A while ago I hijacked the YAMF blog and talked about writing diverse characters. If you know me a little, it won't surprise you that I'm about to add another yay!disability post to that. Specifically, a
rant post about how to write characters with a disability. So fasten your seat belts, and all that.
Two reasons. One, recently, I’ve been betaing quite a few manuscripts that had characters with a disability. Quite a few being about five out of a hundred, but comparatively speaking that is (unfortunately) a lot. Two, my #SecretSciFi has a main character in a wheelchair, so it’s something I’ve been doing a lot of research on. Oh, and maybe three, I have a disability. That does NOT make me uniquely qualified to talk about this, but it does mean it’s something dear to me. And honestly, the examples I have seen? They're awesome. But that doesn't mean characters with a disability aren't still horribly unrepresented.
And that's a shame, because ya know, we exist in real life. Adding diverse characters to your stories isn't as scary as it may seem. In fact, there are only four things you can do to horribly screw up *g*
Four things to keep in mind when writing characters with a disability
(aka how not to be an ableist writer)
1) A person with a disability is not an inspiration.
You guys, this is a very 19th century invention and seriously? It needs to stop, ideally yesterday. Talking about people as an inspiration only by merit of doing what able-bodied people are doing is insulting to the extreme. Can you imagine what it would feel like if someone were to walk up to you to say: “Wow, you inspire me. Doing your own groceries despite the fact that you’re a girl/Latino/red-haired.” Or worse still, how demeaning it is for a person to walk up to the person NEXT to you to say: “Hey, it’s awesome that you brought him here. That he manages to overcome his hurdles to enjoy a simple ice cream really inspires me.”
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And that’s not just insulting, it’s dangerous. Because not only are we expected to smile and nod and accept it, we’re expected to act like it. We’re not expected to lash out or be angry at how fucked up life can be, because we’re immediately classified as “bitter”. We’re supposed to enjoy the things we *can* do instead of dwell on what we can’t. We’re not supposed to show that our imperfection is less than perfect. Because it makes other people uncomfortable. (Plus, we already have all those privileges. What are we even complaining about?)
So a good thing to keep in mind when writing characters with a disability: they need to be characters, not plot devices. It's easy!
2) A physical disability does not mean a character is less intelligent, less caring, has mental issues.
(...I wish I did not have to explain this.)
Just because we’ve lost use of our legs, it does not mean we’re suddenly incapable of rational thought. Because we don’t have two arms, it does not mean we’ve lost the ability to speak to you as yet another human being. Because we’re prone to seizures, it doesn't mean we don't feel, hurt, fall in love, are happy.
It may be that what appears to be a physical disability is more complex and has mental ramifications as well. It may be that it’s a matter of both. But that doesn’t mean it’s okay to assume it’s the case any more than it’s okay to assume that random person you just bumped into in the supermarket has issues.
Make your characters complex (hey, please make your characters complex) but don't let their disability rule every aspect of their personality. (Fun fact: this is the reason most people prefer "person with a disability" as opposed to "disabled person".)
3) Not every person with a disability would automatically choose a cure.
Conversely, not every person with a disability would not choose a cure. And unless YOU are the person with the disability being given the choice, it’s not okay to judge. It really, really isn’t.
But even so, this pops up a lot in fiction and it's one of the more complex discussions. So when you've made sure your characters are complex, fully rounded, not plot devices, these are a few things to consider when it comes to (potentially) curing them. How long have they lived with a disability? What is their "normal"? What are the pros and cons of a cure? (For the love of Gallifrey, can we get rid of magical panaceas?) Is it likely for their world to have a cure? And maybe most importantly, why does your character have the choice (if it is “because he was evil before but he has found his redemption”, we probably need to continue this conversation outside) and why do they choose what they choose.
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Originally, this point came with a lot more ranting. I have… strong feelings about all these points, but perhaps the strongest about this point. DO. YOUR. RESEARCH.
In this day and age, all information is readily available at your fingertips. If you’d research the layout of a town, historical events, cultural differences (and I sincerely hope you do) there is no good reason why you should not research the symptoms and effects of a disability. Google it, talk to people with personal experience (and by that I don’t just mean carers but *especially* people with disabilities themselves), read blog posts, etc. Really, for the most part this is exactly the same as writing any other character ever, but because we're talking about an underrepresented group in fiction, it's even more important to do it right. Educate yourself on both the disability and on the ableism people with disabilities have to deal with, because that’s unfortunately a very real problem too. (See points 1-3.)
And above all? Remember this. A person with a disability is not defined by that disability any more than you’re defined by the color of your hair, the shape of your feet, the names your parents gave you. There is no mold for all people with disabilities. We’re as different and varied as the rest of the human race. Of course, disability makes our lives interesting, to say the least, but we are not our disabilities. Just write characters. And don't be afraid.
Tell me, Misfiteers, do you have characters with disabilities in your stories? If not, what’s stopping you?