Expand your reading horizons with these books about disabilities. These amazing reads feature characters with disabilities in unforgettable stories.
One of the goals of my annual reading challenge is to help you diversify your reading. I want to you expand your horizons: to read stories from genres you might not typically pick up and to try narratives that push you past your own experiences.
For the 2023 Reading Challenge, I want to read a book about a character with a disability. To help you out, I decided to create my own list of books about disabilities for adults to read, although I did include a few top-notch children’s and young adult picks.
Reading about experiences that differ from our own, whether that is an #OwnVoices memoir about life in a wheelchair or a fictional account of a boy with autism, it helps us develop empathy and understanding, pushing us past our natural selfishness to try to see the world from someone else’s perspective. And hopefully, change our behavior so we can be a better ally for them.
I did my best to include a variety of characters with disabilities, both physical and mental. Sometimes, the disability is the focus of the book. Other times, it’s just a piece of a nuanced character because, although a disability is part of a person, it is never the whole person.
Best Books About Disabilities
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Brilliantly gifted and supremely logical, fifteen-year-old Christopher John Francis Boone, a teenager with autism, can easily relate to animals but struggles with human emotions. When Wellington, his neighbor’s dog, is killed, Christopher sets out to solve the case just like Sherlock Holmes would.
R. J. Palacio
If you think about the best books with disabled characters, you have to recognize Wonder as one of the best middle grade choices. This story of a boy with a severely deformed face entering public middle school for the first time will make you ponder how you react to people who look differently. This middle-grade phenomenon will be read in classrooms around America for years to come.
100 Days of Sunlight
A car accident leaves Tessa blind, but her doctors think it is only temporary. Into her life strolls Weston, a double amputee determined to lift Tessa out of her depression and help her see the joy in life. The catch, he won’t let anyone tell Tessa that he has lost his legs. A poignant read, this darling love story is one of the perfect books about disabilities for young adults that adults will enjoy as well.
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow
On a bitterly cold day, Sam Masur runs into Sadie Green on a train platform and they renew their childhood friendship bonding over video games. Together, they create Ichigo, a blockbuster game that changes their lives. Over the next three decades, their friendship is tested as their success leads them to money, fame, love, and betrayal. Don’t let the video game angle put you off, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is one of my all-time favorite reads, a powerful tale of friendship.
Out of My Mind
Sharon M. Draper
I know this is a book list for adults, but there are some children’s books about disabilities that every adult should read. Melody has cerebral palsy so her muscles can’t do what she wants them to do. Although her doctors and teachers underestimate her, Melody’s mind is as active and intelligent, if not more so, than everyone else’s, a fact that she is determined to show.
Me Before You
If you are okay with a page turner book that makes you cry, you’ll be in tears at the story of Will Traynor, a heartbroken man who felt he had nothing left to live for after being paralyzed, not fully understanding that there is always something more. Hired to help care for Will is a scarred young lady who has settled for a very ordinary life. Through their friendship, Will brings meaning into Louisa’s life and gets her to reach beyond what she thought she was capable of. In return, Louisa tries to bring meaning back into Will’s life, before it’s too late.
Flowers for Algernon
How much does higher intelligence give you a better life? The tale of a mentally disabled man who undergoes an experiment that increases his IQ to an insanely high level will make you ponder the benefits and drawbacks of both high and low intelligence. Keep tissues handy, it’s a book that will make you cry.
Nonfiction Books About Disabilities
Born both deaf and blind, Haben Girma has vision enough to know someone was standing in front of her, but not enough to read facial expressions, and could hear enough to know someone was talking but struggled to pick out people in a group. Overcoming these difficulties with tenacity and problem-solving, Girma became a Harvard-educated lawyer and disability advocate, telling her story through a series of essays.
Growing up a paralyzed girl in the late 90s and early 00s, Rebekah Taussig wished she saw someone like herself in popular media. Instead of ordinary people, characters with a disability were always portrayed as either monsters or angels. In a series of essays, Taussig explores what it’s like to live in a body that doesn’t fit the expected mold and how we can better understand the diversity of humanity.
