A lot has been written about the portrayal of disability in works of fiction. There are entire theoretical approaches devoted to this subject, and so there should be. Disability in stories mimics disability in the real world: it’s everywhere, but we keep finding ways to pretend it isn’t. This leads to some… well… let us call them “odd little quirks” and go from there.
I have been disabled my whole life. I was born with clubfoot, mild cerebral palsy, and a paralysed right arm. The clubfoot was corrected early, leaving me only slightly pigeon-toed. The CP manifests in an unusual gait, low muscle tone, and lack of fine motor control. My right arm, which is no longer paralysed, is my dominant arm, but it’s slower and weaker than my left. Because my disabilities are mild, I am generally not perceived as disabled, and I spent my childhood being coached on how to seem as able as possible, even when I wasn’t.
I’m not saying my parents sat me down and went, “Now, little Kari, here is how you pretend you can throw a ball like all the other children.” My parents were great. It was more a societal attitude: a sort of vague assumption that being disabled was shameful. Better simply to seem bad at things or lazy than to admit to a disability (*shudder*).
I sometimes feel as if I’m balanced on the Disability Fence: I don’t appear disabled and am not hugely inconvenienced by my disability, and I thus benefit from a certain type of privilege, but the disability has still always been a barrier. The CP and the weak right arm mean that I can never progress beyond a certain level of musical competency. They mean people who know about them tend to assume that if I try X and fail at it the first time, I’ll never be able to do X at all, so there’s no use in trying to help me find another route to achieving it. I didn’t learn to skip until I was forty-one. It took me months.
I include disabled characters in almost everything I write. Weave a Circle Round has a Deaf character. The protagonist of my current comic is blind; the protagonist of my old comic had PTSD, and her best friend was a congenital amputee. Disability is part of my experience, so it’s part of my writing. I can’t promise I always do it well, but I certainly do it often.
So when I see fictional disability, I recognise the tropes. I’ve heard Matt Murdock described as “a blind man whose power is that he can see,” and yeah, that’s a common one. The “blind seer” is a particularly frustrating trope because its purpose is so dazzlingly clear: you want a blind person in your story because that’s so tragic, but you also don’t want the inconvenience of, well, having a blind person in your story. So he’s blind, but it’s okay! He can really see through his magical powers! He’s been compensated for his disability! Yay!
The blind seer is probably the most obvious example of fictional compensated disability, though there are certainly others. Other obnoxious disability tropes include inspiration porn (if she can do that in a wheelchair, you can get that promotion!), disability as tragedy (of course he’s lost the will to live! He’s disabled!), disability as comedy (ha ha…Mr. Magoo thinks that tree is a person!), disability as a mark of moral deficiency (*cough*Richard III*cough*), disability as something that can be overcome (if you were only a stronger person, you could throw off that schizophrenia just like that character did), disability as metaphor (her physical deafness represents our society’s uncaring attitude towards those in need), all-or-nothing disability (there’s rarely such a thing in popular fiction as a blind person with limited vision or a wheelchair-bound person who can walk), and many more. A lot of these tropes revolve around an assumption that if there are disabled people in a story, they’d better be there for a reason. They can’t just…be there.
The truth about disability is that there’s no truth about disability. Everyone experiences it uniquely. Disability makes you look at the world differently: not in a better or a worse way, but in a way that shows up elements invisible to others. If you’re in a wheelchair, and your friends invite you out to dinner, you may have to gently nudge them into choosing a restaurant with a ramp and a bathroom on the main floor. If you’re a banjo player with mild CP, you may have to ask for a song to be slowed down, even if your bandmates clearly think that will hurt the music.*
This stuff transfers to fiction as well. You want to have a blind character? That’s great. Acknowledge her blindness and how she’s treated because of it, but maybe avoid turning her into a symbol or a metaphor or the Moral of the Story. Resist the urge to claim she’s blind and then portray her blindness as not affecting her life at all. Don’t have her spend the entire story lamenting her blindness and claiming it has ruined her life.** Don’t avoid giving her magical powers because she’s blind, but maybe also give her magical powers that don’t arise directly from her blindness. And don’t just decide having her in your story is too much work and leave her out.
Remember Nemo’s “lucky fin”? It impairs him but doesn’t define him; it changes the way his father treats him, but it’s never implied that it should. He’s a bright little fish. Though he occasionally needs extra help, he doesn’t need to be coddled or pitied. We need more matter-of-fact fictional disability: disability that is just there in a story because it’s just there in real life.
* Yep, that one’s from personal experience.
** I saw a character treated like this in a play once. Ye gods.