CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 4 . . . .October 14, 2005
Told by an omnipresent narrator, Sparrows on Wheels is a straightforward, engaging story of young people who have physical disabilities. Author Heidi Janz, a writer, playwright and university level English instructor, has succeeded in showing the good, the awful and the awesome aspects of life, all of which can be part of the life of a teenager with a disability. As the story is lengthy, teachers employing this book might choose to read excerpts aloud to their classes and possibly see if they could arrange for the story to be read in alternative formats.
The fictional hospital school setting lends itself well to the story, which is mainly told through the dialogues of junior high and high-school classmates and their friends. Tallia, Greg, Jo-Anne face change brought about by increasing integration of students with disabilities into mainstream schools in differing ways. Attending "normal school" is shown as a goal for one character but as an unwelcome barrier for another in Janz's semi-autobiographical novel.
Students with and without disabilities, such as CP (cerebral palsy) or MD (muscular dystrophy), would gain much from reading this book. Mainstream teachers should expand the context for their classes by way of giving introductory background into CP and MD—i.e., symptoms, examples of prognoses, assistive devices, and common therapies. In our increasingly barrier-free world, Canadian students with disabilities usually attend class along with their able-bodied peers where both groups potentially have much to gain from the integrated experience. However, as this story shows, integration into the mainstream was not always the "norm," and, in fact, some students with disabilities really preferred that things be left that way. Teachers could discuss the reasons for today's current trend toward inclusion of students with disabilities in mainstream schools and also why distance education using video-conferencing is increasingly used wherever possible today to connect temporarily out-of-class students. Although many schools with boarding facilities still exist for congregated students who are blind and deaf, discussing whether this is a necessary or fair deal might follow the reading of this book. Keep in mind that this book is essentially a work of historical fiction. Teachers might consider arranging field trips or guest speakers to get the broadest access to varying points of view and life-experiences.
Those "temporarily able-bodied" readers (also known as tabs or tabbies) will get a strong sense from this novel that students with disabilities should be treated as people first, teenagers second, and owners of disabilities only a distant third. Most young people think and feel deeply about their own abilities and compare themselves constantly to others. This is one of the biggest common denominators possessed by teens of all ages and abilities as they come to terms with their personal strengths and weaknesses. Today, friends come in all sizes, shapes and abilities. Unfortunately, in my own opinion, growing up in the past with a disability has often meant exclusion from too many circles and from all too many of life's opportunities. Great and ever-advancing progress in the field of electronic invention has helped to break down the boundaries between the formerly quite separate worlds of ability and disability.
In this book, we clearly see that a person with limited manual dexterity must successfully master and often test the limits of self-control and patience just to execute the smallest of tasks. Among people with physical disabilities, simply being able to lift up a friend's drooped head is regarded as a valuable contribution. Readers see a clear contrast between the manner in which assistance to people with disabilities can touch the lives of their clients with lighthearted kindness and understanding, or with unnecessarily negative "drag." We encounter an able-bodied V.P.-a trustworthy character who clearly values his role as friendly mentor to the budding student-writer he recognizes and supports in Tallia. And we are given a sense of the deep reservoirs of courage which some students need as they face depressingly short, uncertain life-spans. Young people who wish to become care-givers and volunteers to those with physical disabilities would benefit greatly from reading and understanding the issues brought to light in Sparrows on Wheels.
The niches that students with physical disabilities could successfully carve out for themselves are explored primarily through the roles that Tallia and Greg have as writers on their high school newspaper. One can only admire these characters' resolute determination to persevere along paths that are less-travelled.
Many celebrities who have written books (such as Michael J. Fox, Christopher Reeve and Lance Armstrong) have detailed their battles with life-threatening illness and conditions that came about unexpectedly in adulthood - benefitting all readers. Yet the stories of those born with disabilities and those who become disabled during childhood and adolescence have had to negotiate similar paths, generally without the support of youthful, published role-models. I would hope that this book by Heidi Janz might be made available in alternative formats such as compact disk, braille, large-print and books that easily lie open flat so that more people of all ages and most abilities could read her work and be inspired to forge their own unique paths, despite the nature of the handicap.
Illustrations or even photographs of actual people who may have inspired Janz's fictional characters (as was done with a collection of photos for Carol Shield's Stone Diaries) would be a welcome addition to another print-run of this book. I look forward to reading Janz's next novel, whenever it may be published, preferably on easily-accessed CD format and amply stocked for sale at bookstores across Canada, as well as by DocCrip Press in Edmonton, AB, www.members.shaw.ca/doccrippress/ .
Cathy Vincent-Linderoos is a retired special education teacher with multiple sclerosis who lives in London, ON..
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.