The Story of My Life
I’m not sure there is a more dramatic memoir than that of Helen Keller. As a toddler, an illness left Helen Keller without her hearing or her sight. Until age seven, Keller could only communicate through her own system of homemade signs until she met Anne Sullivan. Sullivan patiently taught Helen about language and how to read and write and eventually Helen went on to attend Harvard University and become a disability rights activist.
A heartwarming graphic novel, El Deafo shares Bell’s experiences growing up hearing impaired. When Cece’s family moves, she leaves her school for the deaf and attends the local public school. Suddenly having a large hearing implant strapped to your chest seems to repel any potential friends. Then Cece realizes her powerful Phonic Ear can hear not just her teacher, but people talking in the hallway, the teacher’s lounge, and even the bathroom. Can Cece use her superpower to help herself find what she wants the most: a best friend?
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
In 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby was enjoying his life as the father of two young children and the editor-in-chief of the French edition of Elle. Then he unexpectedly suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed and speechless, but fully aware. Using his left eyelid, his only functioning muscle, Bauby narrated his first-hand experience of living with locked-in syndrome.
The Autistic Brain
Temple Grandin & Richard Panek
Temple Grandin is a leading autism expert and she also is a person with autism. Using her own experiences and the latest research, Grandin explains how our understanding of autism has changed. Looking at both the strengths and weaknesses of people with autism, Grandin gives an overarching view of the entire autism spectrum. The Autistic Brain looks at theories about causes, proper diagnostic techniques, and best treatments geared toward symptoms that can transform lives.
Book Club Books About Disability
All the Light We Cannot See
In one of the best World War II books of all time, Anthony Doerr masterfully tells the story of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl who flees from Paris to the coastal city of Saint-Malo with her uncle. Interwoven with Marie-Laure’s story is a captivating tale of Werner, a German radio operator charged with rooting out the French resistance. While the plot is interesting in and of itself, the character development and storytelling will keep you glued to the page.
The Memory Keeper’s Daughter
During a snowstorm in 1964, Dr. David Henry delivers his own twins. When he realizes one baby has Down’s Syndrome, he makes a rash decision that will plague their lives for years to come. He has his nurse Caroline secretly take one baby to an institution and he tells his wife that the baby died. Instead, Caroline moves to another city to raise the baby as her own.
Sara Nović gives you an insightful look into deaf culture with a story about the personal and political crises that surround students and the headmistress at the River Valley School for the Deaf. Charlie is a rebellious transfer student who has never met another deaf person and Austin is the school’s golden boy who is shocked when his baby sister is born hearing. Meanwhile, February is desperately trying to keep the school open and her marriage intact.
One Two Three
Seventeen years ago, contaminated water runoff from a chemical plant caused deaths and birth defects throughout the small town of Bourne. One Two Three tells the story of sixteen-year-old triplets: Mirabel, a genius trapped in a wheelchair using a computer to speak; Monday, a neurodivergent bookworm; and Mab, who feels guilty for being “normal.” When the company decides to reopen the chemical plant, the sisters become obsessed with finding the necessary proof to stop them with the help of the owner’s grandson who just moved to town.
Romance Books with Disability Representation
Get a Life, Chloe Brown
After almost dying, chronically ill computer geek Chloe Brown decides it’s time for her to get a life. She moves out of her family’s mansion and makes a list of the things she wants to do: go camping, ride a motorcycle, and do something bad. To help her learn to be a rebel, she enlists the assistance of Red, the hot motorcycle-riding handyman whose rough exterior hides more than Chloe expected.
The Kiss Quotient
In the vein of The Rosie Project, comes Helen Hoang’s debut novel about love when you have Asperger’s. The protagonist, Stella Lane, is a math genius – great at her job but with no experience dating. To fix this problem, she hires the drop-dead gorgeous escort Michael Phan to teach her all about romance. As they check off all the boxes on her romance lesson plan, Stella begins to realize that she might actually be in love.
