Sister Act

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The “disabled sibling” trope is arguably one of the most common disability tropes and definitely one of my least favorites (not that I have any favorites). You could certainly write a respectful, awesome story where the main character’s sibling has a disability, but this trope isn’t that.

The trope tends to involve a healthy dose of inspiration porn mixed with an even healthier dose of dehumanization. In my experience, the disabled sibling exists purely to make the main character’s life more “difficult,” more “sympathetic.” Oh, that poor dear, the writers want you to think, having to deal with such a horrible thing. It must be so hard.

The sibling with the disability is a source of frustration, anger, sadness, and general tragedy for their able-bodied sibling. It is not their story. They are not characters – they are props.

None of this is to say that having a sibling with a disability can’t be difficult or sad or whatever for the rest of the family. But it’s certainly not ONLY that, and in my case, it was RARELY that.

Growing up, I didn’t have very many doctors’ appointments (about one check-up a year), we didn’t have any medical bills thanks to our excellent insurance, my little sister was never expected to help take care of me, I wasn’t hospitalized but once for six days after my one surgery in fourth grade. As a family, we sacrificed little because of my disability. Sure, my parents acted as my primary caregivers until I went to college, and I’d occasionally feel badly if I needed to call for one of them more times than usual in the night to roll over or go to the bathroom. Vacations were a little trickier than they would’ve been otherwise, but not much.

I obviously can’t speak to how my family felt, but I very rarely felt like a burden on anyone, and certainly not to the extent I saw on TV and in books.

Of course, my sister and I had our difficulties, but they rarely had anything to do with my chair. I was always jealous of her artistic abilities; she was jealous of my grades. I was really religious; she was really not. I liked following rules, meeting expectations; she liked “rebelling”, finding her own path. I thought she got the most attention from our parents because she was the baby; she thought I got more because I was the “good kid”. In reality, I think we both knew we were equally loved.

And see how none of that was because of my disability? It wasn’t an issue. (Of course, maybe my sister felt differently as I can’t speak for her, but we’ve spoken about it before, so I feel pretty confident.)

So I couldn’t help feeling frustrated seeing those “disabled siblings”. It reflected nothing of my experience or of my family’s experience. Of course it offended me to see characters with disabilities relegated to those roles, but it also upset me to think that’s how people assumed my sister felt about me. That people assumed we weren’t close, that we didn’t love each other and learn from each other and admire each other. That we didn’t fight (boy, did we fight). That we didn’t do things like spend all afternoon lathering ourselves in Bath and Body Works glittery lotions.

That we weren’t sisters first, above all.

According to so many shows, books, and movies, my sister must have resented me. She must have fought to see the good in me and ultimately have learned to love me despite how horrible my disability made her life. Nay, learned to be inspired by all that I’ve overcome.

Fuck that noise.

I love my sister and she loves me and we always have and always will. Do we fight? God, yes. Do we get mad and jealous and spiteful? Absolutely. Do we dance and laugh and tease? Yup. Does she steal my stuff? Mmhmm. Do I think her boyfriends aren’t good enough for her? Sometimes. Is there anything, anything, I wouldn’t do for her? Not a thing. Am I sure she would say the same? Yes.

In short, we’re sisters.

And I think it’s a shame when stories ignore all the incredible, complex facets of any sibling relationship. It dehumanizes ALL your characters, both the disabled and able-bodied siblings. It’s disgusting and a waste and lazy.

Be better than that, writers. Be better for your characters, for yourself, and for all the disabled and able-bodied siblings who deserve to see themselves and their relationships in the stories they read.



About Author

Kayla is Senior Editor at Disability in Kidlit and a graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Her work has appeared at The Toast, The Establishment, Uncanny Magazine, and in the upcoming anthology Feminism for the Real World. She is represented by Beth Phelan of The Bent Agency. When not buying way too many books, she’s usually being overly sincere on the internet.

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9 Comments

  1. Ugh, I read a book called Angelfall recently that was the most egregious example of this I’d ever seen, I almost stopped reading except I kept hoping it was leading to some kind of awesome twist.

