How to Write a Disabled Character

Three Methods:Understanding the DisabilityWriting Disability RealisticallyAvoiding Fiction Stereotypes

As a short story writer, novelist, or poet, you want to include characters with disabilities in your work. For some authors with first hand experience, it is easy. For others, it can be challenging to figure out how to write them accurately and respectfully. But with a few tips, you can make all your characters shine.

Method 1
Understanding the Disability

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    1
    Recognize that a lot of what you know about disability may be wrong. Consider each "fact" you know about a given disability, and ask yourself where it came from. If the answer is "pop culture," then that information may not be accurate.[1] Turn researching a given disability, and the tropes associated with it, into a project.
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    Choose disability-friendly language. People with disabilities are often very careful about what terms they prefer to use. What do they call themselves, and what do they want not to be called? Respecting their language preferences will please disabled readers, and encourage non-disabled readers to do the same.
    • For example, the word "cripple" has a very different connotation than "amputee".
    • Not all disabled people prefer the same terms; there is often diverse opinion within a given population.
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    Read from the disabled community. What are their lives like? How do their symptoms affect their experiences? What sort of character would they love to read a book about? Understanding their perspectives can help you build a believable character with a disability like theirs.
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    Recognize that disabled people are very diverse and have different experiences. Many disabilities are a spectrum: for example, many blind people are not completely blind, and simply have some degree of low vision.[2] Some disabilities are stronger on some days than on others, based on stress and other factors.[3]
    • The spoon theory[4] covers how some people need to budget their energy.
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    Remember that people with disabilities learn and grow. A girl with Down Syndrome will be able to do much more at age 15 than she could at age 5. Disabled characters, including characters with intellectual/developmental disabilities (IDDs) will be able to learn new things and gain skills. They will simply do so at their own pace.

