Writing Disability: Be Specific, Be Thorough, Do Your Research

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Diversity and representation have been climbing up the public agenda of late. When it comes to writing disabled characters, there are a few recurring pitfalls that I’d like to address.

Be Specific

You want to write a disabled character. First, you need to know what their disability is. “In a wheelchair” is not a disability. A wheelchair is a mobility aid, one of several different kinds available to the mobility-impaired. That’s your character, by the way. Did you mean, perhaps, that your character is paraplegic? Paralysis due to traumatic spinal injury is, again, one of many conditions that require or warrant the use of a wheelchair. Are you certain that you want your character to be paraplegic? True, this is the thing that most abled people think about (or avoid thinking about) when conjuring the mental image of a wheelchair. However, it is far from the only reason for someone to use a wheelchair.

Using a wheelchair does not necessarily mean the user has no use of their legs at all. Wheelchairs and mobility scooters (more on that later) are of use to people with a variety of conditions, such as neural or muscular illnesses, chronic pain conditions, or fatigue. Consider a character with a genetic condition like muscular dystrophy. How does their experience differ from that of someone who lost their mobility abruptly, such as through traumatic injury? Consider what their condition says about your character’s age or background, for example polio. Consider the many possible causes of limb amputation, from shrapnel to cancer to gangrene.

Be Thorough

Pay some mind to how your character’s condition affects aspects of their lives other than mobility. A syndromic illness will usually affect multiple systems, something which also bears remembering when writing about impaired senses like Deafness (for discussion of whether Deafness is considered a disability, see elsewhere). It may also affect the character cognitively, mentally and emotionally. A traumatic injury can cause damage to internal organs, or visible scarring, both of which will affect your character in ways impossible to ignore.

If you intend to write about a character who’s paraplegic, stop and take a minute to be honest with yourself. Are you willing to address all parts of your character’s life? Or are you too squeamish to consider that what affects the legs’ mobility might also affect functions like bladder control and erections? Your story might never address details like a character getting their catheter changed, but as a writer you need to know at least twice as much about your story as what is written on the page. Characters have relationships, some of them romantic or sexual. Are you going to think about how your character’s sexual expression is affected by their body, or will you be content to leave sex to be the elephant in the room?

Do Your Research

Disability also has social aspects. If your character’s disability is physical and visible, it affects the way they are treated by literally everyone they meet. This is where, once more, research is a writer’s best friend. Don’t expect to be able to write an authentic personal experience based on a series of dry medical or technological details. Once you’ve done your research into the physical symptomatology and the technical functions of whatever devices you character relies on, it’s time to get personal. If you need to know what it’s like to live as a veteran who lost both legs to an IED, you should probably be asking an actual veteran about it.

People read and people write and people can speak for themselves. The internet, aside from being full of porn, also has literally thousands of articles by disabled writers, blog festivals on disability, online magazines and organizational newsletters dedicated to specific conditions or constellations of conditions. You might gain important technical information from medical sites written by doctors and other practitioners (including, for example, psychotherapists, counselors and social workers), but there’s no substitute for reading the personal experience of a disabled writer, in their own words. Learn to differentiate between what’s written from an internal perspective versus the external point-of-view, for example that of a parent or caretaker.

An important note: if you are yourself abled, and not closely connected to a disabled friend or relative, you may still maintain an impression that society on the whole tends to people with disabilities because of their weakness. Depending on how far your research ranges, you may be surprised to learn of the micro-aggressions that PWD experience on a daily basis, or horrified to discover how common an occurrence caretaker abuse is, and how high the attendant murder statistics are. I’d say prepare yourself in advance, but you really can’t. Deal with it as best you can and remember to take your coping needs outwards, in accordance with the circle of support (comfort in, dump out).

Notes

A word on mobility scooters: they are just as useful and just as necessary as wheelchairs are. Generally they get a bad rap. For some reason they are considered less legitimate as a means of ambulation for people with mobility impairments. Some people seem to consider them as indulgences for people too fat and lazy to walk on their own. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Necessary disclaimers: I am far from an expert on all things disability (if there is such a thing). I’m not a doctor or a health-care professional, and I am not truly a disability rights activists. Though I’m not abled, I’m also not myself a wheelchair-user. I am, however, a writer, and I rely on what I observe around me in terms of writing trends. This is just a small taste of what I’ve noticed. I could have written thousands of words more, and I might yet write some of those.

The reason I focused so much on paralysis and mobility impairment is because wheelchairs are the visible face of disability, so to speak. They are within our line of sight, and that makes them sticky to misconceptions and shallow ideas stemming from lazy writing and lack of research. This is not meant to discourage people from writing disabled characters into their stories, quite the opposite. Considering the ideas I presented here is meant to encourage you to create whole, organic characters who incorporate disability as part of, but not their entire, identity.

This essay is not an encyclopedia; it’s barely an introduction. I hope, however, that it has given its readers some food for thought, for engaging with their own writing as well as the media they consume.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

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