Recently, I became aware of a blog entitled ‘Disability in Kidlit‘, an excellent place to turn for information and education on the topic of disability in literature. Every day during the month of July a new article was written for this blog; these articles included book reviews, personal testimony and – my hands-down favourite – the dismantling of certain tropes and assumptions made about people with disabilities. The authors’ focus was on the ways in which disability is portrayed in literature written for children and young people, but I think the points they raised are applicable to literature written for everyone – and, indeed, to life in general.
I do not live with a physical disability, though I do have an over-developed sense of anxiety and am prone to depression, for which I’ve been medicated in the past. My mental health is something I’ve struggled with, on and off, for years; it’s an extremely common thing, however, and I don’t consider myself any better or worse off than anyone else. It might be something which people don’t give much thought to, but disability touches a huge amount of lives. For some reason, however, it’s not discussed very much. Perhaps because of my own experience, it’s something which interests me, and something which I do believe needs to be talked about in a more open and understanding manner. In a way, it’s a sad thing that a blog like Disability in Kidlit even needs to exist, a forum in which the topic is discussed in isolation, and in which books with positive (or, at least, non-clichéd) depictions of characters with disabilities are promoted. It would be wonderful if books featuring protagonists with disabilities were just seen as part of the general canon of literature, and a book featuring a main character who is, we’ll say, a wheelchair user, was no more unusual than a main character with brown hair, or black skin, or green eyes. In an ideal literary world, characters with disabilities would be characters first and foremost, not ‘characters in wheelchairs’ or ‘characters with hearing difficulties’; it really shouldn’t be an issue, but it is.
I have a friend who is a retired professor and eminent lexicographer, a bon vivant, a voracious reader, a prolific writer, a storytelling genius and a man with wit enough to keep even the most demanding listener enthralled for hours on end. All his life, he worked hard and kept up a demanding schedule; he was independent, well-travelled, and known all over the world. Then, a few years ago, he had a stroke. He barely survived, and fought hard to regain as much of his physical capacities as he could, but – of course – he has had to learn to live with reduced ability to walk and move, difficulties with speaking (particularly over long periods), and a reduction in his independence. This was extremely difficult for him. I remember a conversation with him where he said the worst part about becoming disabled wasn’t even the disability itself, though; it was the attitudes of other people. In his typical fashion, he described this as the ‘Does He Take Sugar?’ mentality, after an occasion in which he was invited to someone’s home for lunch and the person who’d invited him didn’t speak to him at all, but addressed all her questions to his (able-bodied) friend, who’d accompanied him. One of the questions was, of course, ‘does he take sugar?’ when the tea was being poured. There was nothing wrong with my friend’s mind, and with his ability to decide whether or not he wanted sugar in his tea and his ability to communicate this, but the person had assumed – because my friend was a stroke survivor, in a wheelchair – that he wasn’t worth speaking to, or dealing with as an individual with his own mind. It amazes me how many people see only a person’s disability, and not the person themselves, and how many people make assumptions about a disabled person’s capabilities based on their own ignorance or lack of experience.
If we think about it, though, is it any wonder this happens? Our culture is full of images of disabled people which reinforce stereotypes like the ‘Does He Take Sugar?’ attitude; books and movies featuring disabled characters often fall down the plughole of saccharine, schmaltz-flavoured sentiment. The disabled person is seen as nothing more than a physical condition with a human being attached to it, or a saint for ‘bearing’ the heavy burden of their disability, or as a person whose every indiscretion or flare of anger or hint of nastiness is explained away because of their disability: ‘But Debbie’s in a wheelchair, so we don’t punish her for being nasty to her sister.’ One of the most insidious tropes is the one in which a character with a disability is ‘cured’ during the course of the story, or where a person with one disability is gifted with superhuman ability in another aspect of their lives, almost like one is making up for the other. The most frightening thing of all is that non-disabled people do these things without even thinking about them; they’re ingrained, and reflexive, and hard to break out of.
I realise I’m speaking about a group of people – a non-homogeneous group of people, at that, just like every other group of people! – to which I don’t belong, and about which I shouldn’t, perhaps, be expressing my opinion. I don’t wish to cause offence and I certainly don’t wish to hurt anyone through poor language choice or facile examples. I simply feel that assumptions about disabled people should be challenged and broken down, and that people should be seen as people, as opposed to a collection of abilities. I recommend ‘Disability in Kidlit,’ not only because it’s an excellent blog but also because it taught me a lot about my own tendency to make assumptions, and my own attitudes toward the disabled as depicted in literature. If more art was created in which disabled people were the agents of their own stories, treated exactly as non-disabled people, and valued for their individuality, I think it would be a good start in the process of changing societal attitudes toward them, and it would enrich all of us, disabled and non-disabled alike.
Have you read any books in which a disabled person is depicted particularly well (or particularly badly?) I’d be interested to know about them. I’d like to read around the subject a little and promote some positive messages about disabled people, in literature as well as life.