Think about the last book, movie, or show you encountered with a wheelchair-using character. I’m willing to bet the character acquired their disability in some sort of accident/injury and that they used a manual wheelchair. If they were the protagonist—or even a prominent secondary character—their arc almost certainly involved adjusting to their new life.
The overwhelming majority of narratives about wheelchair users follow this pattern. It’s not a bad or harmful narrative in itself: many real people share those experiences, and they deserve to see themselves in stories as much as anyone else.
The problem is that we don’t also get the narratives that reflect anyone else.
Like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her oft-cited TED talk, there’s danger in a single narrative. But why is this particular narrative—the wheelchair user with acquired paraplegia—the dominant one? What does its dominance say about how we as writers and as a society view both wheelchair users specifically and disability generally?
Throughout this piece I’ll be discussing acquired and congenital disabilities as a binary for the sake of simplicity, but there are not always clear lines between the two, and they are certainly not mutually exclusive. It’s also important to note that people often use “acquired” as short-hand for “as the result of an accident,” but there are also many other acquired conditions that could lead to wheelchair use, like certain infections or cancers. With some other conditions, like ALS or Multiple Sclerosis, there’s a likely genetic component at play, arguably making those conditions congenital but late-developing. So someone might be an acquired wheelchair user with a congenital condition.
Please also keep in mind that we obviously can’t know the intent or thought processes that lead to every—or any—specific portrayal, but we can discuss and challenge the various factors that might play into the prominence of this narrative and the absence of others.
Why acquired over congenital?
- Upping the drama
As writers, we look for and thrive on the drama in our stories. We’re often drawn to ideas with the highest stakes, the most tension, and the juiciest conflict. What could be more dramatic than a tragic accident and the loss of one’s ability to walk? It’s the definition of a “turning point” for your character, and it automatically introduces a whole slew of physical and emotional challenges, which directly lead to plot.
Conversely, a congenital disability might seem … boring. If the character was born with the condition and using a wheelchair is simply a normal part of their life, where’s the drama?
- Built-in journey
Relatedly, an acquired disability comes with a built-in, ready-made character arc. If the inciting incident is all about loss, then the journey is necessarily about overcoming that loss. Your character will essentially go through the stages of grieving, coming out the other side with a satisfying new outlook on life.
Because congenital conditions don’t have that turning point element, there’s no obvious course for character growth. If the character’s disability is stagnant, surely their story must be too, especially when compared to the emotionally rich arc inherent in acquiring a disability.
- It could happen to anyone—even you!
A car wreck. A football mishap. A workplace injury. Any one of us could become paralyzed during our lives and that “could-be everyman” quality makes it easier for readers to imagine themselves in the story. Even though they can’t relate to the “after,” they can sympathize because they’re living in the “before.”
And, of course, there’s a certain morbid fascination with the possibility of “what if?” when you probably won’t ever have to find out.
Meanwhile, there’s no chance currently non-disabled readers will ever experience congenital disability, so it’s harder to connect with the character.
Did you notice the common thread running through the above points? Each treat disability as a tool to make your writing more engaging to a presumed abled audience. They all rely on the assumptions that (a) your audience is abled, (b) story conflict and disabled characters’ arcs must stem from their disability, and (c) acquired disabilities simply make for better stories.
There are numerous problems here. First of all, approaching a wheelchair-using character in terms of narrative impact is necessarily objectifying. It requires thinking of them primarily as a plot device rather than as a human being. It means focusing solely on the ways their disability can drive the story forward rather than on anything that makes them an individual. Not only does this make for shoddy representation, it usually leads to a two-dimensional character, too. Build your disabled character’s arc based on their specific wants, needs, fears, obstacles, experiences, and goals. Their disability may very well factor into any or all of these areas (and I’d argue it should), but there’s a difference between disability being a core part of your character’s life and being the sole part of the character’s story.
Of course, even if you buy into the belief that a disabled character’s story must be inextricably tied to their disability, it’s still foolish to think congenital disabilities offer no story fodder. Navigating the world as a wheelchair user—no matter the source of the disability—always comes with challenges, but those challenges will and do vary.
I think the main reason for the prevalence of acquired paraplegia goes beyond story-level concerns, though. The driving force, to me, seems to be familiarity. Because we’ve had this sole narrative for so long, it’s become entrenched in our collective imagination as the default. It doesn’t matter that there are dozens upon dozens of reasons someone might use a wheelchair; the image we associate with “wheelchair user” is automatic and omnipresent.
It’s also important to note that while wheelchair users with acquired paraplegia may get to see themselves represented more often than those with congenital conditions, there’s a massive difference between mere representation and good representation. The quality of portrayals of acquired paraplegia tends to be anywhere from middling to actively harmful.
Hierarchies of disability
There’s one final factor that I believe contributes heavily to this discussion: society’s hierarchy of disability. While all disabilities are marginalized, some are seen as more “palatable” than others. This is a highly complicated topic, and we don’t have room to get into the many, many nuances here, but typically those disabilities that edge closer to “abled” are considered more acceptable than others (though they are certainly never accepted). Of course, this comes with its own unique—and dangerous—downsides. If society doesn’t view you as really disabled, you’re often denied accommodation and care, and are pressured to act as abled as possible. All of which causes real harm.
A handy—if incomplete—way to think about this hierarchy of disability is in terms of “severity.” For instance, a wheelchair user with a “severe” disability (whether congenital or acquired) who needs help with eating, dressing, showering, etc. would be further afield from the norm and therefore from acceptability than someone with a “milder” form. Severe disabilities are also frequently viewed with a grotesque fascination, which only reinforces this hierarchy. Abled society may be much less comfortable with and even actively repulsed by people with more “severe” disabilities, but they’re also compelled by them. The few stories that do feature these kinds of disabilities—again, whether acquired or congenital—are often funneled through that lens of abled fascination.
But there’s another layer to this: congenital disabilities in general tend to be less palatable than acquired disabilities. There are many reasons for this, but a big one goes back to the fact that abled people could eventually fall into the latter category but never the former. People with congenital conditions are Other from birth. They’ve never been “normal,” whereas those with acquired disabilities have merely lost their normality. Having once been “one of us [the abled]” matters a great deal when someone then becomes “one of them [the disabled].” Of course, this is a vast oversimplification, but it’s worth considering when thinking about the prevalence of the acquired paraplegia narrative.
No one wins here. Folks with acquired disabilities may get to see themselves in fiction more often, but they are usually treated as plot devices and inspiration porn. Folks with congenital disabilities see themselves much less often, and the rare times they do, they’re also usually treated as plot devices and inspiration porn.
Still, it’s important to consider the various possible explanations for this overwhelming narrative. Writers might think they’re choosing what’s best for the story, but ableist assumptions may be at the heart of those choices more often than not. Wheelchair users—both acquired and congenital—deserve to see themselves represented respectfully, accurately, and often. Neither group is getting all three, but I believe we as writers can do better on all fronts so long as we think carefully and critically about the underlying biases in our creative process.