Writing about disabilities

December 28, 2017

 

 

 

I made this mistake once. Wrote a cool protagonist who was blind and by the end of the book he had his sight back. I was wrong. First of all I only used the disability as a plot device instead of thinking of the character and how it would really effect them. Then I committed the cardinal sin. I made it go away. People with disabilities can't just put them down and move on. They have to live with them day in and day out. To minimise a disability that it can just go away. That is truly evil. I made this mistake and I regret it. I can't even fix it as it would create a massive plot hole to keep him blind.

 

So I'm writing a new novel and this one has a lady who has lost a hand. There isn't going to be some magical miracle where she gets it back. Instead I've given her a prosthetic very similar to the ones we have today. I wanted to show that even though she was lacking in something it wouldn't stop her being useful, living her life.

 

Here is a list of things we should all stop doing when we write about disabilities.

 

1. Miraculously cure the disability

As I said before that in reality that doesn't always happen. Also, if you cure all disabilities it sends the message that disabilities are a horrible thing never to be endured. Instead, disabilities can be overcome and even sometimes allow us to shine in a new way. I know curing disabilities is just another version of crossing the threshold but it diminishes the lives of those who live every day with a disability.

 

2. Glamourise it

Most disabilities have an icky side to it. My dad has a false eye. I remember one day him pulling over because his eye popped out. Others will tell you that disabilities often come with pus and doctor visits to look at places no man should ever look. Have you ever seen Blind Fury. He was awesome, but it didn't show the pains of being blind. Missing the cup when you are pouring a drink, burning himself on something. We shouldn't hide the hardship that people with disabilities have to overcome to do the every day things we take for granted. Whereas if you watch the Book of Eli and you have to watch it again and you realise that everything he did was an act of faith. Every step he took. That gave power to the character instead of glamourising it.

 

3. Confine the disability to one aspect of their lives

Disabilities are invasive in a our lives. They change everything. I have dyslexia. You'd think it would effect just my reading and writing. It doesn't, I can't read analog clocks. I forget left and right. A disability is part of who we are and we engage in our lives with every aspect of ourselves. When you write about someone with a disability make sure you don't forget they have it. Don't have them rushing up stairs when they are in a wheelchair or shaking someone's hand when they are blind.

 

4. People aren't always fine with it

I remember once dad didn't have his false eye in but he didn't bother with the patch. A little girl at the playground had an eye patch on. The father of the girl approached us and asked dad what people's reactions were to him without an eye patch or a false eye. The father was so worried that his little girl would be picked on for being different. I can tell you the majority of people don't care but there are a few who stare or look away. When it comes to disabilities there is a myriad of reactions. Most are positive but some people react weirdly and don't forget that. They either pretend it doesn't exist. Sometimes they get angry, they don't like to be reminded of their mortality. Others get loud. You know the people who speak slowly and loudly because someone is in a wheelchair. Others treat them like a baby, even with the baby talk. Mostly people will be fine with it but watch people around people with disabilities and you will see what I mean.

 

5. Hate it or Love it you have to live with it

Those with a disability have very mixed feelings about their disability. Like my dad having lost his eye to save his life. How you feel about that disability is never simple. Even my dyslexia I have mixed feelings about it. I'm glad it allows me to see the world differently but it makes things difficult at other times. I tell people that reading and writing for me is like swimming with only one leg. Difficult but not impossible. Never reduce the characters feelings to merely accepting their disabilities. They have it and that doesn't allow for time or space to come to acceptance of it. That only happens over time. So if your character is only recently disabled they will often go through the stages of grief for a life they can no longer live. At the end the acceptance is often bitter sweet.

 

6. Don't coddle them

I had a friend who had a stroke that paralyzed half her body. She lived on her own and happily went about most things on her own. But some people would do everything for her. Cut up her food, open the doors for her. She didn't need any of this done for her as she could do it on her own, yes slower but to do everything for them is to deny her own ability. So when you write about someone with a disability don't have people doing things for them all the time. Give your characters their own power. Celebrate the little things that are done through lots of perseverance. Disabled doesn't mean powerless.

 

7. It is alright to be angry

Those with a disability have been dealt a terrible hand. It is alright to have a normally lovely character get angry at the crappy hand life has dealt them. That anger is often a flash as most people who have come to terms with their disability have mostly put a leash on that anger but good people can get angry. Don't shy away from that emotion.

 

8. Don't not write about characters with disabilities

I suppose you think it is too hard to write about a character with a disability and just won't. Except that we should all be able to read a story about a character just like us. Whenever you write a character that is so real that it resonates with some, it a miracle in its self. So write about the most obscure disability so everyone has someone in the story with someone just like them in it. Just do it right. Just do your research. Representation matters.

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