How to Write About Disability

An overview on writing about disability and including disabled characters in fiction.

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Writing about disabilities can be incredibly tough to do—or, at least, to do right. There are so many different experiences; in fact, there are as many experiences as there are disabilities, as everyone interprets their own—or other peoples’—differently to the next person.

In the Queen of the World series by Ben Hennessy, one of the characters has a disability, but you don’t realise it until quite a few pages into the first book due to Ben’s clever way of structuring the story. I’m being deliberately vague about both the person and the disability because I want you to read it for yourself and see if you discover it.

Ben doesn’t have the disability himself but, of course, that doesn’t preclude him from creating such a character. Or perhaps it’s more the case that it shouldn’t preclude him writing about this, as he is an intelligent, clever writer who can easily speak to people with conditions if he needed to understand what it’s like to live with a particular condition.

In my planned series of novels, The Elysium Chronicles, one of the main characters is deaf, although I never actually use that word. I made a conscious decision very early on to do precisely that; she is based on a real person—a friend of mine—who refuses to accept the limitations that society expects of her. She’s a human being with many facets to her, and the disability and health conditions she has don’t—shouldn’t—form the entirety of her personality or perception. Her drive in the story is based on the strength of her personality, her history, and her circumstances; part of all those things is influenced by how others treat her deafness, but also how they treat her as a woman, a leader, and a magician (a proper magician, who can actually do spells, rather than a wand-waving rabbit-from-hats producer with a fast line in patter and chat).

But how would I know anything about deafness? I can hear as well as the next person, as long as the next person isn’t my friend Julie. If you winced at that joke, then consider this; Julie herself would have laughed at it. In fact, being the witty woman she is, she’d have probably thought of it first. So that shows we can’t make assumptions about how people feel and will react to situations. We can make educated guesses, certainly—calling disabled people ‘spastics,’ for example, is something we hopefully can all agree is A Bad Thing, no excuses—but assuming disabled people don’t have a sense of humour or don’t have their own views on what disability means to them, is an outmoded point of view.

I’ve got a disability as well; I’m dyspraxic, and there’ll be other occasions to tell you more about what that is. To be honest, I often forget that society has declared my diverse brain make-up to be a disability, but there you have it. Am I defined by my dyspraxia? No, of course not, but it does impact my life, and I always get cross when people are either uninterested in treating me equally or when they presume to know everything about me because they read a single article five years ago about dyslexia—and surely they’re both the same, right?

The same principle applies in the written work—more so, sometimes, because we can forget what people say to us verbally—but the written word can be there in perpetuity. The entire oeuvre can influence thought and opinion across cultures and communities, so how do we approach that power we hold in our hands?

More significantly, how do we bring disabled people into our work? How do we become aware of disabled people enough in order to feel capable of writing characters with autism, say, or a physical impairment? How can we treat disabled characters as just another member of the book’s “cast,” rather than being a token introduction to a wide, towering history of disability?

By remembering that we’re writers, first and foremost, and that means we’re curious in every sense of the breed. Part of what we do is wonder What if? We wonder what will happen if this character with that personality trait is put into those situations. Imagine a character with alcoholism going into a wine shop to escape from someone pursuing him, and then realising that he’s entirely in a place with potentially free booze. You’re already writing the scene in your head, aren’t you? What are you thinking? How can I find out more about an alcoholic’s reactions? Are there experts by experience I can go to? Is there is a group I can deal with? What’s his story? His history? What brought him to this point? He’s far more than just the alcoholism, so what else is he? Your writing senses are already expanding, and that’s just one example.

So why not consider how a person with disabilities might react to a particular situation? Why don’t you ask them? Why don’t you try and write the scene? Create something—see where it leads, and use experts to guide you through the process. Allow people with disabilities into your creative worlds, and you’ll be amazed to see where they lead you. Treat them as human beings—not just as labels—and they will remind you that they’re living, breathing human beings that leap off the page at you.

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Thanet-based author Matthew has three novels published by Inspired Quill, is an inveterate blogger, and writing is his passion.

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