In the DC Comics universe, Barbara Gordon was Batgirl until the Joker injured her—then she took on the role of computer hacker Oracle (above). But in later issues, writers reset the whole storyline, reverting Barbara to a young crime-fighter who doesn’t use a wheelchair.
This article is published in the spring issue of Mslexia, the magazine for women who write.
Kill or Cure
A recent Mslexia survey found that though 30 percent of women writers had read books recently in which a character with a “mental illness or learning difficulty featured prominently,” characters with a physical disability “rarely” appeared in either their reading matter or their writing.
Is this because writers don’t consider physically disabled characters to be interesting protagonists, or because—in the case of non-disabled writers—they are uncomfortable tackling an issue of which they have no direct experience? Or perhaps manuscripts featuring disabled characters are less likely to be accepted for publication? Whatever the reason, most people would agree that there is a real dearth of good writing—in most genres—about disability.
Disability may be underrepresented in literature, but everyday speech is full of what could be referred to as “ableist” idioms—that is, language that assumes non-disabled people are superior. “Put your best foot forward,” “that’s a lame excuse,” “turn a blind eye”—our language is full of bodily metaphor. If standing up for yourself or putting your shoulders back indicate pride, what does that imply about rounded backs? Not to mention the many terms of abuse that are used freely—loony, imbecile, midget, spaz, dumb—by people who might hesitate to call someone a homo or the n-word.
These days both education and legislation do try to tackle racism, sexism and homophobia, but though ableism is increasingly addressed in practical ways—by ramps and lifts, braille signs and hearing loops—this has not yet been matched by an equivalent cultural strategy to tackle prejudice, possibly because disability discrimination laws were enacted two decades after the sex and race equivalents.
I believe there is a responsibility for writers—as novelists, playwrights, poets, screenwriters, and journalists—to include in our work issues that, according to recent government estimates, affect 11.6 million people in the UK (around one in six people) and will, in all likelihood, affect you too in time, if they don’t already do so.
But how to do it? Better representation of disability in literature is not just a matter of switching off derogatory language and outlawing scarred or one-armed villains—though that would be a start. Academics studying disability in literature have pointed out that some positive images can be equally unhelpful and clichéd: the “brave” or “inspiring” child who learns to walk or talk again after an accident, for example; or the bitter man with a facial disfigurement who is redeemed by the love of a good woman. I will say more about these issues later.
There are obviously many ethical reasons for us to write about disability, but there are important artistic reasons too. The stereotypes and tropes of disability render narratives wearily predictable—and who wants to be a predictable writer?
The Good Reason
“What’s wrong with you?” In the novel I am writing, 11-year-old Shazia replies, “Nothing’s wrong with me! I’ve got one side different from the other, that’s all.” Shazia loves swimming and she’s a time-travelling adventurer. She also has cerebral palsy, walks with a wobble, and gets tired quickly.
Why did I choose to make her a disabled character? The simple answer is, why not? I have certain “hidden disabilities” myself, so I consider myself part of the disabled community. As Sarah Waters says of her decision to write about lesbians, “It would be strange for me not to write about my own community.” I wanted to create a character whose disability was incidental to the main plot, whose wobbly walk would be no more (or less) important than another character’s bald head or protruding belly.
As a teacher of creative writing, and an academic who has researched the issue in depth, I was aware that many writers only include a disabled character when there is a ‘good reason’ to do so—when blindness makes a character vulnerable to a killer, or when terrible burn scars makes them the object of pity or love. In most narratives the plot revolves around a character’s disability and they are rarely an ordinary protagonist.
What I call the “good reason” is referred to as the “narrative prosthesis” by David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder in their book of that title (Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse, University of Michigan Press, 2001). They point out that the marginalization of disabled people in today’s society has occurred in the midst of a plethora of folkloric tropes and images from the past. Myths and fairytales often featured giants, dwarves, the lame or peg-legged, the hunchbacked, the one-eyed and the blind. The Graeae shared a single eye; Sinbad was ridden by a lame man; Snow White was befriended by dwarves. On my own courses I encourage students to discuss the ethical values promulgated by stories like The Steadfast Tin Soldier, Thumbelina, and The Ugly Duckling.
It’s not so long ago that limb damage or paralysis, and facial disfigurement, were absolutely commonplace due to disease and war injury. Indeed, the limber smooth-skinned “perfect” minority stood out like aliens from another world in those days, and members of the aristocracy seemed almost magically tall, straight and unblemished. This could explain fairytales’ obsession with beautiful-but-poor maids who catch the eye (and heart) of royal princes, and Victorian stories in which (non-disabled) orphans are elevated into higher society.
