The prop room on the fourth floor of Houghton Mifflin Co.’s offices here holds all manner of items, including a blackboard, a globe, an aquarium — and a wheelchair.
Able-bodied children selected through modeling agencies pose in the wheelchair for Houghton Mifflin’s elementary and secondary textbooks. If they’re the wrong size for the wheelchair, they’re outfitted with red or blue crutches, says photographer Angela Coppola, who often shoots for the publishing house.
Ms. Coppola estimates that at least three-fourths of the children portrayed as disabled in Houghton Mifflin textbooks actually aren’t. “It’s extremely difficult to find a disabled kid who’s willing and able to model,” she says. Houghton Mifflin, which acknowledges the practice, says it doesn’t keep such statistics.
Houghton Mifflin’s little-known stratagem illustrates how a well-intentioned effort to make classroom textbooks more reflective of the country’s diversity has led publishers to overcompensate and at times replace one artificial vision of reality with another.
To facilitate state approval and school-district purchasing of their texts, publishers set numerical targets for showing minorities and the disabled. In recent years, the quest to meet these targets has ratcheted to a higher level as technological improvements enable publishers to customize books for individual states, and as photos and illustrations take up more textbook space.
“There’s more textbook space devoted to photos, illustrations and graphics than there’s ever been, but frequently they have nothing to do with the lesson,” says Diane Ravitch, a New York University professor and author of “The Language Police,” a 2003 study of textbook censorship. “They’re just there for political reasons, to show diversity and meet a quota of the right number of women, minorities and the disabled.”