Writing Disabilities, Part 1

Three Ethical Questions on Writing Inclusively

If you’ve been hanging around for a while, then you know I started this blog because there are not many disabled characters or disabled voices on the literary market. I have been planning this writing series since the day I started thinking about creating a blog. If you haven’t already, check out the “Disability History” series as it provides a strong base for understanding disabilities as built by cultural means, which lends itself to world-building and designing characters with disabilities.

First, a little side note about this blog: I will not be posting next week as I have switched to working full-time recently and have since been struggling to keep a work-life balance. Since May is Mental Health Awareness month, I have decided to take a short break because I have been feeling some burnout from my new schedule. I am considering switching to writing posts every other week instead of every week, so I’ll keep you guys in the loop about what I decide to do. And don’t forget to check your mental health too. It’s okay to not be okay. What is important is to take care of yourself and reach out. No one should have to fight alone.

From the moment I learned to read, I always had my nose in a book. Every recess, I would take two steps out the door, sit on the steps, and read while all the other kids ran around playing. When I was ten, I started writing my first novel, which was terrible, but my teacher kept encouraging me and so I never stopped writing. Now I am a graduate of Weber State University with a Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing. Throughout my life, I have been unconsciously educated and observing trends regarding disabilities in stories.

While I did not have the knowledge or words to explain the things I was seeing until I got to college, I was recognizing the absence of disabled characters by the time I was eight or nine years old. When I took a nonfiction writing class, I struggled to write about myself. I had no idea how to put my disability on the page because I had never been exposed to work by other disabled authors. In trying to find tips to help me, I found nothing. Instead, I went through a long process to develop my methods and ideas for writing disabilities. It has been a life-long undertaking and I’m still learning. I am proud to share my experiences with you and to give valuable writing advice for anyone who wants to know how to write characters with disabilities better.

My philosophy is to encourage all writers, regardless of whether they are disabled, nondisabled, had a disability in the past, are not disabled but have a family member who is, or identifies anywhere in between. It is not my intention to tell writers how to write or what to write. Rather, the goal is to equip writers with tools, perspectives, ideas, and a deeper understanding of what it means to be disabled to apply to their writing.

So, why is there such a gap of disabled characters and authors with disabilities in the literary world? There are several reasons for this. Disabled people have been oppressed for centuries, which means that they are often an afterthought and more commonly, people believe they aren’t worth telling stories about. Over the last few decades, these ideas have been increasingly challenged as the disabled community has received civil rights and is no longer being segregated from society. Though, there is still a long way to go. For example, book publishers tend not to publish works by disabled authors or works with leading disabled characters because publishers assume the disability narrative is not relatable (meaning it will not sell well). Progress has been made in this area and a few publishers are actively seeking out work by disabled writers, but the gap remains.

Another longstanding issue facing disabled authors is, depending on their disability, their manuscripts may have more errors than a nondisabled author. They may not be able to sit at a computer and type or edit. A simple answer to this would be to hire someone to edit or type as needed, but such help is hard to find and frequently expensive. This causes a conflict as publishers expect highly polished work and may not be willing to put in the extra work to be inclusive.

That is a brief introduction to why there aren’t more disabled voices on the literary market. These are barriers that are actively being challenged, especially with the increasing popularity of self-publishing. I believe that we will see an increasing number of disabled writers and characters with disabilities as time goes on.

With that being said, there are ethical questions that are important to discuss when it comes to portraying characters with disabilities. Here are three big questions to help you think about issues in writing characters with disabilities.

1) Referring to characters with disabilities

It is often surprising to nondisabled people that what they think is an appropriate term to refer to someone, turns out to be offensive. For example, deaf and hard of hearing people prefer to be called “deaf” or “hard of hearing” over “hearing impaired.” This is because being called “impaired” has a negative connotation and suggests that the person is broken. Therefore, it is offensive. But the word Deaf represents identity and culture, which is why you’ll see it capitalized in some contexts. This idea is confusing to nondisabled people because “hearing impaired” sounds more polite to them.

