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
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.
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?
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Breath and Shadow
for writers with disabilities
Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind
and resources for Blind and Vision Impaired in New Zealand
technology for blind, deafblind and vision impaired.
for people with disabilities