For authors just learning about disability representation, it can be intimidating to watch the conversations taking place: from articles on websites like Disability in Kidlit, to disappointed reviews, to disabled people on Twitter talking scathingly among themselves. When you’re genuinely trying to learn, it can be terrifying to see how much writers appear to be doing wrong, and all the impossibly nuanced rules of what does and doesn’t seem to be okay. It may even feel like people are setting up arbitrary hurdles to jump, and will lash out at the smallest mistake despite what else the book may do right, and despite how sincerely the author wants to do right.
There are plenty of articles out there about why you should try writing disabled (and otherwise marginalized) characters despite the risk of criticism. For disabled people, seeing yourself respectfully represented in fiction when you’re normally ignored, stereotyped, or misrepresented, can be incredibly empowering; normalizing these portrayals can also impact non-disabled people’s perceptions of disability, which is very important, especially in children’s literature given that children and teenagers are still forming their view of the world.
That does not make it easy, however. In fact, it’s damn hard, and that’s what I want to talk about in this article. If you feel daunted and conflicted, that’s okay; writing disability respectfully can be genuinely difficult.
Consider my own situation. I’m disabled. I have a lot of disabled friends. I’ve written frustrated reviews. I’ve been scathing on Twitter. I’ve written more books with disabled protagonists than without. I get asked about writing disability or consulting on disabled characters all the time.
And honestly? I have a hell of a difficult time writing about disability, whether it’s my own or not.
I’ve written about an autistic character stimming, while I was at that very moment stimming at the computer, and I still wasn’t sure how to put into words how it feels or why I do it.
I’ve written about a character with spina bifida performing music, and I worried I was treading into inspiration porn territory.
I’ve written about a character whose disability isn’t a huge part of the story, and I felt as though I was ignoring it; I’ve written about a character whose disability is a huge part of the story, and I felt like I was making that aspect all there was to the character.
I’ve written about an autistic character with little problem recognizing expressions, and I felt as though I was picking and choosing convenient aspects of her disability, even though I don’t have problems recognizing expressions, either.
I’ve written about internalized ableism, and I worried I was perpetuating ableism.
With every new story I write, I worry if I’m being preachy, or ableist, or incorrect, or if I’m succumbing to this trope or that. It’s hard to get it right, especially as there is no one right way to do so. There is no list of rules. People on this website don’t always agree with each other, either. Some people mind disability cures, while others aren’t as bothered. Some people dislike magical disability tropes almost by default while others praise well-handled ones. Some people love a book; others don’t.
None of the people whose articles I just linked to is wrong. Disabled people are not a monolith—we all have our own experiences and preferences that influence our reading, and as a result, there’s not a single trope, stereotype, or term that every single person agrees on.
Tropes are not always bad, either. Even the tropes that are typically bad can be handled well, depending on the approach. For example, authors may be trying to flesh out a stereotype. They may be aware they’re skirting close to trope or stereotype, but have taken steps to minimize the implications, rendering it harmless. They may be trying to deconstruct, criticize, or lampshade the trope.
It doesn’t mean disabled teenagers might not hug the book to their chest and whisper, finally, finally, finally.
When we discuss tropes and stereotypes, we’re not saying that they’re wrong by default, that the books are terribly written and without value, or that the authors are awful ableist bastards. If it were that easy, we wouldn’t need to read or review any books—we would memorize a checklist, deduct points based off that, and be done with it.
Instead, it’s always going to be about execution, about nuance, about context. It will always be subjective.
Just because disability representation is often a complicated, nuanced conversation and there is no automatic right and wrong does not mean it’s pointless to have—or listen to—the conversation in the first place. Representation has been proven to affect many people’s knowledge of and opinions on a topic, and many disabled people do agree with each other about these issues.
Even if an author handled a trope well, even if it was based on a real-life person or event, or even if disabled teens love a book, the story might still be contributing to a certain harmful narrative of disability. A single chapter, a single paragraph, a single line can perpetuate these damaging narratives. No matter how spectacular a book may be, isn’t it worth highlighting and discussing even minor pitfalls, so that authors can honestly ask themselves about whether a particular element is essential to their work? To see whether there’s an alternative that doesn’t perpetuate harm, while keeping their book’s integrity?
The more people genuinely listen to multiple opinions instead of becoming defensive, the more they will understand the underlying roots of the criticism, no matter how petty that criticism may seem on the surface. It’s important to try to understand why disabled people might recoil from seeing a particular story element. Understand what kind of message it sends; understand the wider context; understand the history; understand the real-world effects; understand the personal hurt.
When we devote thousands of words to seemingly minor elements of a book, that’s what we’re trying to help people grasp. It’s not about pointing at a dubious line and going “ha! found one!!” Instead, we’re going over it in detail so that authors can understand and be conscious of potential implications, and recognize it in their future works.
“Sure,” people may say, “but thoughtful, well-argued reviews are completely different from all the snarking on Twitter! People will pull out a single line and suddenly the entire book is worthless in their eyes! Why would I risk that?”
Often, we see authors trying to keep track of the conversations and eventually being so daunted by the complexities that they throw up their hands and go, “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” Some have this reaction because they feel resentful and see the conversations as nitpicking and looking for problems. Some have this reaction because they are fearful of their books being criticized or bashed. Some have this reaction because they’re concerned their book may do more harm than good.
When people snipe on Twitter, it’s borne from years of frustration. Context matters. Representation affects our lives and others’, and when you see something hurtful a thousand times over yet it’s praised by those who don’t understand the history, it becomes wearying. It may feel like the people snarking, reviewing, criticizing, or nitpicking are the ones setting hurdles for authors to jump when it comes to writing about disability. Consider, instead, that what makes writing about disability so difficult is lifetimes of ableism and damaging misrepresentation.
Non-disabled people created the history, context, and stereotypes; disabled people are simply pointing them out.
Please don’t feel resentful toward or fearful of those trying to make the literary world a safer place for themselves and other vulnerable readers.
Please don’t dismiss and ignore important conversations because they’re not phrased kindly enough—people need to be able to let off steam after being hurt and marginalized yet again, and historically, “asking nicely” has rarely been successful.
Please don’t pick and choose the opinions you prefer, using one disabled person’s comments as a shield against another’s criticism.
Please don’t think that since you can’t please everyone, you might as well just go with your first instinct.
Instead, please try to listen as best as you can.
We’re not saying, Follow our arbitrary rules or be scorned.
What we are saying is this: Hey, we’re really familiar with how disability is represented and the kind of effects that can have on people when they’re exposed to something over and over again. This element of this book reinforces one of those common narratives. Let’s take a closer look.
We’re asking authors to be conscious.
It’s complicated, yes, and frustrating when every single thing you write runs into one trope or another. It’s okay and understandable to feel daunted—but please don’t let that feeling stop you from writing about disability, or from listening to those talking about it.
And consider this: if you’re writing your book and struggling with the implications of a character choice or the trope-y aspect of a scene, that means you’re aware. You’re conscious. You want to do better.
Those are awesome, glorious things, and they’re half the battle.
Don’t be discouraged.
We want you to succeed. Truly and honestly.