How to Depict Disability in Fiction

When writing, take some special care in describing characters with disabilities, physical or mental disabilities, and special conditions. A well-formed character who has these characteristics can really make your writing look deeply into the human condition. Unfortunately, it is also easy to fall back on one-dimensional stereotypes, cling to misconceptions, or just not really reflect truth and come off as hokey. This article will teach you how to depict disability with respect and accuracy.


  1. Image titled Depict Disability in Fiction Step 1
    Research the disability in question. Really understand any condition before you write about it. Do not base your knowledge on fictional media, such as movies or television shows, as often these are inaccurate. Even if you think you really know or understand a condition, you may be surprised to find how little you really do. Of course, if you have direct understanding of a disability, such as yourself or someone close to you, or someone you can get to know, that is the best research available.
    • For example, not every autistic person will be like the character in "Rain Man," for instance. Most autistic individuals do not possess remarkable mathematical ability. Some are affected less dramatically, and some far more severely. Autism is different for everyone, and this is the case with most other disabilities.
    • Some people who need a wheelchair may need to use it at all times, while others can use a cane or even walk on a good day. Some people are in wheelchairs due to neurological diseases, accidents, birth defects, and a number of different reasons. Having a working understanding of the disability will be essential to building and depicting your character. Things you should research include:
    • Effects of the disability. For example, being blind may impair sleeping well.
    • Prevalence of the disability. Some disabilities are relatively common, others very rare. Some are "invisible", such as the man suffering from debilitating depression who outwardly looks fine.
    • Public attitude or misconceptions about the disability. This may differ from one time period, culture, or sub-culture to another.
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    Build empathy with disabled people. Get to know people who have conditions that you are trying to understand. Interview any people you know who have the disability. Better yet, hang out with them to see what their experiences can be like. You can also look for communities online where actual disabled people converse and check in with them. Some disabilities have their own communities (Deaf culture, Autistic community, etc.), but general disability communities can help, too.
    • Look for hashtags and similar signs that indicate who actually has a disability. One common one is "Actually Autistic."
    • Find the point of view of actual disabled people. Often people with good intentions try to speak for disabled people and end up promoting harmful or misleading ideas.
    • For example, non-autistic people sometimes speak of as autism being a puzzle (often in a negative way). However, it may not be mysterious at all to someone who is autistic—it is just an everyday reality.
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    Remember that disability does not solely define a person. While disability is often a significant part of a person's identity, it is not their entire identity. "Blind" or "has ADHD" can be aspects of a character, but not the whole character. Besides, rounded characters are more interesting in general. Some examples of potential characters are listed below:
    • Kori is deaf-mute and uses sign language. She has a great sense of humor and she and her friends often prank each other. She is studying Forensics in college.
    • James is autistic and has a bit of trouble with socialization because of it. However, he is quite eloquent when he is comfortable and often writes beautiful love letters to his fiancée. He really loves to cook.
    • Francesca uses a wheelchair. She is quiet but friendly, and she loves to paint. On weekdays she cares for her sister's son, Juan, who likes to sit in her lap and watch while she paints.
    • Professor X uses a wheelchair. He is a well-respected leader of a team of superheroes, is brilliant, telekinetic, and cares deeply about non-mutants, even if many wish to destroy people like him.
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    Avoid tokenism. Sometimes people will include a disabled person just to satisfy a desire to include a character that to be "inclusive" without really having that character be a meaningful presence. Token characters are usually flat and often appear for one episode of a show to prove a point or teach the other characters a lesson about something—typically never to reappear. While the writer probably has good intentions, this has many negative implications. For one, disabled people are still effectively sidelined, not really active in the world. It is seen as enough to just be there, but not be a full person. But what most people with disabilities want is to be seen as a person foremost, not a passive bystander or "plot device" in life - they want to have a purpose, not just merely "be there" to further the development of other characters.
    • You can avoid tokenism simply by having the character have a purpose in the story, not just be there to be there. Something about the character should be vital, just as any other in your fiction.
    • It's okay for disabled characters to teach other characters something, but there should be more to them than just teaching the non-disabled character(s) a lesson.
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    Avoid trivializing disability. Sometimes a character will be disabled just so other characters will feel sorry for them, to justify some questionable behavior, or just to seem cool. All of these things are frowned upon. Some people with autism, for instance, can come off as rude at times—but most do not do it intentionally, and most do not try to use their disability as a free pass to get away with it. If they bring up their autism, it's to explain what happened and that the offense was an accident. So it is with most disabled people.
    • In comedy, a character's disability is sometimes used as a punchline. It is a fine line using blindness or deafness to cause a point of misunderstanding in the plot, and making the character the joke. Make sure that the person's disability is not seen as a joke. While disabled people can be as funny as anyone else, make sure that the laugh is not at the expense of the person.
    • In the same vein, disability is sometimes used as an explanation for criminal or similar behavior. This can give readers/viewers a bad impression of the disability, and this can have real-life consequences. In other words, don't do it.
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    Don't stress out too much. Writing about minority characters can be a touchy subject, yes. But you don't have to be perfect—the disabled community will appreciate positive representation and that you put effort into your portrayal. Some people might be unhappy with your work, but you cannot please everybody, so don't worry about it too much. Take this as an opportunity to meet interesting new people and learn worthwhile information.


  • There's a lot of misinformation about disability, so be careful about what you read.

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Categories: Disability Issues | Fiction