Disabled Characters: Avoiding the Tragedy or Inspiration Binary
Updated: Jan 24
It starts with a question: is the disabled character in your story a fully realized person, or simply there to serve a purpose?
Much like other overused stereotypes—the fat best friend, the flamboyant gay sidekick, the token BIPOC comic relief—disabled characters are often added into a story where an author wants to add a touch of tragedy or inspiration. They are served up as a cautionary tale, an emotional hotspot, or a measure of how fortunate the other characters are. You’ve seen versions of this in everything from social media posts with storylines like “If this guy in a wheelchair can manage to find a reason to go on, I surely can!” to blockbuster movies like Forrest Gump.
If you are including a disabled person into your work, here are some questions to ask yourself:
Is their disability the purpose of their storyline?
Do they have complex relationships, goals, and interests?
Do they have intimate relationships that are not based on pity, abuse, or commerce?
Are they the villain, an innocent, or a victim?
As you answer these questions, you might well find yourself uncovering implicit bias* (also known as unconscious bias) about disability in your own worldview. If, for example, the disabled character you are writing is seen only in terms of their disability, and/or they are written into the story to make another character seem kinder, more generous, or more villainous, then you may be operating from an implicit bias about the limitations or value of disabled bodies, or perceiving them as less real or valid than able bodied people.
This can be an uncomfortable process, but working through it could have not only a potentially positive impact on your writing but also your participation in a world that dehumanizes disabled people at every level. They face abuse, discrimination, and isolation in personal and structural relationships, including domestic violence, police brutality, limited options for employment, and even an inability to keep their benefits if they marry or make too much income. If this leaves you feeling pity rather than outrage, that’s another indication that you need to pause in your writing and pursue self-education.
*Project Implicit has created The Implicit Association Test (IAT) which measures attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to report.
Some ways to tell if you are creating a person, or a prop:
Disabled people are fully capable of intimate relationships, including sex, and should be supported in educational and social resources, and autonomy over their own bodies and choices. This includes vetting and vetoing individual caregivers and structural institutions as they deem fit to safeguard themselves against sexual abuse, neglect, or infantilization. If the character you are writing doesn’t have agency or desire, stop. You’re writing a prop.
Disabled people are not a burden on their families, their partners, or society. They have value, as every human does, beyond what they are able to produce in service of capitalism. If the character you are writing is there to applaud or highlight the patience, virtue, compassion, fortitude, or suffering of another character, stop. You’re writing a prop.
Disabled people do not need to be fixed, or saved from themselves. Disabled bodies are valid just as they are, with complex strengths, wisdom, beauty, and vulnerabilities. This is true of all bodies, including your own. If the character you are writing needs to be rescued, cured, set free, or convinced to live, stop. You’re writing a prop.
Disabled people and their lives are not a punchline. Physical and mental disabilities take many forms, some of which may seem strange or startling if you haven’t encountered them before, or which may touch on places that feel scary in relation to the life you’re living or the body you have. Recognizing that these reactions are a product of all the ways our culture prioritizes bodies that look and act in particular ways is crucial. If the character you are writing is treated with scorn or stigma, or as a source of humor, stop. You’re writing a prop.
What does the difference look like?
Let’s put this into practice with some examples of what not to do, and how to do it better.
“It’s so sad,” Martha says to her sister, “Bruce is handsome and kind, but he spends all his time taking care of his wife. She’s been stuck in a wheelchair since the accident and just hides herself away.” They look out the kitchen window at Bruce struggling with armloads of groceries and shake their heads. “Such a waste.”
What happens if the presumption isn’t dependency and despair, but interdependence and intimacy?
“It’s beautiful,” Martha says to her sister, “Bruce and Anna have so much love and respect for each other that even her accident hasn’t derailed it. The ways that they are negotiating that and supporting each other took some work to sort out, but they have done a great job making their home more accessible.” They look out the kitchen window at Bruce and Anna bringing in the groceries and smile. “Such a great relationship.”
Jim scoffs “Your brother is so embarrassing, he’s always fidgeting and moving around, and he can’t even make eye contact. How can you stand it?” Mark looks down, shrugging his shoulders. “He can’t help it, he was born weird, and I just try to help him however I can. He’s my brother, so, I just have to deal.” “I guess,” says Jim, “you’re a nicer guy than me, I’d be asking my parents to have him put away. You deserve a life, you know?” Jim sighs, “Yeah …”
What happens if the presumption isn’t broken and burden, but difference and appreciation, with lessons to learn in both directions?
Jim scoffs “Your brother is so embarrassing, he’s always fidgeting and moving around, and he can’t even make eye contact. How can you stand it?” Mark sighs and looks frustrated. “Why would you say that? His brain is wired differently than mine, which means he sees things differently and if I pay attention, I get to learn things I’d never think of myself. We’re both patient with each other and we have a lot of fun.” “I guess,” says Jim, “you’re a nicer guy than me, I’d be asking my parents to have him put away. You deserve a life, you know?” Mark takes a deep breath and tries again. “Everyone deserves a life, even people who make you uncomfortable.” “Like him?” asks Jim. “No, like you.”
Check your barometer:
How did those examples make you feel? Did you find yourself feeling defensive? Are you reflecting on times that you might have said something equally dismissive or misinformed? Are you thinking you’d never do anything like that? Most of us have, even if it’s about our own disabled body. Ableism is pervasive, like so many other systems of oppression, and it’s almost impossible not to internalize it. This is not the moment to dig your heels in and insist you are a good person. This is an opportunity to dig into all the ways that you can be a better accomplice, in your writing, and your life.
Resources for further reading:
Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice and Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-first Century, Alice Wong
Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure, Eli Clare
Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space, Amanda Leduc
All the Weight of Our Dreams: On Living Racialized Autism, Autism Women's Network
The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love, Sonya Renee Taylor
Demystifying Disability: What to Know, What to Say, and How to Be an Ally, Emily Ladau
Sossity Chiricuzio (she/they) is a fat femme outlaw poet, a working class crip storyteller. She’s a published author, educator, and editor, and has been a sensitivity reader for over three years now on projects as widely varied as role playing games, children’s books, novels, periodicals, video captions, and textbooks. You can find out more about them at sossitywrites.com, or on social media: @sossitywrites. You can request Sossity as your sensitivity reader on the Writing Diversely Directory.