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9 Tips for Writing About Characters With Disabilities

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There are so many people in this world who love to write. I find it absolutely phenomenal that I can open up my phone and have an incredible number of literary pieces made instantly available to me. However, despite the hugely diverse array of people who are writing, representation of all kinds still has a long way to go. People with disabilities have been historically underrepresented, and despite society’s progression, we still remain very left behind. Including characters with disabilities in your writing isn’t nearly as difficult as you may think, and remains a powerful statement against ableist culture.

I’ve compiled this list of tips to aid you in your writing about characters with disabilities.

1. Disability (generally) shouldn’t be the center of the character or plot.

Daily life, even with a disability, isn’t anywhere near interesting enough to make a good plot. Whatever the genre of your book, a disabled character can shine. Whatever the role of your character is, someone with a disability can still fill it.

Disability shouldn’t be the thing that makes a comedic character funny, a hero brave, or a villain evil. It is just one aspect of a character. Develop your characters so they are beyond their physical limitations, giving them emotional complexity and powerful roles in the story.

2. Don’t shy away from discussing your character’s disability.

While disability shouldn’t be what the plot resolves around, it shouldn’t be ignored. If a disability affects your character’s ability to do something mentioned in your story, then by all means discuss how it impacts them.

When describing a character, it’s fine to point out any visible disability just as you would with hair color. Society often paints a picture of disability as being something scary and therefore taboo. We shouldn’t think this way. It’s simply not true. Disability isn’t always fun, but we can still live our lives, even if we live them a little differently. You can acknowledge its existence without ostracizing those with disabilities.

3. Disabilities can be visible or invisible.

Plenty of people with disabilities can walk. Some use wheelchairs all the time. Some only use them sometimes. Some people use canes. Some crutches. Some walkers. Some people have oxygen. Some people wear masks. Some people have insulin pumps. Some have feeding tubes. And some look completely ordinary. Mobility aids are often highly stigmatized, especially when used for preventative measures or as a part-time tool.

Don’t shy away from invisible or visible disability, and feel free to write about a character who uses assistive devices full-time, part-time or never.

4. Disabilities are not tragic.

Being disabled can be tough, but it’s not nearly as tragic as the media would lead you to believe. As someone with a disability, I can attest that an “abnormal” life can still be full of wisdom and enjoyment.

Avoid using terms like “wheelchair bound.” For many with disabilities, wheelchairs mean freedom to leave one’s house and live life a little bit more.

Don’t try to “cure” your character. This is very harmful. It’s absolutely vital that we focus far more on living with physical limitations than trying to escape from them. Don’t try to evoke pity for your character’s disability. Our lives aren’t tragic.

5. Educate yourself on the disability or illness you are writing about and the way it affects your character’s livelihood.

This goes far beyond just understanding the physical and mental symptoms of a condition. There is a lot of controversy surrounding areas of the medical community. Particular diagnoses are often subject to jokes or grave misunderstandings such as ME/CFS, which is often made the subject of inaccurate jokes and disbelieving remarks. Make sure you are not perpetuating false information that may harm those with a particular illness.

Miracle treatments or alternative therapies are also heavily marketed at today’s consumer, harming many with disabilities and chronic illnesses. You need to be certain any “science” about an illness in a fictional piece is in fact actually science.

Don’t use a book to push your agenda and spread misinformation about a condition. Do your own research and be prepared to possibly have your views questioned.

6. Don’t “get medical” unless you actually know what you are talking about.

I am aware this is somewhat contradictory to my last point, however there is a difference between knowing enough to have a thorough understanding of your character’s struggles, and actually understanding the complex variables and biological science that lead to most disabilities.

It’s very unlikely that someone who doesn’t have some kind of medical degree and/or have a condition themselves is going to be able to correctly write about the molecular science behind it. So don’t do it.

It’s best to focus on the emotional and symptomatic aspects of a disease as opposed to the specific science behind it, as this is often very difficult to understand (for you and/or the reader) and can lead to an accidental spread of false information. I also advise against discussing drugs or specific therapies in too much detail. That’s a doctor’s job, not a writer’s.

7. Do not use ableist slurs or other discriminatory language.

This goes for any work of literature you choose to compose and includes terms you (probably) know are discriminatory, as well as some terms that you probably don’t normally think twice about. I can’t list them all here but there are plenty of lists out there detailing which words are harmful and why.

Unfortunately it has also become a very normalized practice to not only use offensive, ableist terms but to also further stigmatize certain illnesses by using their names inappropriately. Don’t throw around terms like “OCD,” “crazy,” “borderline,” “psycho” etc. as using them in the wrong context can do a lot of harm. Our society is inherently ableist and unfortunately a lot of people may be accidentally using discriminatory terminology.

Take time to learn about harmful language and if in doubt, use a different word.

8. Find us and ask us.

I am always willing to give advice to fellow writers regarding inclusion and disability in their work. Most diseases (even rare ones) have support groups, either online or in person. Find one and see if you can ask a few individuals to read over what you have written or answer questions regarding their particular condition. You can also read articles or watch videos on sites like The Mighty.

9. Keep helping us move forward in our quest for inclusion.

Keep doing what you do. Thank you for helping to decrease the stigma and mystery around illness and disability and remember that while we are different, we are still people with individual personalities and disability is just one big or small part of our enormous stories.

Originally published: November 22, 2018
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