Writing about Disability – write with realism!

Writing about a character with a disability can make a big impact on your story. The trick is to write a character that is believable and nuanced. But how do you write about something you have no experience with without resorting to stereotypes? Understanding your subject matter is the key to making sure that your character has depth and realism.

It’s a topic I’m very familiar with. I am a person with a disability. I’m an incomplete paraplegic. That means that I have some muscle movement and most feeling in my legs. I’ve been this way since I was two years old. I use a manual wheelchair full time. But being a person with a disability is only one aspect of what makes me, me. I also love crocheting. I have a dog and three cats. My husband and I will be married 18 years this year and we have three kids. If I took out the first seven sentences of this paragraph and then had you read it then you’d have no clue I was disabled. That’s because like everyone else, people with disabilities are just that – people. Now the challenge becomes how do you write a character who is equal parts disabled and perfectly normal?

Do Your Research

The types of disability out there are as myriad as the stars in the sky. To get the most bang for your buck when writing about disability do your homework. There’s paraplegia, quadriplegia, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, blindness, deafness, dwarfism, and on and on. Each one affects the function of the body in different ways. Some affect the ability of muscles to move, the coordination of those muscles, the way the brain transmits and interprets information sent from the body to the brain. What disability type best serves the story you’re trying to tell? What system of the body does this disability affect the most and how can that dysfunction serve the story best?

To be true to the person you are writing about, learn how their disability can affect their daily life. What kinds of problems would someone who cannot move certain muscles have? What if they can’t feel the limbs at all? How would you try to communicate with someone when you can’t hear them or see them? How would you deal with not being able to reach something or look over a counter because you’re too short? Try to think outside the box.

Let me give you a couple of examples from my own life:

  • I have to call a place, if it’s new to me, I’m going to and ask if it is wheelchair accessible. If I don’t, I take the chance that I won’t be able to get into the place because of stairs or other barriers. I can’t simply stand up and walk over them It’s wheel over it or nothing.
  • I use the passenger side door to get my wheelchair in and out of my van. When I park, I must have at least 3-4 feet on the passenger side, otherwise, I won’t be able to get in or out of my van. If I go into a store and come back and someone’s parked too close to my van, I get to wait until they come back. Murphy’s Law dictates that it will be raining or snowing when this happens. I might get lucky if I happen to have someone with me that can drive. Then they can back my van out of the spot to let me in. But it blocks the parking lot row until then.

We’re Like Everyone Else

So now think about the opposite end of the spectrum – how would this person be perfectly normal? Sometimes, in the initial flush of creating a character with such dramatic capability, writers sometimes forget to portray the normal sides of their characters. Just because someone can’t speak clearly doesn’t mean their ability to reason and learn is impaired. And if their body is crippled, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have the need to be desired, depended upon or feel like a valued member of a group.

Normalcy, of course, is whatever a person defines it as but there are certain things that clue us into what ‘normal’ means for the majority of us. If it weren’t for the fact that I’m an incomplete paraplegic, my family would be pretty average in a lot of ways:

  • My husband and I have disagreements and argue with each other.
  • I had three pregnancies.
  • I feel like a taxi during the school year.
  • I live in a house.
  • I have pets.
  • I have an extended family that I love very much but can drive me nuts.
  • My parents are aging and live far away from me.
  • I’m trying to complete what I started 20 years ago by getting my Bachelor’s Degree in English with a teaching emphasis.

All of these things are as much a part of me as the wheelchair I roll around in. They make me as normal as anyone else in the world. So think about what other aspects of life can make a person with a disability totally normal. What other parts of my character’s life are normal but have to be viewed within a disability framework?:

  • What is your character’s sexuality? Do they have sex regularly, and with whom? If they don’t, do they want sex?
  • Is your character married or in a committed relationship? What is the dynamic in that relationship? If not, do they date? What kind of people do they date?
  • Do they have children? How do they deal with parenting?
  • How would you describe your character’s personality? Do they have a quick temper? Do they absolutely love children? Do they cry at movies? Do they hate the taste of chocolate? Do they think Eddie Murphy is hilarious?

Avoid Stereotypes

As any minority group can tell you, stereotypes are not only inaccurate most of the time, they’re also insulting. Not every person with a spinal cord injury is depressed and wants to kill themselves. Not every blind person wanders around with a white cane and dark sunglasses. Not every person with dwarfism is an actor that is forced to play elves and little children. You wouldn’t make your female character a screeching, abusive banshee so often seen in Japanese anime. But if she was like that, you’d have some really good reasons for her to act like that other than “But she’s female!”. Use that same reasoning when creating your character with a disability.

This goes back to developing a character who is well rounded and realistic. If you get anything wrong, the mechanics of the disability should be the points that suffer, not the personality. Remember, your disabled person is a person first. While the disability frames how they see the world, it doesn’t necessarily define it. Your character will always have reasons they do things a certain way, and not all of them can be directly attributed to their disability. The life experiences they’d had up to the time of the story, their family circle, their level of education, their gender or sexuality are more likely to influence how they react to a circumstance.

Let’s say your character suffers a spinal cord injury and is depressed and suicidal. Why is that? He’s struggling through a major paradigm shift in his life, just as devastating as losing a loved one. Maybe he had good things ahead of him, like a football career or backpacking through Europe, when the ability to use his legs was taken away. Maybe he was always told that his worth depended on his ability to play football. Maybe he values his independence, being able to go where he wants when he wants. How would you react if that were you?

You can also use the disability as something to be reacted to by your character. What parts of your character’s core personality would help or hinder their recovery, or their ability to deal with the outside world? What parts would affect how they look at life once they’ve come to accept their disability, or not? If he already had a negative worldview before he had a disability, he may not be as mentally resilient as someone who looked at life with positivity. Did he have over-protective parents who did everything for him, and now in the big world, he has no coping mechanisms? Is he lazy? Does he not want to do the rehabilitation exercises that would help him adapt? Is he motivated by someone telling him something can’t be done? Is he angry at this paradigm shift and takes it out on other people (please don’t, or do with caution), or does he learn to accept help from the people that love him?

One last suggestion – think about how you feel about disability. Unless you are family to or close friends with someone who has a disability, it’s something you may not have really thought about. What have been your reactions to someone in a wheelchair? How did you treat someone when they obviously had a mental disability? What were you thinking when you saw a person walk by with their service dog? A lot of these feelings can be channeled into your character with a disability, but it also a good resource for the other characters in the story. Likely any reaction you had would ring very true for your reader, which is why you should explore them through your characters.

Have you come across disabled characters that moved you or had you cheering for them? Have you ever seen a character that seemed exaggerated or false? Tell me about it, and let’s discuss how you can write better disabled characters!

Tell me what you think!