Disability in Literature

I’m sorry if you haven’t heard from me in a while. I’ve been prepping for this year’s A to Z Challenge. I admit that this has been a little harder to prep for this year. But I believe I will get this done.

Now, on to the subject at hand…

This past Thursday on Twitter, I participated in a #StoryDam chat session about a project raising awareness for the population of people who are disabled. The 70273 Project, as it is called, consists on creating a quilt of 70,273 squares, and writing stories based around them. Here is the link to the post.

The session got me thinking about disabled characters in literature. I follow a few fellow writers that are adamant about having disabled characters in stories. Not just having them as sidekicks, but giving them their due as main characters. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments. I know a few people who are physically and mentally disabled. However, I won’t be able to fully understand what they go through in order to live productive lives.

There are, however, two things we need to be cautious of. One, having disabled characters just to have them in the story. While I do believe in having diverse characters, I think it would be a disservice to have them in if they serve no purpose in advancing the story. The second thing is subjecting them to stereotypes. Just as people are unique, every disability is unique. This is where research plays a role. Even if characters share similar disabilities, there will be differences in functionality, reaction, and treatment. The worst thing that can be done is to rope them into a corral.

Part of the writing process is creating a cast of characters that are unique—as well as similar—to us. Disabled characters are no different. They deserve their moments in literature. I have yet to come across a book with at least one disabled character. I do believe that as awareness is spread throughout, I think we will see more of these tropes of characters. And not just have them thrown in for diversity sake, but as a driving force for awareness.

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Author: G. R. McNeese

I'm originally from Illinois, currently residing in Georgia. I graduated from Georgia State University with a Bachelor's Degree in Creative Writing. I am blessed with a supportive wife and family.

7 thoughts on “Disability in Literature”

  1. I disagree with you on this: “disservice to have them in if they serve no purpose in advancing the story” Why should their disability have to advance the story? We run into people all the time who have disabilities and they don’t affect our lives. You could have a character in a mall scene and be waiting for the elevator next to someone in the wheelchair. I know, that’s not a main character, but my point is I think it’d be a disservice to not populate a story’s world with all sorts of characters.

    And I also think you can give a main character a trait, whether it be a disability or medical issue, and not have it have anything to do with the plot. It’s part of fleshing the character out and what makes them them. I have a character in a story who was born with a cleft lip. Has no bearing on the plot. It’s just a detail about her that allows me to make her more realistic.

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  2. Some of my favorite characters have had disabilities, but not all of those disabilities relate directly to the plot. One character lost her arm, another is a dwarf, another was hit by a car and was put in a wheelchair. I think it’s important to recognize diversity in the worlds we create, but I also agree that having those characters in a story just for the sake of having something different isn’t what we should concentrate the story on. Yes, the world is full of different people, but remember that some worlds are notably less diverse than others…and, that can be a point of writerly examination, too.

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  3. I didn’t realize authors were sticking disability in just for the sake of diversity. It makes me wonder if there are some who do it to up their standings with readers, and therefore, more books sold. I hope not and I also hope someone proves me wrong on this point. I am a person with disability. I have yet to even consider writing a disabled character into a story because it has yet to assist the plot. Lately I’ve seen numerous posts about giving characters wounds to deepen the entirety of the character. Disability would be a category to explore for this. However, it MUST mean something to the story, otherwise it’s putting emphasis where it doesn’t belong.

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    1. When I wrote that authors shouldn’t add a disabled character for the sake of diversity, it was an assumption. I apologize if this was confusing and if it appeared that I was singling out certain authors. I don’t know of any author that does it.

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  4. You might be interested in a book called The Ables (by Jeremy Scott) which is about disabled superhero kids learning how to use their powers and save the day. I enjoyed it and am looking forward to the sequel.

    I didn’t read your post as saying the disability should advance the plot, just that the character with a disability shouldn’t effectively be the “token disabled” person. I see similar issues with LGBT characters–their sexuality defines them and they really only exist to BE gay.

    One thing authors writing outside their experience should definitely do is find a someone who can vet the character–a critique partner or beta reader from that group who can speak to the authenticity of the person. For example, I write a blind secondary protagonist and, while I have read everything about blindness, from the visually impaired, that I can, I know I will need to find a visually impaired beta reader to vet my character.

    Long comment, I know, but I’m really interested in this topic. Thanks for posting!

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