'People don't know how to react': Mum's picture book aims to help kids understand disability

Photo: Grace Kavanagh has written a story to help children not be uncomfortable around kids in wheelchairs.
Photo: Grace Kavanagh has written a story to help children not be uncomfortable around kids in wheelchairs.  

James Kavanagh has cerebral palsy and has been confined to a wheelchair all his life.

During this time, the 18-year-old's mum, Grace, has been by his side, observing people's unease and fear around him.

"People don't know how to react," Grace tells Essential Baby. "Some people totally ignore us. Just because he is non-verbal, he can still see you and hear you and you should still say hello.

Photo: Supplied
Photo: Supplied 

It really annoys me when people say hello to me and ignore him."

However, it was the reaction a couple of years ago of twin four-year-old girls who were visiting the family home in Warrnabool, Victoria that prompted Grace to write a book about James and his wheelchair.

"They had never met James before," she explains. "When I was taking one down to the bathroom we were walking past James and she just froze.

It was clear she didn't know what to say or do. I had to intervene and say, 'this is James, he can't speak but he will smile at you if you say hello'. The girls were then happy and started skipping around him, which made him smile."

Two years later Grace's first book, 'James' Trip to the Zoo' was born.

"The aim of the book is to educate young children how to respond to people like James and be mindful and respectful", Grace says. "If you see a person with a disability you can still be their friend." 

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Her key message is to highlight how important it is to be inclusive of people with disabilities

"Often when people see someone in a wheelchair, they can't look past the chair and see the person," Grace shares. "They look at the chair and it scares them. It is sad really."

The book has received widespread praise from primary schools and kindergartens as well as other families of children with a disability.

Photo: Grace and James Kavanagh
Photo: Grace and James Kavanagh Photo: Supplied

"There is a lack of education around people like James, particularly in schools", Grace notes. "Children often don't know what to do or say when they see him.

And that's because there aren't many resources out there that teach kids about how to react around children with additional needs."

Sarah Ferguson Duchess of York has been sent a copy of the book which Grace has been told she will read on her YouTube channel Storytime with Fergie and Friends.

The book is illustrated by Grace's sister-in-law artist, Kim Kavanagh and features James' favourite animal the giraffe - including fun facts about giraffes.

Grace is planning to release another book with a kangaroo, which she hopes will appeal to the overseas market.

The mum-of-three encourages parents who have just found out their child has a disability to find peace and always look for the positive side.

"When you first find out you have a child with a disability it is disappointing, and a rollercoaster" she admits.  "However, once you once you get used to the idea and find acceptance, there is peace."

Grace reveals there are still times when she feels overwhelmed, and that's okay too.

"I recently went shopping for an 18th birthday gift for him and found myself looking in a baby shop for stars to go on the ceiling rather than perhaps out buying a car like other parents might be."

"It's hard, but I try to always remain positive." 

The book is available through gracekavanaghauthor.com.au. All proceeds from the book will go to the Very Special Kids charity.