How to write a disabled character.

As I work on expanding the diversity of my characters, one idea keeps popping out. How do I write good disabled characters? How do I create something that isn’t a stereotype or falls into a lot of the traps that most media do when depicting characters with disabilities. Even as someone with a disability myself, I struggle with not falling into the same tropes as other people.

With that in mind, I decided to try and put together a guideline of sorts on how to write disabled characters.

Don’t Make Their Super Power Negate their Disability

This is one that I see happen pretty often. A character reveals that they have a disability but it’s ok because their super-power is an enhanced version of the part of them that is “impaired”. For example, bling characters who have their super power be an enhanced version of super-sight. They can use vibrations caused by sounds, or have a connection to the earth, in some way that lets them see what others can’t. In this way their disability becomes an “asset” rather than a burden the way mainstream society expects all disability to be.

The only time the disability is otherwise mentioned is for comedic effect: when they are asked for specifics that their ‘enhanced sight’ wouldn’t let them see. This might be words on a page, pictures on a poster, etc.

The problem with this is that it creates the perception that the only way that disabled characters can be useful is if their disability is completely negated. It plays into the idea that disabled people are on their own useless and burdens.

Don’t Play their Disability for Comedic Effect

When they’re not endowed with powers that negate their disability, and sometimes even when they are, there are times when the main purpose served by a disabled character is as a punchline. Be it blind people walking into walls or not being able to see something that is drawn on them or someone else, people with mobility issues falling, or a person with bowel control issues having an accident. Some of these may be part of the reality of being disabled, but playing it for laughs just reduces a real struggle into something to be mocked. It ignores how many of these issues are the result of externally imposed problems: distracting a guide dog, creating a road that makes using assistive devices difficult, how using clothing to help with bathroom issues is mocked and shamed.

Don’t Make Them Defined by their Disability

Sometimes authors fall into the trap of making certain character one dimensional, defined only by what makes them different from the traditional main protagonist. Instead of Larry who happens to also be blind, he becomes Blind Larry. While disability may impact almost every aspect of our lives, there is more to a disabled person than just that. I’m not just a crohnie, I’m also a writer, a singer, a cook, a dog owner, the wife of Alyssa Gonzalez, and so forth and so forth. Think about your character beyond just their abilities. What interests them? What was their background like? Where did they grow up? What are their beliefs?

But Don’t Ignore How their Disability shaped them

People will react differently to disability depending on a variety of factors: when it happened in their lives, their personality, the reactions of those around them, and so forth. Their abilities may in turn influence what sort activities they pursue, their current outlook on life, their beliefs, and so forth. Think about more than just the obvious aspects of how disability impacts us. For example, was your character raised in a place that considers disability a punishment from a god? Perhaps the opposite, perhaps it is considered a blessing. All of this are important aspects of a characters personality and yet often ignored. Many people will write disability as though everyone’s experiences are the same. As though everyone treats it as a burden or an inconvenience.

Don’t Ignore How Disability affects them

Imagine a character who is blind and yet has the power of flight. How do they navigate when they are up in the air? What do they use as a point of reference? Do they live in an accessible world, and if not how does this affect their story and ability to function in this world? If it is accessible, how? Do they use technology? Magic? What sort of assistive devices exist? How do others respond to their disability? Does your character have to make frequent stops to use the bathroom? Can they walk long distances, and if not how does that affect the story. Does their prosthetic cause them pain? If your character mentions a disability but then never actually lives it, the character will lack believability or end up one dimensional again.

Don’t Be Afraid to Get Creative and Have Fun

If you are writing a fantasy story, don’t be afraid to play with magic and supernatural elements and incorporate them into your character’s accessibility. Maybe your blind character has a Seeing Eye panther? Perhaps the paralyzed magician has an imprisoned demon carrying him around. Baba Yaga uses a crow’s eyes to see, or had spirits helping her do heavy lifting. Same with science fiction, perhaps new technology has been created to help with accessibility? How available is it? How adaptive? Just because things are done a certain way now, or in reality, doesn’t mean you have to stick with the same ideas in your writing. In a mystery perhaps the main detective hides knives in her cane, or the villain has a wheelchair outfitted with explosives and a turbo boost. The cyber-hacker uses the same holographic eyeglasses to do their work and to speak, since they are non-verbal. Maybe the epileptic con-man’s tinted glasses also let him see watermarks on forgeries and read invisible ink? How about if the super-heroes own experiences with mental illness and depression are what help them connect with the super-villain and keeps them from destroying the world.

