Literature undoubtedly plays a vital role in influencing the lives of humankind. That’s why diversity in books is so important to combat stereotypes and discrimination in society. However, writers and publishers have been slow to write marginalised people such as disabled characters, minority characters, LGBTQ+ characters and more.
I won’t specifically be talking about writing Black and LGBTQ+ characters today (Erica J. Kingdom already did an in-depth post about that here), but I’m here to discuss why you should include disabled characters in your work, how can you do it accurately and what harmful ideas you should avoid. I’m using detailed research and survey results I have consolidated, as well as my fourteen years of experience living with disabilities on this planet.
Disability — The Forgotten Part of Diversity
Among many of us, there is now a greater focus on inclusion and diverse characters in the media. Happily, many writers are creating characters of different genders, races, sexualities, backgrounds, and so on. However, “disability” is something that may not be top of the mind for most writers, even those who genuinely value diversity.
Think carefully — when was the last time you have ever read a book that had a disabled character? It probably took some time for you to remember if you have ever read one at all. Disability representation in children’s literature is a rarity in the otherwise booming publishing industry hyper-focused on diversity. According to a 2019 study done by the Cooperative Children’s Book Council, only 3.4% of children’s literature has a main character who is disabled.
Despite the emphasis on diversity and inclusion, many writers have either been hesitant in including disabled characters or simply have “forgotten” that disability exists. Even when authors do put in disabled characters, it is often done horribly and only perpetuates stereotypes prevalent in society.
My Experiences As A Disabled Writer
Being an autistic person with mild scoliosis, I have 14 years of experience living with a disability on this planet. I have faced a fair amount of discrimination because of my disabled identity. You may be surprised because discrimination against disabled people, aka ableism, is rarely discussed in society. But, it’s there. I have heard friends I know say that “all people with autism are stupid” in front of my face (of course, they didn’t know a real autistic person was in the area). I’ve come across an essay question about kindness that involves the stereotypical image of a person in a wheelchair. I’ve met many people who find any and every way possible to skirt around the “D” word. I’ve sat in class discussions, mentioning every inequality but the inequality surrounding disabled people. And, in the library, fictional books with disabled characters were rarely ever thought of, invisible gaps in the shelves.
That’s not to say I haven’t tried looking for books with disabled characters. I have actively tried to search for such books in my public libraries and the online world. But, whenever I flip open the pages of a book with disabled characters in anticipation, I close the book in disappointment at the stereotypical depiction and lack of diversity.
I am especially worried about Gen-Z writers. As natives of the digital world, we are hyper-aware of inequality and injustice around us, but time and again I have seen non-disabled teen writers casting disability in an inaccurate light. Thus, I’m writing this article to spread awareness about the accurate representation of disabled people in writing.
Here are 3 rules to keep in mind when writing disabled characters.
Rule 1: Strike A Balance Between Disability And Plot
This is one of the easiest and most fundamental mistakes a writer can make. Some writers go the whole way and make disability the entire plot of the novel, while other writers act as if it doesn’t exist. Between these two extremes, remember there’s a lot of room in the middle.
Some writers include disability simply because it’s an interesting “hook” for the story. They define their character by their disabilities and make “overcoming” disability the whole journey of the story. The storyline often goes like this:
I’m not saying this story is ridiculous and there have been many similar inspirational stories of real disabled people. However, this message of overcoming disability is problematic. Firstly, it’s so unoriginal it’s been written hundreds of times in fiction. Readers don’t want old plots recycled — they want creative and unique ideas. Secondly, it portrays the disabled character as someone who can only be seen as their disabilities. Thirdly, it conveys the ableist and harmful idea that disability is an obstacle all disabled people need to beat. In your story, your character may succeed to walk again, but what about in real life? Isn’t it sending the message that disabled people who can’t become “abled” are weaker or “just not working hard enough”?
While it’s bad to write only about disability, not writing about disability and pretending it’s not there is just as harmful. Writers may write their disabled characters the same way as non-disabled characters. For example, they may gloss over the tedious process of the character getting out of bed or going for medical appointments. They may even not write about ableism! Authentic representation means that disabled people need to be represented realistically.
Rule 2: Avoid Stereotypes
Have you thought up a disabled character and storyline? Great! Be careful not to fall into any traps of ableist tropes. Reading this, you may think, Hah! Who does she think I am? I’ll totally not fall into any silly stereotype! But think again. Is your character:
There are many other tropes to avoid, and this post outlines a few more misconceptions about writing disabled characters.
To be clear, these portrayals are not entirely wrong and, when done well, can make for a great story. However, fiction is full of these one-sided examples of disability. Stereotypes aren’t dynamic, rounded characters that readers will root for. They are just cardboard cut-outs in the recycling bin that do not build a high-quality story.
Rule 3: Do. Your. Research.
This is the most important thing I want you to take away from my post. Write this on the cover page of your work-in-progress, and then highlight it, underline it, put it in bold, increase it to the maximum font size possible, I don’t care, do any action that ingrains these three words into your mind.
When writing any marginalised and underrepresented group, you must conduct careful and detailed research in order to represent them accurately and respectfully. Start with a quick Google search and read up on the disabilities you are writing. Find books written by disabled people themselves and read personal accounts on day-to-day living by disabled bloggers. Interview real disabled people, such as friends or other fellow writers online, about their experiences (only if they are willing to) and work with disabled sensitivity readers or editors to ensure an authentic portrayal.
Thee Sim Ling
Want to learn more about disabled characters? As a Writing Fellow in the I-CREATE YOUTH Fellowship Program, I am publishing a creative writing collection Who’s In The Mirror? about disability representation in children’s fiction that’s accessible for everyone, regardless of disability or background. It contains short stories, poems as well as essays from my research on disabled characters. Check it out!