Method 2
Writing Disability Realistically

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    1
    Read personal accounts from people who have the disabilities you wish to portray. What are their lives like? Where do they struggle? Are there any gifts that come with their disability? What do they feel are common misconceptions?
    • See if any people with disabilities would be open to being interviewed. There is no substitute for face-to-face time with real people.
    • If you are polite and clear, many disabled people are willing to offer advice and answer questions. Try asking questions via social media.
    • Remember that disabled people are diverse. No two people are alike (whether it's two blind people or two people with Down Syndrome).[5] Symptoms can vary between individuals.
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    Write a character first, and the disability second. Every disabled person is a unique individual, with interests, strengths, and flaws. Although a disability is a character train, a disability is not a defining character trait.[6] It will influence their life, but their personality (likes, dislikes, relationships, skills) is far more important. Spend plenty of time developing them as a person.
    • Avoid the mystical disability stereotype.[7]
    • Most disabled people are quite ordinary: they wake up, eat breakfast, go to the store, and live fairly average lives. Portraying disabled people as "beautiful tragedies" ignores the fact that in fact, most people with disabilities are not any more or less tragic or beautiful than anyone else. [8]
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    Explore what goes on in your disabled character's head. Some writers make the mistake of portraying people with cognitive disabilities as irrational or mysterious beings whose thoughts and behavior make no sense. The reality is that everyone has a reason for what they do, and the clarity of disabled people's thoughts is often underestimated.[9]
    • If your disabled character isn't the main character, that's fine. You can still attribute thoughts to them, and have the main character recognize what's going on in their head. (For example, "Lucy visibly relaxed as soon as the Christmas music came on. She loved happy song lyrics, so I kept a playlist of songs with good messages.")[10]
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    Consider intersectionality. Not all disabled people are straight, cisgender, male, white, middle-class, thin, et cetera. Readers have been calling for diversity,[11] and an easy way to satisfy that need is to write more than one deviation from the privileged "norm" at a time. Try writing a black woman with cerebral palsy, a chubby boy with Down Syndrome, or a blind lesbian.
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    Recognize that illness recovery (when possible) is often an arduous task. This may require medication, therapy, and/or lifestyle adjustments.[12] It may take years of hard work. Recovery is not a straight line, and there will be good days, bad days, and relapses.
    • Mental illnesses such as depression and psychosis are sometimes possible to recover from completely, with enough time and effort. This often involves a combination of pills and therapy, along with a loving and supportive environment.
    • Some illnesses have no cures. In this case, the individual's best outcome is to manage their symptoms and understand their limitations better.
    • Some disabilities, such and deafness and autism, are not illnesses. The goal is not fighting the disability, but adapting.
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    Recognize that in real life, getting disability accommodations can be very difficult. Many parents of disabled children, and disabled adults, have to fight for necessary accommodations.[13]
    • Faking a disability for accommodations would actually take a ton of energy. (The idea of fakers also makes it more difficult for real disabled people to get the help they need.)[14]
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    Portray seeking help and self-advocacy as positive things, not as signs of weakness. Admitting that you have a problem and need help (especially involving medication) is a very difficult task. Many disabled people struggle with the idea that it's "all in their head."[15][16] You can help people with disabilities by showing that it's okay, or even heroic, to ask for help. This can help them have the courage to do this in real life.
    • Stay far away from stereotype that mental illness medications are for the weak.[17] These medications may be the only way to have a decent or functional life.
    • For some people, a diagnosis and the subsequent accommodations are an enormous relief.[18] It also affirms that it isn't a moral fault or "not trying hard enough."
    • Show disabled characters asking for help, and non-disabled characters ask the disabled character what they need.[19] This can encourage the idea of people with disabilities asking for and receiving help when they need it.
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    Try exploring the tension between meeting one's needs and blending in. People with disabilities (especially teens) may feel insecure about being different and not "passing" as non-disabled.[20][21] If disability is a significant part of the story, then this may be an interesting dynamic.
    • Some people with disabilities are very nervous about others knowing they are disabled. Others choose not to care what others think of them, and spend less energy on blending in.
    • Some people can "pass" as non-disabled, while others cannot.
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    Consider how the character has handled ableism. All disabled people experience mistreatment related to their disability (including before they are diagnosed). Many have difficult childhoods, and get treated differently from their peers.[22] Whether they experience constant ableism or are mostly shielded from it, it will affect them, their coping skills, their ability to ask for help and trust others, and how they handle conflict. Consider your character's past and how it has shaped them. They may have dealt with...
    • Bullying, being left out (few or no friends, very little media representation)
    • Being talked down to, or talked about as if they weren't there
    • Trying and failing to perform to non-disabled standards; seeing adults' disappointment
    • False "helpers" who don't listen and get discouraged or angry when the disabled person fails to stop being disabled[23][24]
    • Abusive therapies meant to "cure" deafness or autism symptoms
    • More[25]
    • This depends on the severity of the disability, the quality of the community, how charismatic the disabled person can act, the family, and other factors.

Method 3
Avoiding Fiction Stereotypes

This part applies to novels, short stories, poems, and other works that involve fictional characters.

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    Give your disabled character something to contribute. Many writers portray characters with disabilities as dead weight, giving them nothing useful to do. Disabled people aren't helpless.[26] Let your character have meaningful skills and positive points to their personality. Show that the world is better off with them around.
    • Even a minor character can contribute something small to the plot: the observant autistic boy who notices that something is wrong, or the sister with cerebral palsy who has incredible computer skills.
    • Avoid having characters refer to the disabled character as a burden, tragedy, etc. (unless you wish to show that this character is cruel)
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    Let the disabled person be a character in their own right. Sometimes writers make the character exist only to reflect upon another character (to show how nice/evil the character is, or to burden them with a poor disabled family member).[27] Or the character may be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl/Boy, who only exists to further the other character's development.[28][29]
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    Name the disability.[30][31] Just as queer-baiting (hinting at homosexuality or bisexuality without outright using it)[32] is frustrating, hinting at but refusing to mention a disability is frustrating to disabled readers. Do them a favor and outright say the name of the disability. Your disabled readers will love it, and your non-disabled readers might learn a thing or two.
    • Aliens and fantasy creatures can have the names of human disabilities. The same disability existing in two worlds isn't going to be the least improbable thing in your story.
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    Avoid making disability evil. Some works have one character with a disability: the villain. The villain might be a brainiac in a wheelchair, or the dangerous psychotic person with a mental illness. Most disabled people are no more evil or threatening than your average person, and also want to imagine themselves as awesome protagonists. Let people with disabilities be heroes for once.
    • If you absolutely need a disabled villain, then make several good disabled characters. That way, the villain is the exception and not the rule.
    • Otherwise, have no disabled characters at all. No representation is better than bad representation.[33]
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    Don't make disability be the problem. Too often, books pose the idea that the person's disability is their key barrier, and they need to overcome their disability in order to be happy.[34] This can be alienating to people who will be disabled for life, and suggests that they cannot be happy unless they become someone they are not.
    • Instead of showing the person becoming less disabled, show them learning to handle their disability better, and others learning to accommodate them.
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    Make characters inspiring because of what they do, not who they are.[35] Most disabled people don't consider themselves heroic for walking or rolling down the street. If you wish to show that a character with a disability is strong, then give them non-disability challenges to face. Maybe they won an election, spearheaded a project, or defeated the supervillain. Avoid falling prey to "inspiration porn."[36][37][38]
    • Disabled people don't exist solely to inspire non-disabled people.
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    Don't let disability stop romance. A common myth is that all disabled people are aromantic and asexual, like children. It is assumed that they cannot fall in love, kiss, or have sex (or that even if they could, they are not desirable). This is incredibly damaging to disabled people's self-esteem and romantic prospects.
    • If your story involves love and romance, then let characters with disabilities be included in that. This helps show that they desirable and worth dating.
    • A small portion of disabled people are aromantic and/or asexual (just like a small portion of non-disabled people are). If you have an aro/ace disabled character, consider showing other disabled characters who are in love, to make it clear that disability doesn't negate sexuality.
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    Show that characters with disabilities have adapted. Most disabled people are used to their disabilities, and can function pretty well on a day-to-day basis. (Newly disabled people may still be adjusting.) They have had plenty of time to learn what their body needs and get used to it.
    • In most cases, seeking a cure would be a poor use of time. It would be much more efficient to get accommodations (e.g. support at school, a better wheelchair), and focus their time on projects that use their talents and yield actual results.
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    Research individual disability stereotypes. How do writers often fail when writing disability? How could you succeed in those areas? Look up tropes, and ask disabled people what annoys them most in the media.
    • Autistic people are often represented as clinical, unfeeling, cold,[39] and/or intensely super-powered.[40]
    • Mentally ill people may be portrayed as intensely creative,[41] or as dangerous people who deserve anything that happens to them.[42]
    • Medication doesn't always "cure" ADD; it is still a real disability even after treatment.[43]
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    Let your character be disabled at the end of the book. Miraculously curing a disability reeks of lazy writing.[44][45][46] Too many characters with disabilities end up cured or dead, suggesting that a happy ending and disability are opposite each other. This message is disheartening to people with lifelong disabilities. Instead, let your character be happy and disabled at the end.
    • A happy disability-related ending could be getting the accommodations they need: an awesome power wheelchair, a fun and helpful new therapy, their dad learning sign language, etc.
    • Or give them a regular happy ending: acceptance into their dream college, a sweet boyfriend, being elected to the senate, or a group of awesome friends.

Tips

  • Not everyone recognizes right away that they are disabled. This can be especially true for mental illness,[47] alexithymia, and autism. Sometimes disabilities are not diagnosed until months, years, or decades after they develop.

Sources and Citations

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Article Info

Categories: Disability Issues | Character Creation