Ultimately the main way to approach writing a disabled character is to remember that they are people just like abled people. They will be diverse in their beliefs, flaws, personalities, and other aspects. In the same way each disability is different, and no two people will experience it in exactly the same way. Try to confound expectations, and avoid clichés.

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How to write a disabled character.
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8 thoughts on “How to write a disabled character.

  1. 1

    …and in the cases of deafness, don’t forget LANGUAGE! 😀

    For example suppose your characters are a bunch of American high school students on an international class trip.

    They go to London; the hearing native speakers of U.S. English take very little time to adjust to U.K. English, the hearing native speaker of Spanish who takes ESL lessons takes a little more time to adjust to U.K. English, and the deaf native signer of ASL is wholly lost because BSL looks like total finger salad to him or her.

    Next stop, Paris! Those hearing students who take Spanish as a foreign language are totally lost, the the ones who take French try to use their beginner-to-intermediate French with the local native speakers and hilarity ensues, and that ASL student is much less lost because French Sign Language is a close ancestor of ASL (FSL and ASL aren’t as close as U.K. and U.S. English, but they’re A LOT closer than BSL and ASL).

    then there’s the whole controversy over cochlear implants and whether or not to raise a deaf child to have both a native sign language and a native hearing language ( http://www.metafilter.com/92355/Cochlear-Implant#3111420 ). Now what if the hearing parents of your baby deaf character are Cherokee lawyers who are into preserving *that* language too?

    People keep talkingg about sign languages as if they’re not written languages too. Suppose your ASL-signing deaf character spent all day arguing with other deaf people about which of https://aslfont.github.io/Symbol-Font-For-ASL/ways-to-write.html to make the ASL standard…then takes a break at home browsing the web and finds stuff like “Yes, it would be wonderful if their was a written ASL and there are some that were created, but not widely in use. I think that it is unlikely that there will be any written form that comes about in our lifetimes.” headdesk time.

  2. 2

    There are lots of versions of comic book characters, so I imagine it’s a bit simplistic to go: Toph and daredevil = mostly bad, prof. X and some matt murdocks = good. (I think there are daredevils where he can’t see with the rain like the affleck movie and his super powers don’t give him spacial information much in excess of the acoustic wayfinding that, for example, Dan Kisch(sp?) can do, but I haven’t read any daredevil so maybe that’s naive optimism. I’m sure the lawyering parts vary as well.)

    I can’t remember any of the tv or movie versions of x-men going into Xavier’s day-to-day of being paralyzed aside from a flashback in the 90’s cartoon where he falls in love with his rehab doctor (nurse? I don’t remember if she had a job title) but maybe it’s okay for a mostly supporting character (imagine him in the field!) to be a more passive kind of representation? Like much of original Star trek’s diversity, which is a better comparison for their both being products of the 60’s, and depictions of the character might still carry some baggage from that era. Regardless, I’d expect a Netflix’s “Marvel’s Captain Picard” to get into his mobility challenges.

    This is getting long so I’ll just say I’m curious how you would rate some characters that I don’t think clearly pass/fail one or more tests like Geordie LaForge or amputees with advanced prosthetics like DC’s Cyborg? Prof X. too, I guess, especially if you’re aware of any comics that did a good or terrible job with his paralysis.

    1. 2.1

      I would actually consider Toph to be mostly good. She is a well-rounded character and while they do essentially give her a way to “see” she also has other powers that have nothing to do with it. She is a bad-ass bender who develops a whole new type of bending. That all being said, I’m not blind so it’s ultimately not up to me whether she is good representation.

  3. 3

    Hmm…I’m writing a story in which the character’s disability is, in context, her evolutionary superpower. That is, she is able to survive because it protects her from a particular vulnerability in a new environment. I wobble back and forth between thinking that this concept is a ridiculously anvilicious and possibly condescending one and that it’s going to end up being so understated that no one will realize what I was trying to do.

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