There’s a compelling argument to be made for incidentally disabled characters, where disability isn’t the main thrust of the character’s arc. In these cases, disability is a part of the character’s life, but it isn’t the source of conflict that drives the narrative forward. These stories are important. They show that disabled characters (and disabled readers) can have adventures that don’t revolve solely around their disabilities. It’s an excellent goal, but can be tricky to pull off.
Young Knights of the Round Table is a prime example of incidental disability done wrong.
When a trio of changelings—humans stolen by Fey as infants—come to Earth on a mission to root out human conspirators against the Fey king of Avalon, Linette Kwan, a human girl and a wheelchair user, becomes an unlikely friend to the group.
Linette is one of two point-of-view characters, which tends to indicate that the character will be integral to the story. I expected Linette to discover the changelings’ magical world early on, join in their adventure, and help save the day. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. For the majority of the book, Linette appears to be there merely to remark upon how strange the trio is and to provide answers to their questions. However, her acknowledgment of their odd inquiries and behavior doesn’t amount to anything. She doesn’t seem much concerned by it, nor does she get even an inkling to investigate as I thought she might.
In fact, she only learns the truth about magic in the last quarter of the book after she stumbles upon the villain kidnapping her changeling friend’s dog. She is subsequently also kidnapped and told all about the magical world of Avalon. The villain—a former Fey king out for revenge on his usurper via conquering Earth and cutting off the Fey’s access to the planet’s magic—thinks little of humans and tells her his whole villainous plan, even remarking that there’s nothing she can do about it now that she’s been taken to the Fey world with him. Given his clear underestimation of her and the fact that Linette explicitly wonders how she might stop him, I figured now would be when Linette’s importance as one of our protagonists would appear. She would use his hubris against him and help her friends take down their enemy.
Instead, she’s dismissed and sent into Avalon proper to wait while the villainy occurs. Linette does nothing but observe for the rest of the book. She watches as various magical races gather in preparation for the planned invasion of Earth. She listens as they discuss what they’ll do with the humans once they’ve won. Later, she watches as one group is revealed to have sabotaged the operation. She hides during the ensuing battle.
Meanwhile, the changelings are off dealing with the actual saving-the-world and defeating-the-bad-guy business.
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned Linette’s disability so far. That’s because it’s so insignificant—not only to the story but also to the character—as to be meaningless. And the few times it does come up ring exceptionally hollow.
Early on, Linette is visiting the changelings’ multiple-story home, and is invited to her new friend Roxy’s room on the second floor. Roxy casually tells her foster dad to give Linette a piggyback ride up the stairs. No one asks Linette’s permission or consults her on the best way to transport her. It’s simply assumed and done. The actual trip up happens off-screen between chapters. When we return to Linette’s point of view, she mentions “the embarrassment of being carried upstairs” but we never hear how she felt about the experience beyond that. Being carried, especially by strangers, is often frightening, nerve-wracking, painful, and/or embarrassing even when you’ve given consent. Without consent? It’s a pure violation. If we assume Linette gave (reluctant) consent, we still ought to have heard more about how she felt.
A later scene is even worse about ignoring how her disability would affect her experience. When a magical earthquake hits Oxford, Linette is thrown out of her bed and buried beneath the falling furniture and debris. She calls for help, but no one hears her. After a short while, the changelings come to her rescue. Apart from a brief mention that she never has much feeling in her legs and therefore can’t tell if she’s been hurt, this scene could have been written about a nondisabled character and remained essentially unchanged.
This is not an example of incidental disability; this essentially erases disability.
I’ve been stuck in my bed before, screaming at the top of my lungs for help. I screamed myself hoarse. I cried when I couldn’t scream anymore, and had nowhere to wipe my nose but on my bedsheets. I was stuck there for an hour, afraid I’d wet the bed soon if no one showed up. It was one of the most terrifying, helpless experiences of my life. Even after someone arrived, I was shaking the whole day. And that was without the fear and danger of an earthquake. Yes, Linette was trapped for only fifteen minutes or so, not the hour that I was. And yes, not everyone will react the same way to that situation. But to write that scene without any mention of how her disability impacted her is neglectful at best.
The book erases the physical effects of her disability, too. When the villain kidnaps Linette, he attaches a magical device to each of her wheels. These allow her chair to move with only a thought and to traverse otherwise impossible terrain: stairs, sand, even cliffs. She spends the last quarter of the book effectively nondisabled because of this magical technology. This reads as a way for the author to avoid dealing with Linette’s disability as soon as it would realistically play a role.
One of the only positives to Linette’s depiction was that while she can use crutches, she chooses to use only a wheelchair because it’s less fatiguing. Often, wheelchair-using characters are either fully paralyzed (and thus unable to use other mobility devices) or urged to walk as much as possible. This only reinforces the widespread (and wholly incorrect) belief that wheelchair users must necessarily use them full-time and aren’t ever able to stand or walk. So it was refreshing that Linette makes the conscious choice to use a wheelchair because that’s what is best for her, and that no one in the story questioned her decision.
It’s important to note that for wheelchair-using readers Linette’s very presence would likely be thrilling. And I don’t want to take away from the joy those readers very well might find in seeing themselves in a story like this. There’s also a difference between passively and actively harmful narratives, and Young Knights falls pretty firmly in the former category.
However, that doesn’t change the fact that Linette’s disability throughout is ignored or erased, and Linette herself doesn’t have much of a purpose beyond offering the (nondisabled) characters information and access to plot-relevant settings, and offering readers a pair of eyes and ears through which to learn about the villain’s plans. She has no agency, no arc, and no significant impact on the story.
Linette might be a point-of-view character, but she is more a convenient plot device than a protagonist, and disabled readers deserve more from their representation.