Discussion: Intersectionality and Disability

Comments: 8



For our first anniversary, we’re bringing back the discussion post format! In these posts, we ask our contributors for their thoughts on various topics. We’ll post one every Friday this month. Based on a suggestion from s.e. smith, we asked:

Why is it that diversity in young adult, middle grade, and children’s literature is often represented as an either/or, without intersectionality? Characters can either be autistic or gay, for example, or a wheelchair user or Black, but rarely both. Why do you think we see so few characters who are marginalized in more than one way?

Marieke Nijkamp: Oh my goodness, I would love to read more queer, disabled characters. And I would love to see more intersectionality, period. Of course the queer, disabled experience is different than the queer experience or the disabled experience, but that only makes me wonder if there is such a thing as THE queer experience… or THE disabled experience. Because I have yet to find it.

It is always going to be a matter of research, trial and error. And if you feel characters have to have a reason to be multi-dimensional, multi-diverse? I’d love to see an equally legitimate reason for characters to be white AND straight AND able-bodied AND middle class AND AND AND. We are no checklists.

S. Jae-Jones: I think children’s literature, more than adult, is still stuck on a mainstream idea of “relatable”. The protagonist must be flawed—but not too flawed! The protagonist must have an “issue to overcome” (a phrase I loathe)—but nothing “too trying” or “too unusual” or worst of all, “too far from the physical ideal”. Invisible disabilities seem to have glamour (mental illness—providing it’s “quirky”, or a cosmetically appealing scars), but heaven forbid a protagonist have NOTICEABLE signs of a disability. In my opinion, it all comes back to this mainstream idea of a “default”. The “default” is relatable. Stray too far from it, and it won’t sell.

The other obstacle facing intersectionality in kidlit is the fear of tokenism. I’ve seen that accusation leveled at authors who’ve tried to include diverse characters, especially characters who are diverse in more ways than one. (E.g. “Why is this character bi, Black, and Jewish? It’s not realistic!” or worse, “The author is so lazy s/he can’t be bothered to come up with more characters.”) I think that we, as a society, are conditioned to thinking people should be put in boxes, and one box at a time, at that. It’s ingrained in the way our society—or at least American society—seems to function. I grew up in Los Angeles, which has a large multiracial population, and filling out the ethnicity portion on census forms often confused myself and my classmates—”Do I have to pick just one?” If you were Black and Hispanic, or Asian and White, you either had to choose, or were stuck with picking “Other”. And the word “other” is a powerful thing.

Corinne Duyvis: It’s such a multi-faceted problem: first there’s the fact that most people don’t even see the need for these characters–as though people like me aren’t just as real and valid as the cishet-white-abled people who are often written about, and as though we don’t need representation just as much or more. Then there’s the assumption that every “minority trait” is tacked onto a character, and thus requires justification in a way that, for example, whiteness and straightness don’t. Once writers get past those notions and do want to write these characters, there’s the joint fears over doing it wrong and over “trying too hard.” I understand and often share those fears. I’ve heard these same remarks about my debut novel: trying too hard, what’s the reason for these characters, etc. But it’s not as though writing a character facing multiple oppressions is some kind of performance or outrageous deed. I think it’s better to try too hard than to not try at all.

Even when writers overcome these hurdles, do their research, and successfully write intersectional characters … they need to find publishing professionals who are on the same wavelength. And that’s a challenge, too.

On a different-but-related note, as Andrea Shettle often and expertly points out, characters rarely have multiple disabilities. Many of my disabled friends have more than one disability, as do I. Many disabilities have high comorbidity rates. Plus, someone who requires a wheelchair is just as likely to also get migraines as an able-bodied person; being autistic makes you just as susceptible to mental illness. Perhaps even more, thanks to both personal and societal pressures.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann: We’ve never had anything close to proportional representation of people of color in children’s and YA books, and the mismatch is more glaring now because the demographics in our society have changed but the presence of main characters of color in books has not changed since the 1980s. So I’m not surprised to see so few characters of color who also have disabilities.

s.e. smith: Agh this is such a cause of frustration to me! Sometimes it feels to me like authors are trying to hit diversity bingo — okay, I’ve got my Latino character, and my Lesbian character, and my Disabled character, now give me a prize! The fact is that many people have intersectional identities. Minority teens rarely get to see themselves in text at all, and those who experience multiple oppressions find it even harder to locate books that tell their stories.

Part of the problem here may be that authors find it scary to imagine tackling multiple aspects of marginalisation in the same character: the Black and gay experience is different that the Black or gay experience, for example, just like the disabled and queer experience is different than either of those identities together. But these are problems that aren’t going to go away by not writing those characters — you have to plunge into them, and you have to do your research, and you have to commit to depicting a world where the true spectrum of diversity is shown.

