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When People Ask If My Novel Includes a Character With Cerebral Palsy

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Knowing I’m working on a novel set in the late Victorian era, writer friends have said to me, “It would be so interesting to read a novel about someone with cerebral palsy living at that time. Have you ever thought about writing a novel like that?”

My short answer is “No.”

While I’d like to read more novels featuring characters with a variety of conditions and disabilities, at this point in my life, I don’t feel called to write one of them. One reason is that when I write fiction rather than poetry or nonfiction, it tends to be historical, and the truth is, if my mother had carried me at the end of the Victorian era, it’s likely that neither of us would have survived. I explain this to my writer friends. The common response is valid: “OK, but that isn’t the back story of everyone with cerebral palsy.”

No, it certainly isn’t. But when it comes to writing about what life with cerebral palsy is like, I know only about my own experience. And if I’m going to write exclusively about my own experience, why tell the story through the lens of fiction?

On the other hand, if were going to write about someone with a different backstory and whose cerebral palsy affects them in different ways, I’d have to do the same homework as any other writer who wants to do his or her job well. I’d have to do research and spend time with someone who has abilities similar to those of my character. And making observations about anyone’s life is not the same as living it. I don’t know much about what it feels like to walk, so I’m not certain I would able to enter the experience of someone who has cerebral palsy and can walk.

It’s not just the uniqueness of an individual’s experience that makes me disinclined to write about someone living with cerebral palsy in the Victorian era. I’m not sure there are adjectives enough to describe how challenging it would be for the character in question to navigate the Victorian era. I’m thinking of barriers of societal perception as well as physical barriers. I’d be tempted to adapt how the condition affects the character to the needs of the plot, and as a writer, that isn’t something I want to do. Brave predecessors have fought hard to remove obstacles for people with disabilities. Many victories have occurred, not 120 to 190 years ago, but in recent decades.

Right now, I don’t feel emotionally prepared to follow that path going the opposite direction. I feel torn between being too close to and too distant from the experiences of disabled people who lived more than a century ago.

This is not to say I don’t want to read historical fiction featuring a character with cerebral palsy. I do, very much. I want someone to write these types of stories who has an idea what character growth would look like, in spite of the environment in which the character finds him or herself. I want someone would find the journey rewarding to write this type of story. As long as I don’t have to map the route for the trip, I look forward to taking it with another author.

Everybody should write the stories they feel called or inclined to write. So if you are drawn to writing a story about a character with a disability, whether or not you have one yourself or know someone who does, I say, go for it. I trust you to include in your research the experiences of people who might influence the experiences of your characters. I trust you to craft characters whose disabilities are just one aspect of who they are, whether they’re more like Scrooge or Tiny Tim in spirit. (How about creating a character whose personality draws a bit from both?) Most of all, I trust you to write a story I can’t put down.

Getty image by Cannasue.

Originally published: June 3, 2019
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