Writing Diversely: Disabilities

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Netflix recently released their original series, Daredevil, which chronicles a Marvel superhero who becomes blind following an unusual accident. A blind protagonist is unusual enough, but the superhero status takes representation of disabilities to a new level.

It is therefore appropriate that the website is making changes to accommodate vision-impaired viewers by adding audio description features that will describe “”what is happening on-screen, including physical actions, facial expressions, costumes, settings and scene changes.” Other Netflix original series, such as Orange is the New Black and House of Cards, will also be getting audio description tracks in the near future.

Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock/Daredevil.
Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock/Daredevil.

Disabled characters in TV shows, films, and books are generally viewed as more accessible protagonists than other diversity we’ve discussed (sexuality, race), but the truth is that a lot of that relies on the types of stories these characters are allowed to portray. Most representation relies on showing these characters overcoming or adjusting to their impairment (a la Quasimodo in Hunchback of Notre Dame or Jake Sully in Avatar).  As this article mentions, historically disabled characters are often used as plot devices to prop up able-bodied main characters (Tiny Tim redeems Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, deaf and mute Chief Bromden and stuttering Billy Bibbit bolster Randle’s heroism in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).

The best representation of disabilities, from visual or hearing impairments to paraplegia, seem to have one thing in common: Letting these characters be complex people first. Their disabilities are included and integral but not all-encompassing. For example, Toph from Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, a girl who is hilarious, loyal, a frankly frighteningly-skilled fighter, and also blind.

Toph from Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Toph from Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Some things to keep in mind when writing a disabled character is that you are writing from an able-bodied point of view. Without meaning to, you may be establishing an ableist perspective that your reader can then perpetuate, no matter how well-told or beautiful your story.

  1. A disability is not a flaw.
    Nor is it something to be overcome. Most people with disabilities will spend the rest of their lives with said disabilities and — here’s the shocker — odds are they are not going to spend every second of every day wishing they were “normal.” The disability becomes the norm for them. There are obviously still going to be difficult moments, difficult days, even difficult months, but it does not make these characters weak or any lesser than able-bodied characters.That said, your character is allowed to have more flaws than just their disability. They are allowed to be more than the Noble Suffering Hero(ine). Any character who tells your protagonist that they are awesome, beautiful, and incredible despite being [insert disability here] should be deleted immediately.
  2. A disability does not have to be an entire storyline in and of itself.
    Fleshing out the background of a disabled character will inevitably involve the origin of said disability (born with an impairment, involved in an accident, etc.). It is part of understanding your character, their motivations, and their arc. However, storylines that follow a character “overcoming” a disability generally tends to cater towards an able-bodied audience: it shows how they navigate the world and how they “suffer” and their frustrations, until a catalyst occurs that forces them to work at being somehow “better” than their disability.The main problem with these storylines is that it invites pity from able-bodied audiences. It either intentionally or unintentionally makes them think, “Thank God that I’m not [insert disability here].” It also gives them the feel-good ending of “Well, those people are going to be fine because they worked hard.” Applying this attitude towards actual disabled people results in sentiments such as, “Well, if you just change the way you think about your disability…” or “If you just tried harder…” which does nothing to alleviate ableism in society.

Despite its many flaws, The Fault in Our Stars depicted Augustus Water's amputated leg as a normal part of his life.
Despite its many flaws, The Fault in Our Stars depicted Augustus Water’s amputated leg as a normal part of his life.
  1. 3. For visual media: Use disabled actors to represent disabled characters.
    FOX’s Glee is one of the more popular shows I can think of that received considerable criticism for casting an able-bodied actor to play wheelchair-bound Artie Abrams. (They defended the choice by claiming they could not find a disabled actor who could also sing and learn the required “dance” moves.) Sadly, but predictably, Artie’s storylines were few and far between and focused mainly on how he dealt with his disability and how he helped others deal with their disabilities. The show did hire Lauren Potter to portray Becky, a cheerleader with Down’s Syndrome, though, which was great.The bottom line is that disabled actors will offer real representation, both on screen and off. Their disability does not disappear once the director calls, “Cut!” Some shows have done well with their casting, such as Game of Thrones showcasing Peter Dinklaage as Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf, and Breaking Bad’s Walt Jr., as played by RJ Mitte. Both the character and the actor have cerebral palsy.

I admit that I am still learning and working to incorporate disabled characters in my own writing. It is widely out of the scope of my experience, which is why I hesitated to write this post in the first place.

I recently came across a Brazilian movie, The Way He Looks (Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho), which tells a pretty standard coming-of-age, first love story. Leonardo chafes against his overprotective parents and cruel classmates who take the two extremes in relating to his blindness. He finds refuge in his best friend, Giovanna, and their new classmate, Gabriel, who Leo develops a crush on. There is some of the expected “must accept disability” storyline, but the queer love story aspect was handled so tenderly and sweetly — and without a grandiloquent and misguided declaration of “I love you even though you’re blind” — especially in regards to Leo as a character who just happens to be blind. Viewing this movie made me realize that I’ve never given thought to writing a disabled character (I tend to focus on mental illness, which can follow similar tropes but involve very different navigations through life), and I need to give a lot more thought as to why I haven’t and what I can do to change this.

I highly recommend these links for more reading:

Have you written a story with disabled characters? Do you have any advice for other writers? Any recommendations for stories with disabled characters? Let me know in the comments!

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2 thoughts on “Writing Diversely: Disabilities

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