By Alaina Leary
In this stylishly illustrated biography anthology, meet 30 artists, thinkers, athletes, and activists with disabilities, from past and present. From Frida Kahlo to Stephen Hawking, find out how these iconic figures have overcome obstacles, owned their differences, and paved the way for others by making their bodies and minds work for them.
These short biographies tell the stories of people who have faced unique challenges that have not stopped them from becoming trailblazers, innovators, advocates, and makers. Each person is a leading figure in their field, be it sports, science, math, art, breakdancing, or the world of pop.
Challenge your preconceptions of disability and mental health with the eye-opening stories of these remarkable people:
Ludwig van Beethoven, Gustav Kirchoff, Henri Matisse, Eliza Suggs, Helen Keller, Frida Kahlo, John Nash, Stephen Hawking, Temple Grandin, Stevie Wonder, Nabil Shaban, Terry Fox, Peter Dinklage, Wanda Diaz Merced, Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, Dr Victor Pineda, Farida Bedwei, Stella Young, Lady Gaga, Arunima Sinha, Naoki Higashida, Isabella Spingmuhl Tejada, Aaron Philip, Catalina Devandas Aguilar, Redouan Ait Chitt, Jonas Jacobsson, Trischa Zorn, Ade Adepitan, and Nick Jonas.
What kind of research did you do for I Am Not a Label:34 Disabled Artists, Thinkers, Athletes and Activists From Past and Present? What was one of your favorite profiles to write about?
Writing non-fiction was wildly different from creating my own fiction stories, and I found it quite an intense and illuminating process. It was a lot of research, but I felt so humbled to get to know peoples’ stories and try to tell them in the most succinct and eloquent way.
Nabil Shaban, British-Jordanian actor and writer, who I know personally and who is even more amazing in real life, was one of my favorites to write about. He has such a generosity of spirit and such an extraordinary capacity for compassion, as well as being an absolute badass. I also adore Ghanese athlete Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah’s story, the tenacity of his mother is just wonderful and the way he carries that on. Arunima Sinha, an incredible Indian mountaineer, also has an unforgettable story.
How did you decide which people you wanted to profile and highlight in this book?
When researching the profiles for I Am Not a Label, the hardest task was deciding what to include and what to leave out- whilst hopefully making the writing lyrical. Everyone’s life just shone with so much wonder and brightness, I could have written a chapter on each of them.
I love the section on hidden disabilities and mental health, looking at how Lady Gaga has dealt with chronic pain and Demi Lovato has managed her depression. It’s so important to normalize these experiences and show that joy and recovery is possible with the right self-care and understanding.
We had a really long list—there are so many awesome diverse and disabled people, but eventually, we whittled the list down to something that felt fun, interesting, and amazing.
I would love to do a second book, there is already a long list for who I’d include. Paralympic swimmer Ellie Simmonds, actor Matt Fraser, Paralympic cyclist Kadeena Cox, popstar Britney Spears, and a whole host of future disabled activists, social media stars, performers and politicians the world is yet to learn of.
What other books do you think I Am Not a Label is in conversation with?
I think I Am Not a Label takes its lead from Rebel Girls, Little People, Big Dreams, and all the phenomenal and fabulous children’s biography anthologies that have followed in its wake. Books of this kind are so lovely to read together and such great conversation starters. They are truly informative in the most creative and positive ways.
If readers take away one thing after reading this book, what do you hope that is?
When I was growing up, I wasn’t greatly aware of any excellent disabled role models. They existed, but I hadn’t learned of them. That’s why this book is important to me. Representation is so vital, it’s not acceptable to tell a singular story or celebrate one particular group over another. I wish there were more disabled producers and creators within the media, it’s only by changing the storyteller, that you can truly change the story.
If readers take one thing away from this book, I hope it’s the realization that disability is not something negative. I wanted to create a book that documented this honestly and celebrated the different ways in which people experience disability. There is an assumption that having an impairment is something bad, or that you must be extremely brave and heroic to live a happy life if you’re disabled. I wanted to show that it’s never that simple, that having a disability isn’t a shameful or fearful thing, but nor does it make you exceptional, it’s just a different way, sometimes wonderful, sometimes mundane, always human.
I hope this book becomes a reference book and introduction of inclusive stories and positive joy that all children can celebrate.
Do you have any recommendations for published or forthcoming children’s and YA books?
Upcoming books I’m super excited to read are:
A Song Below Water by Bethany. C. Morrow
A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik
A Phoenix First Must Burn by Patrice Caldwell
What’s one question you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
One question I would love to be asked more is, ‘would you like to go on a fantastic book tour of the states?’ and the answer is YES!
Cerrie Burnell is an actress, singer, playwright, author, and former television presenter for British Children’s TV Show, CBeebies (2009–2017). She was born with half a right arm and has sought to increase visibility of disabled people through her career in presenting, writing, and acting.
Alaina Leary (Lavoie) is the communications manager of We Need Diverse Books. She also teaches in the graduate department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College and is a book reviewer for Booklist. She received a 2017 Bookbuilders of Boston scholarship for her work in the publishing industry. Her writing has been published in New York Times, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29, Allure, Healthline, Glamour, The Oprah Magazine, and more. She currently lives in Boston with her wife and their two literary cats. Follow her @AlainasKeys on Instagram and Twitter.