Kody Keplinger: I think there’s a lot of fear. I think many authors (myself included) have a deep fear of “doing it wrong.” It’s scary enough to write about disability, but when you introduce another element, you double your chances of being offensive or problematic. Should that fear hold authors back? No. It should push them to do research, to approach with care, but not to avoid intersectionality all together.

Natalie Monroe: I personally think it’s because writers believe once a diverse element is added (ex: queer, ethnicity…), it’s done. Their book is now ‘diverse’ and ‘realistic’. But real life isn’t just one ball in a column, it’s a whole jumble of multicolored spheres across rows of columns. I’m Asian and am in a wheelchair. I know someone who is autistic, Asian, and in a wheelchair. I know a Filipino who is autistic. Diversity means exactly what it means, so stop treating it as a kind of ‘rules of requirement’ thing and mix it up.

Do you have any input, readers?



  1. I wonder if maybe people think that by writing, for example, a gay non-white disabled character, others will accuse them of trying to cram too many ‘issues’ into one person. Or that one is trying to create diversity in their novels but can’t actually be bothered to write more than one diverse characters, so you just get it all out of the way in one fell swoop.

    Which is an understandable concern (the concern over accusations, not the concern that this is what a person would actually be doing), but let’s face it: it’s not as though gay non-white disabled people don’t exist!

    • There’s definitely a reaction against too many “issues” in one book, whether or not the treatment has depth and rings true. But the equation of diversity with “issues” is just one more way of marginalizing those who lack power. Gatekeepers just assume that any portrayal of a protagonist of color and/or LGBTQ protagonist who also has a disability will be slight and added to check off boxes, not that people like that actually exist. I urge anyone who’s interested in this to read the work of Gloria Anzaldúa, who lived and wrote about this experience in a number of groundbreaking books.

      • Nalijah Winfield on

        I believe that many authors are scared of tackling all of these situation and scary conversations about these issues. Being that they don’t address these issues it makes it harder for readers because they might be waiting on a book that explains their story. With that being said I wish more author would be bolder about the rare situations and they would be able to reach many more people in this world.

    • This is actually one of my biggest fears whenever I write a character that is anything other than the mainstream average Joe/Jill — that people will accuse me of being an “exploitative” author, manipulating issues for some nefarious purpose, to score pity points, etc. It can be daunting, but I’ve learned to view it as a challenge to do things the right way. Research every detail, give the characters plenty of depth, etc. People may still be uncomfortable with the portrayal, but at least I can content myself with the knowledge that I did all I could to create a good character with the right intentions.

  2. I think that pre-programmed default (cishet-white-abled, as Corinne describes it) is so insidious that it tricks a lot of writers into whitewashing their own material (so to speak). Writers often have to think about their work in terms of what’s essential to the story, and that’s where the default setting does its nasty business – mainstream publishing does still see any minority trait as something that’s “added on” to the story, and lots of writers are taught based on that unspoken attitude. We don’t necessarily think, “I don’t want to write this character,” but sometimes we think, “is this added dimension really essential?” Which is pretty stupid when you realize there’s no reason whiteness or abled bodies are essential to most stories, either.

    I’m currently working on a book that features an intersectional character, but to be honest I stumbled/lucked onto that. I knew starting out that the character would be queer, but her other two “added on” traits came organically out of the story ideas and the historical setting. Because of what I’m writing about, they are “essential” to the story I’m trying to tell. I’m glad it happened that way, because it’s made me realize I was still using the default character settings in every category other than hetero. And that’s not okay.

  3. Fascinating discussion, and useful! I’m just finishing the first draft of an urban fantasy novel where one of the leads is disabled (or is it two – the more I re-read another of the leads the more I see a reflection of my neurodiversity/whatever) and where I was consciously trying for a diverse cast, yet on reflection I can’t find a conventional intersectional character – I say conventional because I’m also using being para/supernatural as a stand-in for other forms of diversity/discrimination and a couple of characters do qualify on that basis, including my wheelchair-using witch lead. Thinking about this has also started me thinking about intersectionality/discrimination that revolves around the intersection of minority status and specific professional roles rather than multiple minority status, because one of the main issues she’s faced with is stopping all the cops around her – she’s a CSI – thinking of her as a victim rather than one of them.

    That’s not so much an issue on the next project, which got a kick in the butt from We Need Diverse Books to go from vague concepts to 50k words of prototype, and which set out from the start to have a pair of lesbian+disabled protagonists, and where it’s been natural to bring in other intersectional characters – maybe it’s something we have to practise.

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