True, disabled children do appear in Victorian literature, but as Lois Keith points out, authors appear to have found it almost impossible to imagine a happy ending for such characters as fulfilled disabled adults (Take Up Thy Bed and Walk: Death, Disability and Cure in Classic Fiction for Girls, The Women’s Press, 2001). So the disabled child was either miraculously cured—like Colin in The Secret Garden, or Katy in What Katy Did—or killed off. In the fourth Little Women book two disabled boys die: Dick, who is a hunchback, and Billy, who is learning disabled.
Though various forms of disability and physical anomaly were rife in the human population throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, biology and medical science were busy trying to establish norms of classification for the human, plant and animal worlds. The notion of the “normal” human body, along with ‘normal’ sexuality and behaviour, began to gain currency.
It was during this period that physically and mentally disabled people began to be classified separately from “normal” people, and those at the most extreme end of the spectrum became subject to incarceration in prisons and asylums, or displayed in freak shows and medical lectures—as Rosemary Thomson documents in the collection of essays she edited (Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, New York University Press, 1996). These days public fascination with disability is catered for by mainstream TV documentaries like the Bodyshock series—featuring “Turtle Boy,” “The Man With the 10-Stone Testicles,” and “The Twins who Share a Brain”—and The Undateables.
In publishing, too, there are now a number of autobiographies that chronicle the authors’ experiences with conditions such as ‘locked-in syndrome’ (in Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), cerebral palsy (Christy Brown’s My Left Foot), and multiple sclerosis (Nancy Mairs’ Waist-High in the World, or Missing Pieces: A Chronicle of Disability).
What these autobiographical works achieve is a rounded portrait of a complex personality. Christy Brown describes playing with his siblings, his joy in reading, his unrequited teenage love. Nancy Mairs discusses her husband and her children, her affairs, and her Christian beliefs as well as her disability.
Why can’t writers of fiction—and poetry, and script—do the same? Of course we can, but to do so we need to avoid—or subvert in some way—some basic clichés and stereotypes. As Thomson points out, the “assumption that a disability cancels out other qualities” has the effect of “reducing the complex person to a single attribute,” which is the opposite of what any good writer would want to do. So here are a few stereotypes to watch out for.
First and perhaps most prevalent is the stereotype of the martyred child, mentioned above, who is generally “heroic,” “brave,” “inspiring”—then frequently dead. Yes, it can take strength of character to live with some disabilities, but none of us are saints and so shouldn’t be portrayed as such.
Another common stereotype is the idea that a disabled villain’s outer body is a reflection of their inner nastiness: that the horror genre’s hook-handed, limping, shuffling or blind monsters, along with fairytales’ hunchbacks, trolls and gnarled witches, are all self-evidently evil through and through. Science fiction has spawned equivalent disabled villains by adding prostheses: Darth Vader and Alvin the Treacherous lose limbs and skin, and acquire masks, plus doom-laden sound effects (respirator-assisted breathing, the “eerie tap’ of an ivory leg). Related to this is the “disabled avenger” stereotype, the murderer whose disability forms their motivation. But a complex disabled villain is far more interesting. Robert Louis Stevenson’s one-legged pirate Long John Silver is a great fictional creation: both cruel and kind, honourable and treacherous.
Crime writer Karin Slaughter counters this stereotype in Broken, when a character described as “slow” becomes a murder suspect. Ria Cheyne, who specialises in the representation of disability in genre fiction, points out that other characters in the novel “discuss how the fact that he’s disabled doesn’t make him more likely to have committed the crime” and the suspect’s innocence is proven.
In children’s fiction, watch out for the “disabled sidekick” stereotype—in which the disabled person is a friend of the protagonist but not central to the action (why not?). In Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon, hero Hiccup is an undersized Viking, but his friend Fishlegs is the kid with broken glasses, asthma, eczema, and dyspraxia. Fishlegs is there for comedy value and to be rescued. Though he saves Hiccup’s life on three occasions, his feats are attributed to accident.
Then we have the “compensatory powers” stereotype, where a character who is blind, for example, has preternaturally acute hearing or mind-reading abilities. Yes, people disabled in one way do often develop additional other skills, but be wary of endowing your characters with mythic powers—unless, of course, they are superheroes.
