Disabled Characters

An editorial I read a couple weeks ago talked about the reaction of a disabled panelist when asked tips for portraying characters with disabilities in fiction.
He said, "don't".

I agree with Eva Langston's thought near the end of her piece, "It’s not that you shouldn’t write from a perspective different from your own, but when you do, you should be sensitive, you should talk to people who have had the experience and form a well-rounded understanding of what you’re writing about."

It genuinely puzzles people, when someone is told NOT to tackle a subject or perspective.  Isn't art about recording the world, shining light in different corners?  Yes, it is.  But if you want to know WHY a disabled person could tell you to leave disabled characters to us... there are possible reasons.

1.  You will still fall back on stereotypes.  Always making the disabled protagonist someone to be pitied, always someone eternally angry or goody-goody, a sexless robot, a child who makes no real decisions, a burden on other characters.  Some of you will succeed in unlearning these things...

2.  You will not find balance.  The protagonist needs help with everything, or nothing.  The whole story is about discrimination and little else.  Details, especially medical, will be glossed over for the sake of perceived audience comfort (incontinence, feeding tubes, saliva, colostomy bags).

3.  You will be a majority voice speaking about a minority.  It is a precarious thing.  Some will read work by white, heterosexual, able-bodied, Christians depicting black, disabled, gay, Muslims but won't read work written by those minorities.

I think the third choice is the one that rankles.  The only information some people want about others is what they glean from those "like" themselves.  It is a filter, a removal, of closeness... a way to stay detached and not listen to voices already silenced.  Minorities face constant erasure.  Taking up our stories could make people rethink their views, assess their prejudices, seek out more information.  But mainly not.  Mostly, all it will do, is take from our mouths one of the only things we are said to have passing authority on... ourselves.

So, when you tackle a minority, do it well.  Make us round, robust, and real.  Research like you are writing a nonfiction book.  Have compassion.  Then go write the damn story!


  1. I never thought of it that way. I probably wouldn't have understood why the panelist said, "don't." Your tips make perfect sense. For a while I tossed around the idea of having a hearing impaired protagonist and thought i had a strong handle on the subject. My daughter is hearing impaired and has a cochlear implant. I thought I was perfectly equipped to include her disability in my story, but the more I wrote, the less I liked and identified with my character. At times she came across as weak and pittied and other times she seemed too bold and brash. Your article really resonated with me.

    1. It is a difficult thing, writing in the voice of someone who doesn't even have an echo, a whisper, of who the writer is.
      If you're a compassionate person, you try hard not to portray a false face, a two-dimensional hero.

      I guess I should have added one more thought to my post: What are the reasons a writer wants to tackle disability?
      Did the character show up that way in the idea? Because the writer wants to grow as a person? Is it because the plot needed substance? Disabled people are still a unique concept?

      One way to determine if a writer should, is to seek motives.