This concept also applies to DeafBlind people and Autistic people. In other cases, such as with mobility devices, a different approach is used. A person in a wheelchair is called “a wheelchair user,” but I’ve seen several works that say it like “a person confined to a wheelchair.” This suggests that wheelchairs are like prisons instead of being a form of assistive technology that enables them to participate more fully in society. It also suggests that being in a wheelchair is a terrible, undesirable thing, but it isn’t. There is no reason why a wheelchair user cannot live a life as full and adventurous as someone who doesn’t use a wheelchair.

If you are not sure how to refer to a character’s disability, google it! Or better yet, connect with someone who has the same disability as the character you are writing. They can be an invaluable resource at making sure your character is accurate and introduce you to new ideas and perspectives.

When referring to disabled people in general, either “people with disabilities” or “disabled people” are appropriate terms. Interestingly enough, there is a lot of debate between which of these phrases are more inclusive, but I’ve found that the majority of the disabled community don’t care if “people” are placed first or second. I don’t care which term is used and you’ve probably noticed I use both interchangeably throughout my blog. Another observation readers might have picked up on is that I use “nondisabled” in favor of “able” or “able-bodied.” Because saying disabled next to abled suggests that one group is “less than” another, I use nondisabled and disabled because it lessens the divide between these communities. The times I do use the terms “abled” or “able-bodied” is when I want to emphasize the differences between these perspectives. You’ll see an example of this later in this post.

Of course, inclusive writing avoids slur words and derogatory terms such as “deaf and dumb” or “midget.” I also include phrases like “what, are you deaf?” or “what, are you blind?” I get really angry when I read phrases like this because they are using disability as an insult while further reinforcing the ableist idea that disabilities are undesirable and having a disability makes someone worthless. What is insulting about being deaf? I am proud to be deaf! What’s wrong with being blind? Or using a mobility device? What is insulting about having a mental illness? Millions of people have these disabilities across the planet. We are not made more or less worthy by having them.

An example of a poor phrase comes from a book I have been reading over the last week, which said: “people suffering from permanent disabilities.” This phrase assumes that all people with disabilities are in a state of constant suffering, especially those with permanent disabilities. As someone with a permanent disability myself, “suffering” is not a word that comes to mind when I think about my disability. If anything, I suffer from the stigmas and stereotypes surrounding my disability than my disability itself.

I find it helpful to think of writing disability in the same way that one would write a hair color. Hair color is often a quick statement or a brief description. “Her hair was dark brown,” or “Her hair was dark, like rain-soaked earth and smelled of wild sea winds.” Hair color is rarely explained any more than is necessary as there are a good number of things more interesting about the character than their hair color. When disabilities are involved in a story, it is tempting to over-describe it and try to capture every possible detail, barrier, and aspect of it for the reader. In doing this, the disability comes before the character. If you were to talk about a character’s hair color for a full page or more, it would turn readers off. Writing disabilities are the same way. State what it is, don’t give more detail than necessary (unless it naturally comes up, such as an able-bodied character who accidently leads the way to a flight of stairs while absentmindedly talking with a friend who uses a wheelchair).

2) The Able-bodied writing Disabled narratives

The story of disabilities has been told from an able-bodied perspective many times over, whereas it has rarely been told from a disabled perspective. This has resulted in a predominant image used for disabilities of poor, suffering children and adults, weak and meek, as they are paraded on screens or stages to inspire pity or used as inspiration porn. In other words, disabled people have been represented poorly, if we are represented at all.

This narrative is something that I, among thousands of others, are actively challenging. Think about if a white author and a black author both wrote a story on what it is like growing up black in the deep south. Whose story would be more realistic? Of course, the black author’s because it will have a completely different perspective and be able to pinpoint details about discrimination that a white author, however, educated she may be about discrimination against people of color or how much she can emphasize with their experiences, will not be able to write as deeply as someone who is black.