  2. Whilst I respect your perspective, generalisations from both sides hurt people. As a sibling of a disabled person, I am quite happy to say my childhood sucked. Most of this came from being ignored, judged, held up to a higher standard than any kid should, and being expected to be a carer by parents clearly out of their depth. If I were to write my story, it would be my story, and the other characters in it would be there to explain to the reader what happened to me. Do I want your sympathy? No. I want a right to talk the reality of who I am, and how I feel about what happened to me, just as I am sure you do. I support disabled people writing their own reality, just as I would also support your sister writing hers.

    • I’m so sorry that you had that experience, Jackie. Growing up as a young carer myself, I totally understand that those demands and expectations can suck. But Kayla isn’t trying to deny your story here, she’s simply highlighting the fact that this perception of disabled sibling relationships – that they’re something to fight through, essentially – is pervasive, and that it would be refreshing to see something else, because it is absolutely not always the way things are.

      Further, in good fiction, no characters should ever be there as props simply to explain a main character or further their journey (whichever sibling your MC happens to be). It’s not how the world works. Characters, like people, are multidimensional, all stars of their own show with personalities and aspirations and agendas. And it’s such a shame when we lose that in favour of the easier tropes and caricatures.

      The thing is, we humans are impressionable, and when we persistently see one viewpoint/stereotype/story over all the others, we start to believe that it’s the only one, and that our experiences outside of this are invalid or wrong or imagined. Which is all kinds of sad and dangerous. Of course the difficult-path stories like yours are valid, but they’re NOT the only stories out there, and by denying Kayla’s perspective, you’re (unintentionally, I’m sure) further perpetuating that myth.

      I’d like to think that we can all see outside our own experiences; find joy and magic and sorrow and sure, life lessons, in other people’s stories. I mean, isn’t stepping into someone else’s shoes for a while one of the greatest perks of reading (and writing)?

      • I don’t deny Kayla’s perspective, I agree, there are many people who feel like that about their disabled siblings, perhaps even the bulk of siblings feel this way because we are raised to never disagree with this perspective. If we did disagree we were shouted down, exiled, and made into “the bad kid” to the disabled sibling’s eternal white. As for my relationship to my sister, she would probably look “a bit thin” were I to write the book of my life. It’s hard to ascribe a full range of multidimensional characteristics to someone trapped between developmental age seven to eleven for the last thirty-five years. Thin might very accurately reflect what benefits I got from this relationship, at the sacrifice of both Mother and Father relationships that the bulk of children get to experience. This piece perpetrates as many myths as my story would. The truth is multiple. Disabled and non-disabled siblings don’t write in opposition to each other, our stories need to sit side by side.

        • You say “It’s hard to ascribe a full range of multidimensional characteristics to someone trapped between developmental age seven to eleven,” but of the most complex, intelligent, wonderful people I know fall into that category. Experiences and interests and emotions and everything that comes together to make a person doesn’t just appear overnight once they reach adulthood, and just because a person’s outlook is different from your own does NOT make it lesser. Sorry, that’s kind of offensive.

          Once again, I am so sad that you had to go through what was obviously a really tough time; nobody should ever be made to feel that they can’t express (or have) the complex range of emotions surrounding any sibling/familial relationship. But I’d argue that attributing the bulk of those relationships which WERE positive to ‘being raised never to disagree with the perspective’ is wildly assumptive and unfair. Emotions are not easily swayed by expectations and rules; pretence, yes, genuine emotion, not so easily manipulated. And you cannot simply put your own experiences at the heart of other people’s.

          At any rate, that’s not what’s being discussed here, at all. You say there are many people who experienced positive sibling relationships similar to Kayla’s, and yet, where are those stories within our canon? I could easily name a dozen ‘I learned how to live with my disabled brother/sister’ stories, but I’d really struggle to do the same for disabled-sibling relationships which are more positive, or where the character’s disability is not the focus of that relationship. Yes, these stories should be able to sit side by side – it’s sort of what Kayla was calling out – but at present they are not. The pervasive ‘myth’ is not to be found in any single story; individually, these perspectives are all valid, but it IS myth that this is the only way for disabled/able-bodied siblings to coexist. Across the span of our literature, we’re only getting a one-sided view, and that, no matter what your personal experience, is a shame.

