Some Thoughts on “Physically Disabled Protagonists”

October 27, 2013 Opinion 24

Animated gif of Spongebob Squarepants burying himself in the sand. NOPE is written on the sand covering him.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.

Here is a screenshot of the deleted post and a text transcript of the content.

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.

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An ice hockey fan from north of Boston and the genre's most beloved troll, Ridley enjoys reading contemporary and historical romance, as well as the odd erotica novel. As someone who uses a wheelchair, she takes a particular interest in disability themes.

Latest posts by Ridley (see all)

24 Responses to “Some Thoughts on “Physically Disabled Protagonists””

  1. Ros

    “how a person reacts to an acquired disability isn’t a measure of character”

    Could you explain a bit more what you mean by this? I guess I’m just thinking that how a person reacts to anything tells me something about their character – whether that’s acquiring a disability or getting pregnant or landing a dream job or whatever.

  2. JJ

    Thanks for writing this. I haven’t read the original blogpost but the quotes made me seethe with rage.

    Ros, I understood it as meaning that it doesn’t say anything about their worth as a person? But English isn’t my mother tongue…

  3. Shannon C.

    That post pretty much enumerates all the reasons I don’t read anything with disabled protagonists. As you point out, Ridley, there’s no mention of those of us congenitally disabled. If I spent my entire life having angst about never being able to see a sunset, I would get nothing done.

    And don’t get me started on how a lot of people seem to think finding ways to erase a disability is where the story ought to go. I shelved a book at our library on Friday with a blind protagonist who is a vigilante. Cool. But he’s doing that because he needs the money to keep his vision implants working. WTF? You can’t have it both ways. Sure he’s blind and he gets to be awesome,but he does so because he mimics sight. He can’t find ways to be awesome while also being blind. For me, that’s discouraging, and I’d rather read about people with other kinds of angst because with a minuscule number of exceptions, no one is writing about my own lived experience with disability.

  4. Ridley

    @Ros: I used “character” here in the sense of integrity or moral fiber. Specifically, I’m looking at this line

    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.

    “Good attitude or bad” implies that there is a right and wrong way to react to an acquired disability. It’s an incredibly common assumption, and it’s where we get all the “inspirational cripple” stories, both in fiction and in the news media. Who defines what a good attitude is? What is society’s interest in placing a value judgement on disabled people’ attitudes? Is it so it can ignore the complaints of disabled people upset with society’s refusal to accommodate them?

  5. Laura Vivanco

    Where do you draw the line? What makes my wheelchair any different than someone else’s eyeglasses?

    Since I’m very short sighted and wear glasses, I was thinking about that before I got to this line. I was thinking that my short-sightedness is not my “major flaw.” My “major flaws” would be related to my personality and my personality is not defined by the fact that I need to wear glasses.

    Disability isn’t a a character trait

    I suppose if someone’s thinking primarily in terms of stereotypes then disability is associated with particular personality types, like Tiny Tim and Captain Hook. And in romance someone with glasses like mine might easily be defined by them: she’d be a socially inept bluestocking and the author could use the metaphor of “short-sightedness” to show that although the heroine is literally short-sighted, it’s the hero who’s really “short-sighted” if he can’t realise how beautiful the heroine is when she takes her glasses off.

    As Rosemary Garland Thomson notes, characters like this are

    rendered by a few determining strokes that create an illusion of reality far short of the intricate […] context in which real people exist. Like the freak shows […], textual descriptions are overdetermined: they invest the traits, qualities, and behaviors of their characters with much rhetorical influence simply by omitting – and therefore erasing – other factors or traits that might mitigate or complicate the delineations. A disability functions only as a visual difference that signals meanings. Consequently, literary texts necessarily make disabled characters into freaks, stripped of normalizing contexts and engulfed by a single stigmatic trait. (Extraordinary Bodies 10)

    Or to put it another way, this is writing advice which fails to offer a recipe for creating innovative stories featuring unique, realistic characters.

  6. Sunita

    Great post, Ridley. You were more measured than I would have been, and I’m sure more effective as a result.

