As someone who grew up with family members who had disabilities (dwarfism, blindness, amputation, etc.), and as someone who personally has severe hearing loss and is legally deaf, I often cringe at how people with disabilities are portrayed in books and movies. More often than not, we get no representation, much less proper representation. The kid who rolls onto the scene in a wheelchair with a chip on their shoulder is just... overdone. They are a flat character who gets used for "inspiring" and "tear-jerking" fodder. And they don't represent but a very small minority of those with disabilities.
So, I'm going to give you 6 tips for how to properly represent people with disabilities in your writing and stories.
1. Remember We Are Human
As with writing any character, we are a complex human being first. We have strengths, flaws, desires, and struggles just like everyone else. A disability is not our only struggle. We have family dynamics, dreams, hopes, crappy days, good friends, and every other thing that human beings experience, along with the added struggle of a disability and the trials that come with it. Disabled people have lives just like everyone else. Make their struggle complex and realistic, and not focused solely on the disability. Make the story about THEM, not their disability. They are not broken or abnormal, just different, the same way cat and dog people are different and have different struggles.
2. We are not our disability
Just because you have long toes or short toes, you don't identify as a long or short toed person. In the same way, we have a disability but our identity is not that disability. That being said, here comes the tricky part: disabilities can affect every part of life, even down to simple acts, but those with a disability don’t even realize all the ways their disability affects them. More often than not, it is just our normal way of life. My great aunt with dwarfism could not reach the sink faucet without a stool, or sit on a normal toilet without steps. However, that did not define her. She was her own person with daily habits that were different from ours.
3. Do Your Research
If you want to accurately portray someone with a disability, you have to find out what living with that disability looks like. This means reading and watching things by people who actually have the disability and asking them if it’s okay to interview them. If they agree to be interviewed, listen to their response. They are the expert.
Also, not all disabilities involve traumatic experiences that leave someone in a wheelchair or missing an arm or leg, or leaving you deaf, as is my case. The Census Bureau found that 96% of people have an invisible disability. This means you can’t tell a person is disabled just by looking at them. Most don't use a wheelchair! People with invisible disabilities tend to get left out of novels, because they are harder to write, but they are literally the more common in the disabled world.
4. Stop "Curing" Us!
It sure would be nice if a fairy godmother could bippity-boppity-boop us into being "normal". But in real life, disabilities are not something that can be overcome. Disabilities aren't something that can usually be cured, or disappear, and people with disabilities don't achieve success "in spite of" their disability. Our disability is something we live with every day, like curly hair (my curly hair people know exactly what I'm talking about, lol). While it can be difficult and frustrating at times, we dust ourselves off and do what needs done to live our life. Also - heads up - there can be good things that come out of disabilities! Either way, the easiest way to avoid "curing" a disabled character is to not make the entire story about the disability. Make it about them, the person.
5. Make The Disability Clear As You Weave It In
Many writers want to add a disabled character for some diversity in their story, and that is great! However, many don't specify the disability because they are afraid of getting it wrong. So... the character might as well not be disabled at all. To avoid making your character say it out loud or wear a T-shirt that labels them, illustrate their disability through thoughts, accommodations, and dialogue. Remember, disabilities are not a character flaw. Accommodations can look like a character who sits down every time they have the chance, tilting their head to hear, using devices to open jars, or even special lighting in their room. Again, do your research, ask questions, and practice weaving it into the story you are telling. It's not our identity, but it is a part of our everyday life, so it should be a part of your character's everyday life too.
6. PLEASE Add Humor
I’ve never known or met a person with disabilities who didn’t joke about it. We use it as a coping mechanism (some days you've either gotta laugh or you're gonna cry), as an ice breaker, and sometimes we use humor because - come on! - it's funny! Some of us make light-hearted quips about it, and some of us have a darker sense of humor. Whatever kind you are into, humor is a great way to break up your story. If you Google “X disability humor” you’re likely to find a few good jokes. Sift through them and find tasteful ones your character can use. And, as always, don't be afraid to ask the experts (those with the disability) if that joke would be funny or something they would use.
Listen to my podcast episode about this topic!
There are lots of great books out there about people with disabilities. Most of them are written for kids, as it's very hard to find any adult books with disabled characters. I'm going to recommend a few that I know are great using some Amazon Affiliate Links. If you purchase one of these books using the links below, you will be supporting me AND the author!
The beasts of the field shall honour me, the dragons and the owls. - Isaiah 43:20
Self-published author of the fantasy series, Tales of the Wovlen, Kathryn spends a great deal of time in the world of her imagination, having tea with fire breathing dragons, writing books on flying space ships, and practicing her mad scientist laugh with gusto. However, on occasion, she returns to this world just to play with her dog, blog about her fun, and coach people through writing self-doubt.
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