          • Did I say the perspective was lesser or did you just attribute that perspective to me in order to silence me? What I actually said was if I wrote my story, you’d probably call my sister’s character thin because I couldn’t get to know her as an equal. I could only relate to her in the developmental age she was. If I wanted to write about her adult desires, I don’t know them because she doesn’t have ways to express them. All I have is guesses.

            As for my perspective on how siblings are raised, it doesn’t come from a vacuum, it comes from meeting siblings and talking about how we were raised together. Of course there is no one-size-fits-all sibling, but there are some huge bands of similar experience. However you clearly like to nitpick, so I am sorry I used a generalisation.

            As I mentioned in my first comment, I am glad to see a disabled perspective written, because it might just help siblings like me understand what our siblings saw and felt. I would read with relish to see how the other side of the divide feels. However they can’t erase is trope as you dismiss it. Do you think perhaps these stories have emerged as therapy for pain? Why would you silence people writing their pain in order to understand it?

          • The words “It’s hard to ascribe a full range of multidimensional characteristics to someone trapped between developmental age seven to eleven,” pretty strongly imply that somebody within that range cannot be ascribed multidimensionality, that they contain less complexity or depth, or wholeness. And yes, that sounds very much like ‘lesser’ to me.

            And I’m a little confused as to why – in a story which you said all characters apart from yourself would be there to further your own arc – you would want to include aspects of your sister’s character which she has not expressed. That sounds very much like you’re imposing your own experience and expectations upon her. Why do that, when she no doubt has a wealth of interests and expressions of her own?

            However, I think perhaps we’re both reading this conversation differently. It’s quite possible you didn’t mean anything the way I have interpreted it. But then, that’s the power of the words we use to tell our stories, isn’t it? The words we choose and the perspectives we show matter. People will see them and draw conclusions based on the material they have.

            Even if you are merely talking about an imagined written version of your own life story, and characterisation within that, and you’re not referring to anything wider or real-world, you’re still kind of implying certain things.

            You say that your sister’s character would appear ‘thin’. I do not for one second believe that a well-written character of any age or developmental stage, or with different experiences and interests to my own, would appear this way. People aren’t like that, and it’s a writer’s job to ensure that doesn’t happen, unless they are doing so for specific purpose within their work. Or that’s the way they really see the character.

            Seeing someone this way in real life is a shame. But when you portray a CHARACTER this way, you’re putting that viewpoint out into the world, saying ‘this is what a disabled sibling is like’. Which again is fine, in isolation, but when you see it over and over, and you don’t have anything to balance it out, not so much.

            I agree that the guesswork involved in portraying somebody different to ourselves can be problematic, but there will ALWAYS be an element of this, in fiction, at least. Our characters and their lives cannot be carbon copies of us and ours, and (informed) imagination will always come into play. And research. Conversation and observation and reading every relevant thing you can find. Always, always research.

            Maybe that way, by embracing rather than shunning these other experiences – like Kayla’s FABULOUS sibling relationship here (seriously, I’m kinda jealous of that closeness) – connecting with characters and diversifying the perspectives that we see on our shelves, we CAN do something about the ugly caricatures we’ve created. Because there’s a lot more to see. I think perhaps this is something we can agree on; that it would be nice to see the WHOLE SPECTRUM in our stories.

  3. Last lines should read: “However they can’t erase this trope (as you dismiss it). Do you think perhaps these stories have emerged as therapy from pain? Why would you silence people writing their pain in order to understand it?

  4. It’s certainly not easy for anyone in the family… My brother resented me because his childhood and adolescence sucked. I know that, even though he won’t say it. He got into a lot of trouble at the worst possible times, seeking for attention, I guess. Our relationship is not great, but it’s not awful. We are very different, so we fight a lot, as most siblings do. But we’re grown-ups now. He’s married and made me the proud aunt of twins! Time helps a lot.

    I want to write about this matter someday. Maybe I’ll add it to my current project.

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