    I’ve written and erased a bunch of sentences, so I’ll just echo Courtney Milan and say thanks, and bookmarked.

  7. Meoskop

    It’s so pervasive. I was listening tonight to an interview with the woman who drove the search for Richard 3rd’s body. She was discussing how distressed she was when the skeleton was revealed to have spine curvature. Her distress was rooted in her belief that he was a skilled fighter & physically active. In working though her distress she decided he was even MORE inspirational to her rather than realizing her ideas of capability are flawed.

  8. Merrian

    I read that blog post and the four comments made before it was taken down. I also read the other blog posts on the theme of disability on the Word Whores site. The disappeared blog post that you have carefully and thoughtfully discussed here was the most egregious of the posts. Sadly they were all, even though by different authors, of the same ilk. It disturbed me that the thoroughly reasoned comments were characterised as ‘flames’ by one of the Word Whores bloggers – partnered with the apology which was about ‘you took my words wrong’ it was a strong message about being nice/not straight speaking and evidenced for me, unwillingness to look and reflect on the deeper meaning and realities of our complicated world.
    I’m thinking as I write of two m/m books I’ve read recently, ‘Power Exchange’ and ‘Safeword’ by AJ Rose. They are a police procedural duology where the lead character develops realistically portrayed PTSD that rises over the two books and shapes the outcomes in the final book. I was really interested that as the cop lives with the PTSD (and gets appropriate treatment!!) and his partner lives with his own responses to harrowing events as well as the cop’s PTSD a consequence and a choice arises; can he go on being a police officer or not? Is being a police officer/holding onto that single dream the only marker of success for his life post-trauma? I thought he made a realistic and meaningful decision that opened up lots of possibilities. This arises from his intentional and reflexive thinking (when the observations or actions of observers in the social system affect the very situations they are observing) about himself and his life that is part of his response to PTSD and trauma but not inherently of his disabling illness. That is my very clumsy way of saying his illness and disability didn’t define him or make him do things, he did what he needed and wanted to as and of his own Self. Most often these egregious depictions and constructions of disability seem to me to arise in a failed or limited understanding of what Selfhood is and how it makes us all operant human beings. I am hoping to read more reflexive portrayals of lives that include disability as this discussion goes on in our genre.

  9. Isobel Carr

    Like Courtney, I’m going to bookmark this. I’m going to come back and reread it as I plot the story arc of the disabled secondary hero in my WIP. Lots to think about.

    Also, YEAH that the day job updated my browser (FINALLY) and I can read the blog on my lunch break!!!

  10. Aisha

    Ridley, thank you for this. It definitely seems to be needed.

    I do have one or two issues, but I’m not sure if its appropriate to raise here. If not, please ignore me.

    First, on this, “We’re no more defined by our bodies than anyone else”, ‘defined’ is probably too strong a word, but some people are far more impacted on by their embodied experiences than others, and doesn’t that need to be acknowledged? Not in the sense of defining a person/character, but recognising the particular challenges that person/character may face. I raise this partly due to the idea that assuming a level playing field where one doesn’t exist causes more inequality than it addresses. The other, more amorphous, reason I bring it up is that one of the people I most admire is former Constitutional Court Justice Zak Yacoob, and that admiration is largely based on studying a few of his judgements. I learned subsequently that he has been blind since contracting meningitis as a baby, and I found this… interesting(?), because, while I cannot say that living with his disability was responsible for his compassionate interpretation and application of the law, I’m pretty sure it contributed to it (plus the idiom justice is blind seems particularly apt :).

    Second, and this is less related to the point of your post, but the medical model of disability does, at least in South Africa, have a direct material impact on people’s lives, in that eligibility for and access to the disability grant is determined by medical practitioners. So those who are reliant on it have to, on some level, buy in or accede to the medical model of disability, even if this is simply on instrumental terms. I don’t know how this works in America though, so it might be completely irrelevant.

    So, I am definitely not challenging you here, but raising maybe completely stupid and irrelevant questions? Again, ignore me please if inappropriate (or rage at me if necessary).

