Disability, Individuality, and Differences of Opinion

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I was going to write another post today, a review, but I had something else on my mind that I just couldn’t shake. Something I see everywhere I look. So, here I am, doing a post I never planned.

I want to talk about differences of opinion.

I think almost all minority groups – be them based on ability, race, ethnicity, or otherwise – are plagued with Spokesperson Syndrome, or the assumption that one person from the community has the ability to speak for them all. So often I hear people make statements like “Well, I know someone who is [INSERT MINORITY GROUP] and they thought [INSERT MOVIE/BOOK/TV SHOW] was fine, so it must be true.”

This bugs the crap out of me.

Since this is a disability focused blog, I will focus on disability. And since I am blind, I will particularly focus on that community.

A mistake I see a lot of writers who write about disability make is asking only one person for help. I’ve heard so many people say things like, “I have a cousin who is blind, and she read the book and said it was good at portraying blindness.” And while that cousin may really believe that, it doesn’t mean the next blind person or the next will agree. Obviously, you can’t please everyone, but getting multiple viewpoints on one disability is so important when you write. Because every single person is going to have a different take or opinion on their own disability.

Let me be more specific.

In the blindness community, you have a lot of different perspectives – you have those who are legally blind versus those who are completely blind, cane users versus non-cane users versus guide dog users, Braille readers versus non-Braille readers, and then the break down of all the different disorders and causes of blindness, and there are tons. Each of these people is going to have a different opinion and perspective on how they see their disability and their community. You can ask two people what their opinions on Braille are, and you’ll get two entirely different perspectives.

But let’s say you have two blind people, both with the same cause of blindness, the same vision, both cane-users and Braille readers – even then they are likely going to have two very different takes on certain issues.

Within the blindness community, there are several advocacy groups (forgive me for focusing on the U.S. here). The biggest ones are the National Federation for the Blind (NFB) and the American Council of the Blind (ACB).  Both of these groups have a lot of members in the community. Both of these groups advocate for blind people. But they are very different with a variety of different philosophies. They disagree often, and sometimes there’s tension between members of these organizations.  And then you also have smaller organizations. And, of course, there are also people who don’t affiliate with either.

This isn’t confined to the blindness community – nearly all disability communities experience this to some degree. Just because people have the same disability doesn’t mean their opinions are going to be the same.

Which is why I get frustrated by people who make the argument I mentioned above. I hate the idea that if one person from a community is okay with something, everyone else in the community must be. I hate the idea of being a Spokesperson.  I think about it a lot. I like blogging about my disability and about blindness, but I’m always worried people will assume my opinions are that of All Blind People.  To some that might seem like a silly concern, but it’s more likely than you think.

But how does this relate to KidLit, you might ask.

As I said before, I frequently hear writers talk about how their cousin, their friend, their Twitter follower, gave them the “okay” on a disabled character.  As if that person is speaking for the whole community.  Now obviously, a writer can’t send their manuscript to every blind or deaf or autistic person on the planet, but assuming one person from that community can speak for them all is kind of upsetting to me. I have lots of blind friends. Some aren’t bothered at all by the tropes they see in books or in movies and might “okay” something I found truly offensive.

No one can speak for the whole community.  It’s just not possible.

Which is why I think writers should reach out to multiple people, to multiple organizations, etc. You can’t please everyone, but you can try to understand as many viewpoints and opinions and perspectives as possible. And, of course, you can’t encompass all of these opinions and perspectives, but understanding them will go a long way in making your character more accurate and nuanced.

But mainly, understand that we are all individuals within these communities. No two blind people are alike. What is offensive to one may not be to another. And only getting one side of things isn’t enough research to truly create a well-balanced, accurate depiction of a disability.



About Author

Kody Keplinger

Kody Keplinger is the author of several books for teens: The DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend), Shut Out, A Midsummer's Nightmare, Lying Out Loud, and the upcoming Run, as well as a middle grade novel, The Swift Boys & Me,. Currently, Kody lives in New York City with her guide dog, a very upbeat German Shepherd named Corey. When she isn't writing, Kody teaches writing workshops and spends a lot of time eating Thai food and marathoning Joss Whedon's TV shows.

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5 Comments

  1. This is why I think able-bodied authors need to do more research into disability than talking to individuals. They need to get down to the library and read up on disability studies as well. Writing disability well is more than accurately detailing the daily routines of people with disabilities. It requires you to think about what disability is. If you finish your research without learning about the medical vs. social models of disability, about hedonic adaptation or about current developments in disability rights, you haven’t actually finished your research.

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  3. Pingback: The DUFF: Designated Ugly Fat Friend — Kody Keplinger | Confessions from a Bibliophile

  4. I am blind and have experienced it with family as well. Part of it might be I became blind as a teen. What has helped though is my family has this mindset of what blindness is, and I do not fit into that.
    Being legally blind I still see some, which leaves relatives going you can see that, but not this?

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