For this week’s discussion post, we asked our contributors the following question:
What would you like to see more of in MG/YA lit, in terms of disabled characters?
My focus as a reader, writer, and critic is on young adult literature, so I’m going to concentrate there although I love middle grade too. I want to see more characters who just happen to be disabled, where their disabilities aren’t central to the story and don’t play a critical role in the plot, but are still present. In other words, I don’t want to see the disability version of the whitewashed form of diversity sometimes seen with authors trying to write characters of colour where a one-off mention is made to a character being Black or Latina/o and it never comes up again, depriving characters of cultural context–I want to see a character’s disability mentioned and playing a role in the narrative, but not as its own character. (A wheelchair user who’s a hacker, for example, and gets frustrated with the stairs at the local hackerspace. A schizophrenic character who thinks her meds need adjustment when she really is seeing ghosts. A D/deaf or HoH teen witch who’s pissed about uncaptioned YouTube videos. Get imaginative!)
I’d also really love to see more representations of the diversity of disability; I want nonverbal autistics, I want teens with fibromyalgia, I want depictions of mental illness beyond depression (the most commonly depicted mental illness in YA), teens with FOP and OI. Teens with acquired as well as congenital disabilities, teens in that liminal space between nondisabled and disabled as they struggle with seeking a diagnosis for an elusive condition. And I want these stories told from the point of view of the disabled person, not the friends and family around her, not doctors, not her culture. Remember these fighting words from disability culture: ‘Nothing about us without us.’ Integrate them into your work.
I want to see more characters with disabilities period. But I’m selfish – I’d especially like to see more characters, ideally main characters, with disabilities and experiences similar to mine. It wasn’t until recently I even realized I’ve never read a book with ANY characters similar to me in that respect. It didn’t occur to me to be upset about it because, well, characters in books are able-bodied, right? So, please, more characters in power wheelchairs who aren’t recently paralyzed (the only reason I can remember seeing for a character to use a (typically manual) wheelchair).
However, quantity should not happen at the expense of quality. I want to see more representation, but I also want to see accurate, respectful representation. Of course, the argument can and probably should be made that anything less isn’t actually representation at all, but I think you get what I mean.
I’d also REALLY like to see more characters with disabilities shown enjoying typical aspects of life that are frequently denied them in fiction: sex, romance, healthy body image, successful careers, children, etc. And I’d like to see those characters in main roles, active roles, meaningful roles.
I’d love to see more disabled characters in MG/YA, period. I’d love to see characters–main and otherwise–who happen to be disabled, dealing with physical disabilities, developmental disabilities, mental illnesses. I’d love to see ensemble stories that don’t solely include able-bodied characters. I’d love to see characters who struggle with their disability and characters who don’t. I’d love to see characters whose disability is not the driving point of the story, or, worse, the solution to every problem ever. I’d love to see disabled characters who fall in love and fall out of love, disabled characters who figure out who they are and find their own place in the world, disabled characters with hobbies and passions, disabled characters with hopes and fears and dreams.
In short, I’d love to see fully developed characters, whose disability, while informing who they are, isn’t their only identifying marker but part of a complex set of characteristics. Just like any other character, really.