This post started with one tweet that turned into a lengthy discussion. I’d found a submission call for Crossed Genres said they wanted stories on characters with disabilities and passed it along to fellow blogger Day Al-Mohamed, who puts characters with disabilities into her stories. Day reported she had heard often the following (which she doesn’t agree with):
I’m not disabled, which is why I wanted to write this. I have a hard time understanding why writers require reasons to have it in a story. While Day wants more disabilities in the stories, I want more women. There are books where I feel like the writer checked off ‘woman protagonist’ but didn’t actually write a woman character. You write a character first, then gender — but you have to do both, because that perception will influence the story.
Just as a character who is a soldier would have a different perception than a character who has never seen a soldier. Or a character who is from Idaho vs. one from Los Angeles. Or a character who is hearing impaired vs. one with hearing.
It shouldn’t be anything more than that. But disability sometimes appears larger than life, and maybe that’s where the problem lies.
The first reason is our initial reaction. We see a person in a wheelchair or without an arm, and there’s an immediate visceral reaction. We might imagine the violence caused it (i.e., car accident), or we imagine they are in pain. And it’s much easier to not deal with the feeling, pretend like it doesn’t exist. Many years ago, a couple came in to the pizza restaurant I was working at, and I got that instant visceral reaction. They had both suffered 3rd degree burns over most of their bodies. Then another thought followed it — that they probably got bad reactions all the time. So when they came to the counter, I smiled, took their order, and made them pizza, because they were customers.
The second reason is the problem one: the media. I cringe every time I see an article on a soldier who has lost his legs and has gotten prosthetics. The story plays out the same way: A huge chunk of the story is focused on when he was injured, emphasizing the moment of injury. Then we get a little on the recovery and how frustrating the experience is for the soldier. They pick the most visual of the injuries because they’re going for the visceral reaction for whatever the agenda is. But the message they send is “Life is now over for this person. Do something to stop this for everyone else.” It disrespects disability by using it for an agenda, and it disrespects the soldiers who serve.
As writers, we have to think past the visceral reaction. You may know a person who has a disability and not realize it. Look at the picture. You can’t tell if this woman is dyslexic or hearing-impaired. Only that she runs.
Influence the story yes. Definitely. Because it is a different experience to bring into the story. With publishers saying they want fresh, why not? I’ve bought books because the character did have a disability and I knew one thing: it was going to be fresh and different than other similar books. Girl With a Dragon Tattoo anyone? I just wish there were more.
What’s your take? Do you think there must be a reason for a disability to be a story? How do you think it ought to be portrayed in stories?