Vision: A Resource for Writers

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Writing About Disability

By Stephanie Green
Copyright 2008 by Stephanie Green, All Rights Reserved


A disability is a physical, emotional, cognitive, or sensory impairment that affects an individual's function in everyday life. Thousands of people live with the effects of disabilities, whether they're affected themselves, or have a disabled family member, spouse, or friend, or are employed at an organisation assisting those with disabilities.

As a writer with severe vision impairment I understand how difficult it can be to have access to literature, and how much fiction has enriched my life. My country (New Zealand) is one of the world leaders in providing print text to the blind and vision-impaired, through Braille, large print, audio and other electronic formats. Yet less than 5% of all written material is accessible to the blind. In other countries, that number is much lower.

I am part of a community that loves to read. Aside from enjoyment of stories, reading also gives me a sense of pride and freedom. Although my books come on tape or in large print volumes, I still read widely in many genres. I am actively involved in producing books for the blind and lobbying for better access to print materials. I participate in world-wide communities of readers with thousands of different disabilities brought together by their love of the written word.

It seems odd to me -- given such a wide community of enthusiastic readers -- that so few writers choose to portray characters with disabilities.

This reluctance could be for several reasons. Perhaps writers would like to include blind or wheelchair-bound characters, but are unsure of how to approach the subject tactfully and empathetically. Perhaps writers are nervous about their disabled protagonists competing against the fully-abled in an already tough literary market. Perhaps the thought of a disabled character had never occurred to them. Or maybe writers simply don't know how to write about disability. How do you describe scenes when the protagonist can't see them? How do you write convincingly about autism if you've never experienced it yourself?

Writers shouldn't shy away from this challenge. Disabled characters bring their own unique experiences, interesting challenges and fresh vision of the world. If you have a story sitting on your desktop that seems tired and old, maybe retelling it with a deaf protagonist will freshen it up. Agents and editors are always looking for something new and unique -- perhaps that vampire novel with a paraplegic protagonist would offer something new?

So, say you've decided to take up the challenge and write a disabled character into your next work. Good for you. But now what? You don't suffer from a disability yourself, and everyone you know is achingly, boringly normal. How do you go about portraying this character convincingly?

The first thing is to remember that your disabled character is just that, a character. Don't get so hung up on the facets of their condition that you forget to write them a life. Ordinary rules of characterisation still apply. Say you decide to write a vision-impaired girl (like me!). You'll need to research her condition and the limitations it places on her (I have achromatopsia -- complete colour blindness). But don't forget she'll also have goals, dreams, and emotions. She may be witty, or sweet, or cynical, she may have unusual talents or a painful past. Don't forget that before she is blind, she is a person.

Create a history of your character's disability. You need to understand the difference between genetic disabilities (apparent from birth, like some eye conditions, Cerebral Palsy, Spina bifida, and Down's syndrome), acquired disabilities (those that can occur at any time in a person's life, like AIDS, Multiple Sclerosis, Alzheimer's disease, cataracts, and injuries causing paralysis), and developmental disabilities (those affecting learning, such as Dyslexia and Attention Deficit Disorder). How did your character come to have this particular condition? Does anyone else in their family share it? Is someone responsible for causing it? Did they cause it themselves?

Remember how all those writing books you've read admonish you to use all your senses? Well, they can be extremely useful when creating a convincing disabled character. We'll use the example of the vision-impaired girl, who can see, but not very well. Without the full use of her sight, how does she interact with the world? As your character meets people, she recognises and remembers them by their smell. She uses the beep of the coffee machine to orient herself at the office. She can tell you the year and name of any wine from only a tiny sip.

Research your senses. Take a walk in your garden or through a busy store. Close your eyes and listen and smell and touch. Eat your food without looking, turn up your stereo and plug your ears. Watch TV with the captions on.

Learn about disabilities. For your vision-impaired character, contact your local Blind Foundation or resource centre and learn about the technology and services available to their members. Understand how blind people learn, how they do their shopping, how they dress themselves for a job interview, how they pour a glass of milk without spilling. What do blind people do socially? How do they play soccer? Learn music? Paint pictures?

If possible, talk to friends or family members about their disabilities. Or locate someone in your community with a similar disability to your character and ask for an interview. Don't be afraid, most people are happy to talk about their disabilities and help others understand their lives. Write out situations in your novel and ask your interviewee how he/she would deal with that situation.

Learn about successful people in the disability community and how they overcame their challenges. Let their stories inspire you and your characters.

Don't be a slave to political correctness. Don't call your characters 'mobility challenged' or 'visually deficient'. A disabled person knows how the world views them, and that view isn't always kind. Don't mince words, which belittle your characters and your readers.

Think about how the society your characters live in. It affects their views on disability. A baron in feudal England has different opinions from an astute New Yorker in 2008. Play on these stereotypes and you have the basis for great conflict.

Lastly, keep your sense of humour. Everyone should be able to laugh at themselves, and your disabled characters are no different. I'm forever banging into poles and people and statues, constantly having to ask people to read subtitles and signs for me. I have to order the same burger at Wendy's every time I go because they print the menu behind the counter and I can't read it. If a traffic light is broken I have to walk to the next one, even if it's miles up the road. All this is fodder for my stories.

I hope this article has inspired writers to think about the advantages of including disabled protagonists. And if anyone wants to write about the paraplegic vampire, I'd be first in line to read it.

Select resources:

Breath and Shadow

A market for writers with disabilities

http://www.abilitymaine.org/breath/write.html

Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind

Information and resources for Blind and Vision Impaired in New Zealand

www.rnzfb.org.nz

Humanware

Adaptive technology for blind, deafblind and vision impaired.

http://www.humanware.com

Disability Info.Gov

Resources for people with disabilities

http://www.disabilityinfo.gov