting in Mexico, and the references to alebrijes. The book is a valuable tool for both Latino and non-Latino children as it introduces them to a spunky Latino boy who just happens to have a physical disability.

In the young adult novel Border Crossing by Jessica Anderson, readers meet a Latino teen that suffers from dementia. Fifteen-year-old Manz is content to spend his summer working on a cattle ranch with this best friend Jed. Although the work is hot, the job is a great escape from his mother’s depression, which seeps into every corner of their house. Unfortunately, it isn’t long before the biracial teen begins to hear voices telling him to beware La Migra who want to ship him back to Mexico as part of Operation Wetback. These voices, which Manz deems as The Messenger, convince him that he can trust no one as they are all working for the Operation. Anderson provides readers with a glimpse into the downward spiral that engulfs the teen as he drowns in voices that only he can hear. With very few books representing mental illness, particularly paranoid schizophrenia, in the Latino community, this is an important novel that touches many hot-button issues and would lead to in-depth discussions about mental illness, Operation Wetback, undocumented immigrants, etc. 

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork is about a Latino teen who has a form of autism called Asperger’s Syndrome. Marcelo’s father wants him to interact in and learn from the “real world.”  Consequently, Marcelo gets a job as a mail clerk in his father’s law firm and is forced to enroll in a public school. Marcelo does not understand how to read facial expressions and often becomes too obsessed with little details to properly see the full picture of an issue or problem. In the past, he has been teased at public school and was enrolled in a home school program for kids with disabilities. He fears returning to public school because he does not enjoy interacting with the “normal kids.”  While there is not a lot of Latino culture in this book, Marcelo’s family has a high socio-economic status, something rarely explored in literature about Latinos. Marcelo’s family does not face the same problems that most Latinos endure in youth literature, which is a refreshing change. Since Marcelo narrates the novel, it offers an exclusive look into a very unique mind. Teens who suffer from forms of autism will find the book interesting and hopefully the content relatable. Teens who are not autistic can learn about what some autistic teens must deal with on a regular basis, making the book a valuable learning experience.

Beyond the Books

What does it mean to be a Latino youth and disabled? The children’s and young adult books we have profiled provide comfort to those who deal with the same issues and offer an opportunity to learn about Latinos and Latinas dealing with cognitive and physical disabilities. As librarians, we know the importance of Latino youth seeing representations of their culture in library books and materials in order to affirm their ethnic identity. The same is also true for youth with disabilities. They too deserve the same opportunity to see reflections of themselves and their experiences in library collections. However, librarians wanting to truly serve Latino youth with disabilities and their families need to consider opportunities to engage with this demographic. As mentioned at the opening of this article, Latino youth with disabilities are a virtually invisible, silent cultural group. In order to reach this demographic, librarians can consider partnering with some of the organizations listed below or contacting them to learn about disabled Latino youth in their neighborhoods. Hopefully with these resources and the books profiled, librarians can provide a voice to Latino youth with disabilities and end the silence!

Recommended Resources for Connecting with Latino Youth with Disabilities:

·       National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) Kids Zone– Includes links to various book awards including the Schneider Family Award for children’s and YA books featuring characters with disabilities. Also, includes a searchable catalog of NLS materials that can be borrowed including Braille and talking books either about Latinos cultures or in Spanish. Available: . A Spanish application for materials is available:

·       Proyecto Visión– A bilingual English/Spanish website devoted to helping youth with disabilities seek educational and employment opportunities. The website includes numerous resources such as a report on Latinos with disabilities in the United States. Available:

·       National Center for Latinos with Disabilities– Based in Chicago, this organization provides community outreach and educational training to Latino families who have members with disabilities. Available:

·       Fiesta Educativa– Based in Califorina, this organization provides programs, services, and outreach to Latino families with children and other family members with disabilities. Available:

·       Alianza de Latinos Discapacitados- ALD (Alliance for Latinos with Disabilities) – Situated in Long Island, this consortium of community based agencies, businesses, and hospitals strive to serve and educate Latino families in Nassau and Suffolk Counties who have family members with disabilities. Available:

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