There are exceptions of course. A parent of a disabled child would be able to write about disabilities in a different way than a parent of a nondisabled child. Going back to the example of black and white narratives, I will bring up The Help by Kathryn Stockett. For readers who are not familiar with the story, The Help is both a novel and a movie that takes place in Mississippi in the 1960s, a hotbed of racism. The main character is a white writer, who becomes interested in recording and sharing the true stories of black housemaids. I think the way Stockett (who is white) approached the story is smart. By using a white character, who will never be able to fully understand what it means to be black, she was still able to talk about discrimination and horrible things that were done in the recent past. Clearly, Stockett is well educated about discrimination, history, and the black community, but she is also respectful of how much she doesn’t know.

From my own experiences in reading works by authors of color versus white authors, the works of the former tend to hit me in the gut more. Their work is educational and often eye-opening. For example, when I read I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanhcez, there was a single line about how the main character had to have white dolls for her Quinceanera decorations because none of the stories sold dolls of her skin color. That line stuck with me. When I got to stores now, I notice whether or not figurines are inclusive. Like at the local gardening store, I could not find a single gnome, fairy, or other figurines that weren’t white. At a family outing to an aquarium, I noticed a collection of mermaid plushies in the gift shop. They were adorable and sparkly, but all of them were white! It put a bad taste in my mouth, especially because I know what it is like to be underrepresented. I know what it is like to not see yourself reflected in advertisements or toys. It is a sad thing. But my point here is that one line from a book by an author of color has significantly changed my perspective.

That’s why I’m bringing up the question of the able-bodied writing disabled narratives. Now if you are someone who is able-bodied and desperately wants to write a story with a leading disabled character or other disabled characters, by all means, please do so! Beyond a shadow of a doubt, there needs to be more representation of disabled characters. But the point of this ethical question is to make sure that you write respectfully about what you don’t know.

3) Why do you want to include a character with a disability?

This ties a lot into question 2. I have seen several works and movies that involve a character with a disability, only to have the character killed off a few pages later, or to provide comedic relief. Another misuse of disabled character is inspiration porn—meaning that disabled people are objectified for being inspirational, like how women are objectified for their bodies. I’ll be talking more about inspiration porn in a future blog post.

An easy way to figure out if you are writing inclusively (beyond simply involving a minority character), is to ask the questions about the character. What is their purpose? What are their goal(s)? What are their flaws? (It is important to note that disabilities do not qualify as flaws or as obstacles to overcome). Is it to give other characters an inspiring speech (possibly unintentional inspiration porn)? Are you foreshadowing death at the same time that you introduce a disabled character (meaning, are you planning to kill them off)? Are they being used for comedic purposes? Is the character being played on stereotypes?

These questions are to help guide your thoughts and intentions about being inclusive. Because there is a lack of education about the disabled community, the majority of people have no idea how little they know about disabilities. It’s dangerous because people think they can imagine what it is like to be disabled, but disabilities are a much deeper identity than surface level, which is something a writer will never know unless they take the time to research the matter.

Please don’t continue to write narratives that use disabled people solely as sources of inspiration or as a character to be killed off or for comedy. We are people with lives and talents and skills and who are worthy of being told stories of. Give us disabled superheroes. Give us disabled princesses. Put us in positions of power—government leaders, super agents, teachers, doctors, military roles, etc. Those are the stories that we’ve never had. The kind of stories I never got to read as a child.

In conclusion, it can involve a lot of critical thinking when writing a character with a disability. It is a subject that I find intimidating, but I remind myself that every great thing worth doing is going to be intimidating at first. Writers don’t write because it is an easy thing to do. We write because we want to share a connection that surpasses words on a page. Writing enables us to share experiences across languages, cultures, distances, time, and background. We want to expose things, both terrible and wonderous. But above all else, reading and writing helps us to understand

See you all in a couple of weeks! Until then, keep on writing!

I hope you guys enjoyed this introduction and I look forward to sharing so much more! Don’t forget you can follow this blog through by signing up for email notifications or follow my page on Facebook! If there is a topic you want me to cover in the future, don’t hesitate to let me know either by commenting below or sending a message under the Contact page.

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