Updated: Sep 8, 2022
Writing is meant to be a safe space, and the only thing more invalidating than non-representation is bad representation. Sometimes in a well-intentioned attempt to include diversity or simply tell a story worth telling, authors will find themselves resorting to treacly cliches and offensive stereotypes. Media has done a good job at making victims out of people who society has cast as “other”, including disabled folks. Those antiquated conventions are beneath your readers, and they are beneath you! You can do more, and you must.
So, without further ado, here are some basic guidelines for ditching ableism in your daily life and in your writing. Characters with disabilities should be more than their disabilities, end of story.
1. Throw out the angst
Reading characters who are in a constant downward spiral of shame over the hideousness of their “disease” or “deformity” is trite, overdone, and frankly offensive. Disabled people are people, they function, have personalities, interpersonal relationships, and do all the same things that non-disabled people do. Not to say that you should downplay what your character goes through, but recognize that their life is more than that.
2. Ditch ableist language
It’s all in the semantics. Whether it’s infantilizing your character, being downright condescending, or misusing an outdated slur, the use of derogatory language to describe your character is a manifestation of the idea that having a disability makes a person inferior in some way. “Cripple” or “gimp” read much differently than “amputee”, for example.
3. Do your research
Any writer is familiar with getting lost in the depths of Wikipedia on an information hunt. While it’s important to do research on the medical nature of your character’s disability, it’s not enough. You should also explore first-hand accounts from people who really have the disability in question. Believe it or not, online chat servers are a good source in this case! You can also explore Youtubers with disabilities who make content on the subject!
4. Consider experience
A fundamental rule of people in general: Everybody is different. Disabilities will affect different people in different ways, depending on their background. Take into account your character’s socio-economic and racial background, as well as their age and gender. These factors will change the way characters handle their disabilities. Consider also how long have they been disabled: Is it a new development or have they been all their lives?
5. Avoid making disability the villain
Allow your character to be disabled at the end of the story! Disability is not an antagonist to overcome. An often perpetuated narrative is that disability is a flaw keeping people from a “normal” life. Of course, a disability is going to make life harder for your character, but that’s the fault of the stigma resulting from an ableist society. Even consider how disability can enhance your character’s strengths and talents!
About the author: I'm Briana Gonzalez, word nerd and card-carrying theatre kid. Writing is just a more accessible form of talking, so it's no wonder I can't stop doing it. Check out my lit blog on Instagram @what_that_book_do!