How To Write People With Disabilities (And What Not To Do)

Last month I went to a writing conference (because I haven’t already wrote enough posts about the AWP 😛 ) that had a bunch of different panels. One panel that I was planning to go to – but didn’t, so my husband went in my place – was about writing about people with disabilities. The panel was geared towards writers who were not disabled, differently-abled or however else you want to describe it, but wanted to write a story or have characters that were.

As my husband reported back to me on the panel, the panelists, the questions, etc. one question and answer struck me:

“How do I write about a disabled character?”

The response was, “You don’t. If it’s not your experience, it’s not for you to write about.”

All right, my first reaction was to answer the question correctly. And I actually did just this in the car, interrupting my husband’s story. “You don’t write about a disabled character, you write about a character who happens to be disabled. The character’s disability is separate from who they are as a person and if you focus on the disability rather than the character, then all you end up with is a disability personified – not a human being.”

This might seem overly simplistic, but it isn’t any less true. If you keep thinking about your character’s deafness, blindness, paralysis, cognitive limitations, etc. you are going to put them in a box they do not belong in. A person who is deaf experiences the world differently, but so does every other person in the world, with or without these limitations. Get to know your character first, what makes him or her tick – what are their hopes and dreams, their fears and defense mechanisms, how do they think, what is their personality like… none of these things should be dependent or solely based on that person’s disability. See – simple.

And when it comes to actually writing about their disability, a writer should do so responsibly. Do research, talk to people who have the same disability as your character, be aware and sensitive and most importantly, be honest and unafraid. Go there, but go there completely… or you’re certain to fuck it up. I think that desire to tell the story of the experience authentically, responsibly and not watered down is key. And if someone does that – it will be all right.

And that brings me to the panelist’s response: “If it’s not your experience, it’s not for you to write about.”

Let me just say, that’s crap. Disability is a factor that someone has to deal with just like gender and race and sexual orientation. It is not a choice, and the reality is most likely not going to change, but it is not all the person is and it shouldn’t be off limits to anyone. If this were true, then women should not be able to write about men, straight people shouldn’t be able to write about LGBT people, white people better not write about any racial minority whatsoever. God, what boring books we would be reading if we could only write about people who share our own experiences!

It’s not the first time I’ve heard this argument before. I’ve heard that white people shouldn’t try to write black characters; this was a heated panel back when I was in graduate school. I’ve heard the same arguments for people writing about people with different sexual orientations, although surprisingly, I can’t remember ever hearing this argument when it comes to writing about someone from the opposite sex.

I don’t understand the issue, but maybe I’m just too dense. Whenever I write a character, new or old, they are a person first. All of those other boxes don’t apply to who they are on the inside. Yes, they may shape their life experience, trickle into fears and dreams, and obstacles and defense mechanisms, but they do not define a person. No one is just black. Or just gay. Or just disabled. And what an insult if that is actually what we think.

I think there is this fear on both sides. Minorities might fear that writers in certain majorities just won’t get it. They’ll minimize or defend, pretend it isn’t there or try to handle it with disastrous conclusions. Well to these people I would say, “Stop being such a control freak!” And I am a control freak myself, but my God, if I thought that way or worried like that I would drive myself nuts.

Then there is a fear from writers who want to be sensitive and PC and are all too aware that the critics and those on the other side whose fears I just mentioned, are waiting to strike. To attack their work and their characters, but not only to tear the work apart, but to tell the writer how terrible she/he is for screwing it all up, and how dare they go there, and it is not their place and yaddy yaddy yada. My best advice to these people is to put all those other people out of their head. I mean these other voices shouldn’t be there in the first place. And letting these voices get under your skin, paying them attention can make a writer hesitate. And quite honestly, speaking as a writer and a reader, it’s the hesitation where those big mistakes are made and fears become self-fulfilling prophecies. So just go there, responsibly, sensitively, and courageously authentic, and don’t look back. Don’t apologize, don’t fear, but always try to understand where another person is coming from if they have a legitimate problem with what you did. File it away with other lessons learned and move on to write the next character with that newfound knowledge.

Remember the concept of a “disabled character” is fundamentally wrong, and maybe that’s what is tripping you up. You should be looking at this as writing a character that just happens to be disabled.

-DMW

For those people who are big on, “Where do you get off?” here is a little bit about me. I fall into a few different minority categories, but the bucket that affects me the most is disability. I have had dozens of brain surgeries, a couple of heart surgeries, I am deaf, and have a brittle bone disease, I had an autoimmune disease that caused my kidneys to fail, I have hydrocephalus, I have a bone marrow disorder, and a few other things thrown in for good measure. These facts or circumstances may color my experience at times, but they are not all that I am, and they do not limit me. I hate the word “limited” because I’m a person who will always find a work-around. 😉

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