You Are Disabled (And Your Characters Should Be, Too)

I’m gonna make a statement that may surprise you. Whether or not you pass as “able-bodied,” you have a disability. At least one.

Maybe you need glasses. Maybe you have eczema, or diabetes. Maybe you speak with a lisp.

Whatever it is, there is some part of your body that doesn’t work the way it “should” according to our able-bodied ideal. And there’s nothing wrong with that, because the truth is, there is no such thing as true able-bodiedness. It’s an ideal that no individual can attain. All of us, each and every one, is disabled in some way. (And even if you’re as close to true able-bodiedness as one can be… it’s only temporary. Age will eventually “disable” you.)

In reality, there is no able-bodiedness, just two degrees of disabledness.

The first one we call able-bodiedness. But, really, “able-bodies” should be called “not-visibly-disabled-bodies.” These are the bodies that are catered to and accommodated in our society. These are the bodies that are privileged and considered “normal” even though they too deviate from the able-bodied ideal.

Then, there is conspicuous disabledness: bodies with disabilities that we can see, whether because they manifest physically, or because, through lack of accommodation, they become visibly apparent. These are the bodies that we call disabled. These are the bodies that are considered “abnormal”–not because they are abnormal (any more than not-visibly-disabled-bodies are), but because they deviate from the disabilites that we, as a society, view as acceptable, as the “norm.”

And these conspicuous disabilities, these deviations, scare people. They scare people because they are a reminder that any and all of us can (and will, eventually) become conspicuously disabled, too. And that’s scary because in our society, having a conspicuous disability makes you second-class. Not because having one actually makes you inferior in any way, but because it’s regarded as abnormal, because it’s not accommodated, and because others will define you by your (conspicuous) disability.

In fiction, unfortunately, this happens all too often as well. (Of course, exceptions exist, but I’m focusing on the rule, not the exceptions.)

In fiction, if conspicuously disabled characters are even included in the first place, their disability becomes the driving force behind their characterization–rather than more important and relevant characteristics like, oh I don’t know… their personality. Their interests. Their past. Their hopes and dreams. Their fears. Everything about them that makes them who they are. Instead, they become caricatures, defined entirely by their disability.

Writers have got to stop doing doing that.

Because, in the first place, defining a character by their disability prevents them from reaching any kind of real heroic or protagonistic status–they’re written as too one-dimensional for that. And, frankly, it’s bullshit. One doesn’t need to pass as “able-bodied” to be heroic. It’s not a pre-requisite. Heroism is in one’s actions, in one’s moral’s, in one’s soul… and having a conspicuous disability doesn’t stop one from taking action, from having morals, from possessing a soul.

(The same goes for villainy, too—having a conspicuous disability doesn’t make one pure or good by default. But if a character’s villainy stems from their disability, if the disability is their driving force, that’s a problem.)

And, secondly, we are all disabled in some wayThat means our characters are, too.

So. Imagine you’re reading a novel, and the protagonist wears glasses. His poor eyesight is a disability, even though we don’t regard it as such (because it’s accommodated and seen as “normal”–or, at least, “normal-enough”). Now, imagine that our protagonist’s “acceptable” disability is treated the same way as any conspicuous disability: Everything about him, and his story, revolves around his poor eyesight and his need for glasses. Everything.

You’d probably chuck the book across the room, right?

And why? Because it’s not believable. People who need glasses need a lot of other things, too: love, recognition, adventure, whatever. Their life doesn’t revolve around their poor eyesight.

So why do we, as a society, let writers get away with treating other (read: conspicuous) disabilities the same way?

I wish I had an answer to that question. Maybe it stems from fear of becoming conspicuously disabled themselves, or a fascination with conspicuously disabled bodies. Maybe it’s due to a lack of interaction with and understanding of conspicuous disabilities. Maybe it’s because conspicuously disabled bodies are in the minority, so writers think that they can get away with writing them as one-dimensional caricatures and no one will notice. I honestly have no idea.

What I do know is that it doesn’t have to be that way. All it takes is for writers to start including conspicuously disabled persons in their stories, and stop defining them by those disabilities. Make your cast as diverse as the human population, and write people as people, not caricatures. It’s as simple as that.

Your disability is not the most interesting thing about you. No one’s disability is the most interesting thing about them. So don’t let your character’s disability be the most interesting thing about them either.

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