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The Problems With How Literature Portrays Disabled People

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I am disabled. I write about disabled characters, and my biggest goal is to spread awareness about chronic illness. There are roughly 1 billion disabled people in this world; that is about 1/7 of all people. Today I want to address the problems of how literature portrays disabled people.

The first problem that comes to mind is the lack of diverse disabilities. I have never read or heard about a book with a character that has invisible chronic illness. Most characters are blind, deaf, use a wheelchair, or some other form of visible disability. And the ones that are not visible are almost always mental illnesses. Many disabilities are invisible, and there are tons of non-mental invisible illnesses, but these are rarely portrayed.

The second problem is the genres disabled characters appear in. Very rarely are they in action-adventure, fantasy, mystery, thriller, superhero fiction, etc… And even when they do appear, they are rarely the hero, but we will get back to that in a moment. Most of the time they appear in romance, drama, basically real life non-action genres. And I know you might be thinking “But how can they be in action books when they are disabled?” We still have lives and can do amazing things you wouldn’t expect. I am disabled myself and I can still dance, take fighting classes, hike, rock climb, and tons of other things. Now remember not all disabilities are the same; even though I can do something doesn’t mean everyone can. But in fantasy and science fiction, there are unlimited possibilities.

Now here is the third problem. Most disabled characters are just stereotypes. Like the friend who is disabled and always looks on the bright side, and they also serve as a way to remind the main character that it could always be worse. The person who uses their visible disability to get things. The teenager who is depressed, but really they only need friends. The side character who gets picked on so the main character can protect them. The disabled vet who just needs love to stop having PTSD. And the list goes on.

My fourth problem is disabled characters are rarely the hero. I don’t think this needs much explaining.

So if you want to add a disabled character to your story, here re a few tips.

1. Try talking to a disabled person and ask them what they would like disabled character to be like.

2. Remember disabled characters can be the hero.

3. Read true stories about people who live with disabilities.

4. I suggest visiting The Mighty.

5. Don’t just pick a well-known disability without specific experience or knowledge about that disability.

6. Remember disabled characters can be in any genre.

7. Actually do research.

What is a disabled character stereotype you want to stop being used? Comment below.

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Thinkstock photo by Moodboard.

Originally published: August 30, 2017
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