With the rise of social media and the internet, marginalized groups have been able to create online platforms and share their experiences. With all of this new information cycling the web, and authors wanting to diversify their casts of characters, it can be difficult to make sure that you are representing a character that is a member of a marginalized group in a respectful way.
There have been many depictions of disabled people in literature throughout the years, some being more respectful than others. Some good examples that come to mind immediately are: Turtles All The Way Down by John Green, which depicts mental illness beautifully and draws on Green’s own experience, and the wildly popular Wonder by R.J Palacio (although I would argue that the movie didn’t do the best job at representation, as they overlooked some details of the main character’s disability). There are plenty of thoughtful and honest representations of disabled characters, but there are also plenty of disrespectful and dishonest representations.
So here’s the question: How do I make sure that my character avoids harmful tropes and stereotypes? Well, the best way is to listen to other people who have that disability. However, as a general rule, here are three harmful stereotypes that you best avoid.
Number One: The ‘Has No Life’
This character is pretty self-explanatory. They have absolutely no life whatsoever. They have no personality, and are only there so that you can say that you have a character with a disability in your book. This character has no hobbies or interests of their own. Their main purpose in the narrative is to make your protagonist feel better about their own life, as they realize there are people far worse off than they are.
This is harmful for several reasons. First off, having characters with little to no personality won’t help any story, no matter what the plot is. Second of all, this trope presents people with disabilities as pitiable, only good for looking down on or making able-bodied people feel better about themselves.
There are definitely ways to give your main character a eureka moment where they realize that their life isn’t so bad after all. This moment shouldn’t come at the expense of disabled people.
Number Two: The ‘Tragic Fall From Grace’
Sometimes, perhaps through an accident, a war, or an unexpected illness, people find themselves with a disability. This can be a challenging and daunting event that requires a lot of adjustment. I have definitely read some books that portray this struggle really thoughtfully, but I also have read books that are very insensitive.
This trope isn’t so much something to avoid, but something to be cautious of.
Is this character learning to live with their disability and cope with their changed self, or does this character exist so that they can be looked down on by everyone else?
Once again, the difference between thoughtful representation and disrespectful representation boils down to this question: Is this character there to be pitied, or are they there to grow as a character and have their own journey?
Pay special attention if you want to write on this topic, as it can be written beautifully.
Number Three: The ‘Inspiration Porn’
This one is probably my least favorite trope. I’m sure a lot of us have heard the phrase ‘inspiration porn’ without knowing fully what it means. Isn’t it a good thing that people with disabilities are able to rise up, beat the odds, and inspire others as they do it?
That all sounds great, but this trope isn’t about disabled people, not really. It’s about what disabled people can do for non-disabled people. At it’s core, this trope is about able-bodied people being inspired by their non-able-bodied counterparts. This doesn’t sound so bad at first, but allow me to elaborate further on the two forms this trope comes in, and you’ll see why it actually sucks.
The first is summed up by this example: One time, I saw a news headline about a girl with Down Syndrome who was asked to prom by one of her classmates. The article was clearly framing the kid who asked her out as a hero for being willing to ask out a kid with a disability. Of course I’m not here to hate on that, and I’m really happy for both people in that situation, but the way people talked about it was… interesting. Able-bodied people should not get extra special praise for treating people with disabilities like people. That’s not how it works. If your characters are treating people with disabilities with basic respect and you are framing it as if they did a heroic deed, you might want to reevaluate.
The second, is the disabled person who can magically do everything. They serve as inspiration to all the able-bodied people trying to pursue their dreams, because if a disabled person can do it, surely they can do it too. The problem with this trope is that disabled people should not have to prove themselves in order to be worthy of respect. Another problem with this trope is that it enforces the idea that, unless a disabled person goes above and beyond, they are worthy of pity. We don’t treat able-bodied people who live mundane ordinary lives with pity- why should we treat everyday ordinary disabled people with pity?
Overall, the golden rule is this: Listen to disabled people and understand that while they do have their own special limitations, that doesn’t mean they should be treated with less dignity and respect than their non-disabled counterparts.
If your disabled character has limits, but also has dreams, goals, a personality, likes and dislikes, everything that makes up any other character; you’re off to a good start. And hey, we can always use more authors who are willing to dedicate themselves to diversifying literature.
~ Jesse Perry