This past Wednesday an author writing for the group blog Word Whores posted an essay on writing disabled characters that had me reaching for every NOPE gif I could find. Entitled “PHYSICALLY DISABLED PROTAGONIST” and running as part of a week of
posts dedicated to disability in fiction, it was full to bursting with terrible advice given from an ableist perspective. After I shared the link on Twitter, the post received some critical comments on the blog. Although the three comments were thoughtful and on point, the author decided to delete the post and write an apology, rather than engage the critical commenters in discussion.
Although the post’s been deleted and the author has walked back what she wrote, I still would like to talk about the themes and attitudes contained within it. This isn’t because I want to take a run at the author and crucify her. I absolutely take her at her word that she meant no harm and has disabled people in her life that she cares deeply about. I never thought the post author was anything other than your average non-disabled person who means well.
The reason I’m unwilling to leave this without commenting on it is that, despite whatever she intended, the author has basically described how fiction mangles portrayals of disability. I’m purposely not using her name because she’s not really the point or the problem. All this author has done is write down the ableist biases that the vast majority of authors work with. While her post sounds startlingly ignorant of disability issues, when you consider the way publishing generally views disability, the ideas contained in it are completely mainstream. The problem is far larger than any one author or blog post, so I am merely using this post as an object lesson.
Ableism and contrasting “whole” characters with disabled ones.
Before I start talking about the ways this post, and fiction in general, perpetuate ableism, I should define the term. I like the way Fiona Kumari Campbell explains it as
… a network of beliefs, processes and practices that produces a particular kind of self and body (the corporeal standard) that is projected as the perfect, species-typical and therefore essential and fully human. Disability then, is cast as a diminished state of being human
Ableism, then, is where the typical able body is assumed to be the default and the ideal. Anyone whose body differs from this in form or function is defective. Not “different.” Defective. This is a cornerstone of the medical model of disability, where disabled people are patients in need of therapies and cures and success is defined by returning someone’s body back to the typical ideal.
The ableist assumptions of this post are evident early on when the author contrasts disabled characters with “whole” characters.
When you write a character who is whole
I’m not saying that you can’t weave in equally powerful layers that create similar depth and struggle with a whole character, I’m only saying that with a disabled character those layers have a value unlike the challenging moments of a whole character.
The strong implication of the word “whole” here is that disabled people are missing something and thus are incomplete. Their bodies are less than those who are intact and in good working order. Putting that first sentence back in context makes this even clearer.
When you write a character who is whole, or at least when I do it, I work at giving them a few flaws that lend them realness and which make readers feel sympathetic towards them. I also work on where they draw lines that they refuse to cross, then invent a situation that forces the character over that line in a gut-wrenching and dramatic way.
With a character who has a disability of the physically handicapped variety, their major flaw is, well, obvious.
I see this attitude a lot in romance. Physical disability is often used as shorthand to create a story about seeing beneath the surface and valuing someone even though they’re not perfect. In of itself, this isn’t a bad idea, really. Books are written and read in an ableist society, so naturally characters will have internalized these biases. Where much of romance goes wrong, however, is in failing to push back against ableist assumptions and structures in the narrative. If this is how you define “flaw”…
Instead of spawning a personality flaw like… the Chief archetype has possible flaws of being stubborn, unsympathetic, or dominating. The Bad Boy archetype has the possible flaws of being pessimistic, bitter, or volatile. The Swashbuckler archetype has the possible flaws of being unreliable, foolhardy, or selfish. I’m just scratching the surface there, but I think you’re catching on to my interpretation of flaws.
…and you consider disability to be a flaw, you’re not challenging ableism, you’re perpetuating it.
On disability as a plot device.
From this point on the post starts to ennumerate all the wonderful story possibilities available to the author who chooses to write a disabled character. This passage about character motivation is all too common.
How exactly did they come to have this disability? Under what circumstances? Out of foolishness like drunk driving? Did they make a choice that saved another’s life and was it a stranger or a loved one? Was it more random, they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time? Each could lead to vastly different versions of how they personally feel about the loss, (Good attitude or bad? Haunted by it? Chip on their shoulder? Overcompensating in other areas?) and each tells us more about the character.
The ableism continues with framing the disabling event as a “loss,” rather than a change, and the erasure of congenital disabilities. Most important, though, is how it seeks to draw a distinct line between the character’s life before disability and after it then define the character by his or her reaction to the change. There’s no allowance for a woman blind since birth who’s never known different, and that’s not by accident. None of these backstories are limited to physically disabled characters. This is about using ableist understandings of disability as plot devices. For example:
There are things that a physically disabled person simply can’t do. So–of course–you devise a situation where that’s the one thing they need to do…The disabled character inherently has more overt layers, more to overcome. Read as : More to play with as the author. He has limits an author simply can’t wave a magic wand and cure for convenience. He also has some undeniably gut-wrenching decisions to make. I’m not saying that you can’t weave in equally powerful layers that create similar depth and struggle with a whole character, I’m only saying that with a disabled character those layers have a value unlike the challenging moments of a whole character.
You don’t really get any more othering than this. It reduces disabled characters to nothing more than cheap gimmicks. It defines people solely by their bodies and how they deviate from the ideal. It’s no different than the old circus freak show. Gaze upon the broken, one-armed cop! Can you imagine the horror of living in such a body? Thank god it’s not you!
Disabled people are just that: people. We’re no more defined by our bodies than anyone else. No one among us is omnipotent, so every one of us has learned to live with limitations. Where do you draw the line? What makes my wheelchair any different than someone else’s eyeglasses? Am I more disabled than an athletic man who can’t read? Why do able bodied people get personalities, but disabled ones get inadequacies?
Disability isn’t a a character trait and how a person reacts to an acquired disability isn’t a measure of character. Disability is just another one of the elements of human diversity. Like race and gender, disability often is a source of oppression and hardship, and that oppression is due to societal structures. I no more wish to be a man to have male privilege than I wish to be able-bodied and regain able privilege. I want the structures that enforce that privilege to fall. If you’re using privileged assumptions to drive your stories and you don’t challenge their validity, you reinforce them. Even worse – you tell a story that’s already been told.
RULE TO REMEMBER:You must must must do your research on the disability. You must portray it honestly, with sincerity that honors the truth those who have the affliction deal with daily, or you’ll undermine your own efforts.
Even a broken clock is right twice a day, so the post wasn’t all bad. I totally agree that any non-disabled author who wants to write disability well should do her research. Here are some links to get you started.
- Disability in Science Fiction
- Disability in Kid Lit
- “The Disability Gulag”
- This Ain’t Livin’ – Disability