• Margie Marc

Laughing with Susan: Raising Disability Awareness

It has been estimated that approximately 15% of the population are disabled, yet disabled people are rarely seen in the media and public life and certainly not 15% of the time! Think about it: how many disabled people do you know who are active in the community, have jobs that can support their families and are visual in public life? I know a few but I wouldn't say the number reflects 15% of the people. If you know more, that is a plus.

One disabled person I knew was my teacher at school. Although I was aware that she was challenged with mobility, this did not define her. When I think of her, I think of what a good teacher she was, how she helped a class of children to learn and grow, and how able and inspiring she was as a teacher. Many years later, I bumped into her in the city centre and I was able to tell about what a positive impact she had had on my life. She was retired and almost certainly didn't remember me, but it didn't matter. I remembered her and I wanted her to know what a good job she had done all those years before.

I now realise how unique this situation was back in the 1970's and also how important it is to have positive images, and indeed experiences, to break down barriers in order to enable communities to become more visible and enrich all our lives.

A story with one such powerful and positive message that can help us break down barriers is Susan Laughs written by Jeanne Willis and illustrated by Tony Ross.

Story summary

Susan Laughs is a great conversation opener to raise awareness about difference and disability. It's a short story that describes a range of actions and emotions in a little girl's life. She sings, dances and rides as well as many other things. She also expresses emotions – She's good. She's bad. She's happy. She's sad.

Although there is no plot to follow, the story is uplifting because it focuses on what Susan can do. It's only when we get to the very last page that we realise that Susan is in a wheelchair. Looking back at the illustrations in the book, we notice that Susan is accompanied in many actions but it is not obvious while "reading" the story. What is highlighted is Susan's ability and that she is just like other children. She's an active, jolly little girl who, despite her disability, is able to do a great deal of things.

To listen to Christine Warden from Raising a Reader Massachusetts tell the story, click here.

For for free classroom resources and ideas that help develop sensitivity, understanding and empathy about disability, click here.

Using Susan Laughs in the classroom

Margie has done an excellent job in introducing us to this wonderful picture book. Now let’s think about using it in our classrooms. As a text for circle time, this story is always well received. It highlights the simple present tense and that troublesome final -s in the verb in a natural and engaging context. However, as with many texts that have a twist, it’s important to know if the class we are using this with is mature enough to “get” the ending.

Of course, approaching deeper issues like disability awareness works best within a project that involves the whole school or at least a few staff members over a period of time and in both the L1 and CLIL classrooms. Outside institutions can come in to provide, for example, the opportunity for children to experience being in a wheelchair or moving around the school with a blindfold and walking stick.

Having said that, this picture book offers a variety of possibilities for further exploitation. Gail Butler presented the story to groups when You First Education participated in a Primary teacher training week in Cantabria this July and our colleagues found it inspirational. Here are some of their ideas.

Ideas for CLIL Art

In the CLIL art class, attention can be drawn to the pastel technique of hatching. Indeed, art techniques come alive when there is a picture book example of them. In this case, the illustrations serve as a springboard for other hatching projects. This exercise may inspire the teacher to hunt out other picture books that illustrate a certain artistic technique or medium.

The Cantabria group took this premise one step further: each pupil could represent a page in the story in his or her own way, just as the fourth of Primary pupils had done with the coyote tale in Jesus Maestro Ferrol (Galicia Spain).

The pages are brought together to make a classroom display. To facilitate the creative process, pupils benefit from scaffolding, with menus of different options for producing pictures or creating the font for the text, as seen in this blog post.

Among published resources, Usborne’s Book of Art Skills gives ideas for how to use different pastel techniques, but these suggestions are always in a specific context, like how to make


A more open approach has been taken by a book in Spanish (Pinto y dibujo pastel, Parramón) found in second-hand and discount book shops. The idea that the different ways of using a medium leaves the pupils free to choose.

Learners also need time to get used to working with different resources. Sadly, both budgets and timetables are tight in schools. As a result, we end up depending on a limited range of materials. For practical advice on becoming more adventurous in art, consult the Messy Art series.

Another suggestion from the Cantabrian groups is for the children to think up additional actions and a way to illustrate how Susan’s disability isn’t obvious when she is doing those actions. Or they could produce a story around a character with a different disability, like visual impairment. This is a very challenging creative exercise. Group work may work best here so that contrasting skill sets shine. Some children are more creative, while others are more precise in their artwork or have a bigger English vocabulary.

This last suggestion underlines the benefits of collaboration, as this blog entry also does. Pooling our ideas as teachers and contrasting different perspectives always leads to good results. For this reason, we thank our colleagues in Cantabria for coming up with so many ideas on how to use this popular picture book.

Have you used Susan Laughs in your classroom? Show us some of your work with this or other resources for disability awareness. We would love to peek into your classroom!

By Margie Marc

Bio: Margie has been working in the field of education for many years. She loves the positive change that can be provoked through learning, for both students and teachers. Margie currently works as a teacher and teacher trainer, as well as a certified KiVa trainer.

By Ana Demitroff

Bio: Ana has been in the classroom longer than she cares to admit, but she still gets a kick from the experience and continues to learn from her colleagues and students at the You First Language Centre.