Love From A to Z
S. K. Ali
When Zayneb, the only Muslim at her school, confronts her teacher for his Islamaphobia, she gets suspended from school. Visiting Qatar, Zayneb tries to become a “nicer” version of herself. Then she meets Adam, who dropped out of school following an MS diagnosis, a diagnosis he is keeping secret from his father who is still grieving his mother’s recent death. As Adam learns about Zayneb’s struggles as a Hijab-wearing woman, Zayneb learns about the struggles of a chronic illness from Adam, and they both learn the powerful lessons that come from first love.
How to Walk Away
Just after Margaret Jacobsen gets engaged to the man of her dreams, their plane crashes due to his pilot error. Chip walks away without a scratch while Margaret suffers severe burns and a broken back. As Margaret tries to recover, she finds love and inspiration in unlikely places – an estranged sister and a strict physical therapist.
Five Feet Apart
In the vein of The Fault in Our Stars comes a love story of two teens with Cystic Fibrosis. Living in and out of the hospitals their whole lives, Stella and Will develop a close bond while dealing with the same disease. Because they have Cystic Fibrosis, they must stay six feet apart at all times or risk infecting each other and jeopardizing their chances of a lung transplant. But when you’re a teen in love, six feet apart seems like an impossible feat.
Can’t-Miss Books with Characters with Disabilities
Daniel considers himself unusually lucky. Living in Athens, Georgia, he has great friends and a great job working for an airline’s customer service. Mostly homebound due to a disease that since childhood has left him unable to speak or move without a wheelchair, Daniel likes to pass time observing his neighborhood. Every day, he sees the same young woman pass by. Until one day, when Daniel thinks he sees her being kidnapped.
All twelve-year-old Catherine wants is a normal family. She adores her younger brother David but often it seems like everything revolves around David’s autism. Catherine is constantly coming up with rules for David so his behavior can blend in better. When a new girl moves next door, Catherine is desperate to have her as a best friend, leading her to question her own behavior.
In 1969, Ginny Richardson gives birth to a beautiful baby girl named Lucy whom the nurse instantly whisks away. For Lucy has Down’s Syndrome, and her father immediately sends her to Willowridge, a school for the “feeble-minded.” Two years later, Ginny discovers Lucy, abused and neglected, and she must fight to keep Lucy at all costs. Similar in scope to The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, the story serves as an awful reminder of how poorly people treated special needs children.
Publication Date: 6 August 2019
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Before the Ever After
Everyone always loves ZJ’s dad. He’s a professional football player who knows exactly how to charm the neighbors and play with all the neighborhood kids. Lately, though, ZJ’s dad has been forgetting things and is always angry, due to complications from all his head injuries from playing football. As ZJ tries to adjust to this new reality, he struggles to hold his family together and remember the good times.
Grieving from the recent death of her nonverbal autistic son, Olivia retreats to a Nantucket beach to take stock of her life. On Nantucket, stay-at-home mom Beth is rocked to discover her husband’s infidelity. As Beth tries to find herself again, she begins to write a story about a boy with autism, a boy who seems a lot like Olivia’s son.
Growing up in a girls’ school, Olivia’s only connection to her family is her mother’s journal, chronicling her mother’s descent into madness. When Olivia, a mute, is invited to return to the extended family’s home at Gallant, she feels at home for the first time. Until she discovers a parallel realm of shadows where she must decide where her loyalties lie.
The Cuckoo’s Calling
An Iraqi war vet with a prosthetic leg, Cormoran Strike decides to set up a private investigation agency. His first big break: the suicide of supermodel Lulu Landry on a cold winter night. With the help of his temp secretary Robin, the gruff Strike makes an interesting main character, and the mystery itself doesn’t disappoint in this fun thriller.
What Books Featuring Characters with Disabilities Do You Love?
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with my Books About Disabilities list? What books with disabled characters have I forgotten? As always, let me know in the comments!
Heather May Holbrook says
Thank you for this post… as the mother of a child with Down syndrome I love when books feature characters with disabilities. Jewel (Bret Lott) is a great book about a mother trying to give her daughter with Down syndrome a better chance in life.
I will definitely be checking out some of these other titles!
Thank you for this list. I have already picked 5 books that interest me.
I love this challenge.