  11. Merrian

    @Aisha: When I say “I’m not defined by my body” I mean “I’m not reduced to my body only”. The thing about difficult bodies is that it is not the body alone that makes us disabled. It is how our bodies are able/enabled to connect and interact with the social and physical world around us that determines the extent and function of our disabilities and the impact of our particular embodiment.

  12. Ridley

    @Aisha: To build off Merrian’s answer, when I say I am not defined by my body, I don’t mean that I’m denying that it’s different. I mean that when you see me in my wheelchair, you know nothing about me other than that I use a wheelchair. I run into adversity, yes, but that’s not because of some intrinsic flaw in my body. It’s because society chooses not to accommodate wheelchairs and people pass around stereotypes of disability as though they’re the truth. Still, disability is just one part of what I’ve experienced thus far. It’s not who I am.

    My objection to the medical model isn’t for defining disabilities and offering therapies, it’s for defining success as returning to or mimicking a non-disabled body. The medical model sees the poorer quality of life for disabled people and decides the answer is in “curing” the body. The social model looks instead to change society to accommodate a wider diversity of bodies.

  13. Aisha

    “It’s not who I am”

    I’m so so sorry if I implied that it is. It is utterly reprehensible to believe that you or anyone is reducible to that or any one thing and can be understood on the basis of it. Writers that attempt to do so are taking a lazy shortcut that will more than likely cause offense. I do not disagree with either you or Merrian, and I was kind of trying to say the same things far less articulately, but with a different emphasis (and possibly unnecessarily, but I’ve learnt not to take anything as read).

    What it comes down to I guess is that I’ve been thinking about it in terms of structure and agency and how Internet based discussions tend to prioritise one or the other, when in reality, for most people, it’s a combination of both, to varying degrees, that determines our lives and choices.

    So to personalise it (sorry), I believe, based on the limited exposure I’ve had to your online persona, rightly or wrongly, that you have/have claimed a great deal of agency, but at least part of that agency is determined (even if in opposition) by structural factors. I don’t think that you are any more ‘defined’ by your body than I am by mine, but speaking for myself, there are times that my identity as a woman or a black person becomes primary, and at other times, less so. But when it (either one) does, it carries the weight of the social construction attached to it, even if I reject those constructions, if that makes sense. And further, I think that its because of my many privileges that, in some cases, I am able to do so (reject/oppose/accept/transform) with little apparent cost to myself. And that’s where my point about the medical model of disability comes in. There are many people who have little or no choice but to define themselves in terms of the medical model of disability because doing so has serious livelihood consequences …

    Sorry, this is getting very long and I don’t mean to derail the discussion so I’ll stop.

  14. Meoskop

    Aisha, man, who hurt you? Speak your mind! Don’t apologize unless you do wrong! If someone disagrees it’ll come out, but you don’t have to pre-excuse your words. You’re welcome to talk!

    As far as the medical model goes, that’s a different lane than the fictional one. I think even those in that lane would agree that having to play the role, hit the points, to get paid is less than desirable. Everyone should be evalulated for the content of their character. The entire concept of ‘burden’ is predicated on medical being shoehorned into societal. Saying a special needs child must be “accomodated” implies educating that child takes something away from society instead of adds something, ergo, that child becomes of less worth than the other children. But we love us some Stephen Hawking. When the medical supercedes the social, it’s because of choices the social structure has made. I’m hating the game, there.

  15. Aisha

    @Meoskop: er, most of the time the apologies are because I’m afraid I may be violating internet etiquette (like responding to you so late), sometimes unwittingly. In this case its also because I’m not sure I should be saying anything at all, since Ridley, with her lived experience, is the expert. I doubt anything I have to contribute adds any value, but, at the same time, to keep silent on something so important feels wrong…

    As to the rest: “I’m hating the game, there” – I’m right there with you.

  16. Aisha

    I just read this and it, perhaps, helps give some context to my perspective … Note: this is not necessarily the national picture, but what has happened in a particular setting (rural, extreme poverty, crisis in the provincial public health system, etc)

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