Marvel Comics’ Matt Murdock is a lawyer blinded by radiation. He transforms into Daredevil, who has super-senses to compensate for his blindness. Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson has dyslexia, his friend uses crutches, his teacher uses a wheelchair. A parallel world explains that the friend is a faun, the teacher a centaur and Percy can read Greek. In each case the disability is countered by a symbolic ability in the parallel world—but as graphic novelist Al Davison comments: “We need more believeable representations of disabled people, rather than ones whose disabilities are negated by superpowers.” Davison is a wheelchair-user and has a black belt in kung fu.
In addition to stereotypes, there are several plot tropes (literary clichés) to watch out for when writing about disability. One is the depiction of disability as a punishment or curse, which can be miraculously reversed—often by the healing power of love. In the Grimm’s fairytale Rapunzel, the prince is struck blind and Rapunzel’s tears restore his sight. In Grimm’s The Handless Maiden, her hands grow back at a moment of crisis.
The healing-power-of-love trope also features in romance fiction. According to Cheyne: “In romance novels, disabled characters are frequently cured en route to achieving their happily ever after.” This, she says, is “highly problematic.” But some romance novels, such as Fay Robinson’s A Man like Mac, “consciously work with and against that expectation of cure, drawing the reader’s attention to it.”
Other “grotesques” redeemed by the power of love are The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Gargoyle, stories that play on the trope of outer ugliness juxtaposed with inner beauty. Of course conventionally unattractive people may indeed be beautiful inside— but not necessarily and not wholly so.
Another plot trope is fake disability, a frequent cliché in crime drama. The character who whizzes about in a wheelchair or uses a stick will leap out of that chair or throw away that stick to steal something or kill somebody. There are ramifications to the “fake” representation of disability. On Mumsnet, Lucy Britton describes how she gets out of her wheelchair and into her car in a way that makes her seem more disabled (she can walk a few steps), in order to avoid judgement. A “real” disabled person, she says, “must be completely bedridden in order for their disability to be legitimate, yet if they want to win respect rather than just well-intentioned pity, they must be capable of incredible physical achievements”—as a Paralympian, for example.
Autism and Alzheimer’s
I’ve noticed an increase in protagonists with autism or Alzheimer’s, both in published novels, and from my students in recent years. On the face of it, this is welcome.
Laura Guthrie, who herself has Asperger’s syndrome, is researching published autism narratives for a PhD. She noticed a distinction between novels that named or ‘owned’ autism as a condition and those that left the diagnosis vague. The former type (e.g. Truman Bradley, Aspie Detective) tended to append lists of resources, and the autistic character displayed all the well-known traits of the condition, such as a literal mind-set, adherence to routines, tactlessness, repetitive movements—to such an extent as to be stereotypical. She preferred the latter more literary depictions (e.g. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, The Rosie Project), which presented more nuanced characters. Indeed, author Mark Haddon never mentions the term autism in the text of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, though the publisher couldn’t resist including it in the cover blurb.
Guthrie identifies the familiar trope of “characters succeeding and being accepted despite their disability” and prefers fictional characters who succeed “along with” or “because of” their disability—as in Sumia Sukkar’s The Boy from Aleppo Who Painted the War, in which 14-year-old Adam seeks his abducted sister during the Syrian conflict. “His Asperger’s syndrome is used as a way to bring the reader right into the traumatic events of the war, without the social delicacy that might be present in a narrative that wasn’t so honest and direct,” says Guthrie.
Set out like this, the challenges of writing about disability may appear daunting. But they needn’t be. Most crude representations can be avoided simply by rounding out characters so that they become more than simply a conduit for their condition.
I’d like to see a shift in emphasis away from a character’s journey from non-disabled to disabled—for most of us this is a small part of our lives. I’d like to see a move away from plots in which disability is “overcome” or cured. Instead, the narrative arc could be resolved in the usual ways: by solving a mystery or finding the perfect job. I hope in the future we’ll see books and scripts featuring more varied disabled characters having more diverse adventures than ever imagined before.
Cath Nichols has a Creative Writing PhD from Lancaster University and teaches that subject at Leeds University. She lives with anxiety and trichotillomania. Her poetry includes My Glamorous Assistant (2007) and Tales of Boy Nancy (2005). She has a chapter on disability and creative writing pedagogy in Avoidance in the Academy (Routledge, 2015) and is currently writing children’s fiction and a research paper on Fishlegs, a disabled character in How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell.