Diversity in Literature: Disabled Characters and their Impact

I find bits of myself in all kinds of characters. Not just girls, not just white girls…not just white girls with a disability. But just because I see myself in people who don’t fit my demographic doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t diversify literature.

I am always so hopeful, hopeful but nervous, when I buy a book that features a blind character. I desperately want the author to get it right however I know more often than not they unfortunately fall short. The blind person can’t use a computer or a phone…or cook…or get themselves from a to b…the list goes on. And I begin to despair because this isn’t the reality I live in.

So why is it important, does it really matter if a character is written realistically?

Of course it does, because you are writing about real people, not some idea that you have in your mind of what it’s like to live with a disability. And a poorly written book can have an impact on the very group you write about. If you write a blind character that is utterly helpless, and you imply that this is the norm, that it’s expected, you reinforce that stereotype. Every person who reads that book, unless they are informed, will take on a little bit of what you say and include it in their idea of what a blind person is. And so when they happen to come across one of us it’s likely they will have preconceived ideas of what we can and can’t do. Trust me, many of us face low expectations on a somewhat regular basis, we really don’t need people to add to it.

I also feel like, if you were going to write about someone who is crazy about football then you’d research the game. You’d find out about popular players, who plays on what team, the structure of the game. So why don’t authors offer disabled people the same level of respect?

I have a few ideas of why this may be. Firstly, disabilities are incredibly misunderstood. Many people have this idea in their head that living with a disability is some kind of tragedy, and so doing something as simple as getting up in the morning is to be celebrated. That simply isn’t true, but it’s hard to challenge a notion that people cling to so tightly. They think that they couldn’t imagine if they went blind, couldn’t walk, had a mental illness, and so they write the character in a way that represents their feelings on the matter, not reality.

People don’t want to challenge their idea of what it is to have a disability because disabled people make them feel good. Maybe that sounds like an overly harsh statement, but I really feel like it’s true. Helping someone disabled gives them warm fuzzy feelings because they think it must be awful to be disabled. They watch videos online about blind children doing a menial task and feel so lucky. In short, disabled people make them feel better about their own lives.

But I’m not here to make you feel better. My life’s work isn’t to sit around so you can feel happy that you’re not me. I want to achieve, to get a good education and go on to pass my skills onto other people. I want to show young children that with the right set of skills they can be successful in whatever area they choose to. I don’t want to be your inspiration if all you do is assume my life is terrible.

We need to encourage authors to write realistic, diverse characters so this doesn’t continue. Do I think it will eradicate stereotypes? Of course not, although that would be wonderful. But if we can encourage authors to do their research and write a realistic character than there’s one less book on the market that shoves tropes down our throats.

I want to be represented in literature, not because I feel like there are no characters I identify with now, but because I want to see another aspect of myself in books. I want to pick up a book with a blind character and nod because the author has done their research, and the result is a character that actually serves some use other than as a sympathy device. If you’re going to write blind characters, do it well. Because by including a poorly written portrayal you can actually do the blind community as a whole some harm. This applies to other disabled people as well. If, for example, you imply that all mentally ill people are violent, as is often the case in the media, then you reenforce that viewpoint.

Reach out to people, ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask to speak to blind children and their parents, or blind adults. Find people who work for blindness organisations and ask them to direct you to service users. Learn about technology, how we access computers, using a cane or a guide dog. The information is out there, you just have to challenge your preconceived ideas and be willing to learn. I promise you that the character you write will be so much better for it.

I know so many people with all kinds of disabilities who would happily sit down with an author and answer their questions, so matter how obvious they seemed. Accurate representation is so incredibly important because disabled people are a very real sector of our society and deserve a place in literature as much as anyone else.

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