How Should I Introduce My Physically Disabled Character?

Jul 03, 2019

Anonymous asks, quote:

When writing characters with visible disabilities, should I mention the disability when first introducing the character? How can I make sure to introduce them respectfully?

end quote.

There are a lot of different things you can do improve your chances of writing a realistic and respectful disabled character.

Don’t let the Disability Get in the Way

You know those books about some hyper-masculine protagonist and his Amazing Gun? The ones where the author shows us just how much they can steal from Wikipedia by listing out every minor detail of their awesome weapon? Yeah, don’t do that with mobility aids. Folks have a tendency to show just how much research they did by spouting out the height, width and depth of their character’s seat cushion and how it helps with pressure sores.

Don’t do that. It’s super awkward and feels like the author is just screaming “Look! Look at my inclusiveness! Look at it!”

My wheelchair is an extension of my body. So, if I was going to write a character in a chair, I would treat the chair like any other body part. Is your character nervous? Have them fidget with their breaks, clicking them back and forth. Are the impatient? Mention them sighing and shifting their weight while staring at the clock. Talk about them mindlessly tapping their wedding ring against their wheel rim, much to the annoyance of their partner.

And once you’ve mentioned the disability to the reader, don’t try and explain it.

Don’t Try and Explain Your Character’s Disability

I’m fucking sick of reading shit like “Ever since the skiing accident that paralyzed his legs and dick at 19, Max McGunnerson…” Don’t do that shit. You don’t need to explain the existence of your disabled character. Not only is it jolting and unnatural sounding, it also leads you into telling‐a‐story‐that’s‐not‐yours‐to‐tell territory. How your character’s disability affects your character is not something I want to read from non‐disabled authors. If that’s the kind of story you want to see in the world, you should promote, invest in, and support disabled authors who write stories about disabled characters instead of creating one of your own.

Let your disabled character seem as natural and common place as the other characters that inhabit your world. If you feel the need to explain why they exist, there’s a good chance they shouldn’t be there in the first place.

Hire a Sensitivity Editor

Hire (this means pay) a sensitivity editor who shares the same type of disability as your character to read your work and point out any errors or issues. Do not waste their time: if they give you feedback and ask you to fix something, fix it. When they say that something needs to be rewritten, they are not telling you that they didn’t like it. They are telling you that some part of what you have written contains information or portrayals that could be harmful to disabled people. This could be something as minor as incorrectly describing the way someone pushes a wheelchair to something as large as unintentionally reinforcing or perpetuating a negative stereotype about a particular disability. Either way, you need to fix it. If you don’t fix it, you’re an asshole and you’ve wasted both your time and the time of the editor you’re paying.

Read the Kinds of Books You Want to Write

If you’re writing about a blind protagonist, read books with a blind protagonist written by blind/visually impaired authors. Do not read books with disabled characters whose authors do not reflect those character’s backgrounds. This is the best way to guarantee that you are absorbing good examples of healthy representation of disabled people in media.

Watch Movies / Shows with Healthy Disabled Representation

Watch Mad Max: Fury Road. Yes, I am well aware that the actress playing Furiosa doesn’t actually have a missing hand. Yes, I have complained (and still complain) about non‐disabled folk playing disabled characters. This movie gets a pass. Why? Because the disability never fucking mattered. It’s never mentioned, it’s never exploited, and it never gets in the way. Max never looks at Furiosa and says: “Let me do it. I have two hands”. Instead, he kneels down and lets her stabilize her gun on his shoulder because he knows she’s a better shot.

If you need something more cheerful to watch, I recommend Series 9 of the Great British Bake Off. Briony Fucking Williams (not her actual middle name) is amazing. The show never once mentions her disability in any way. It’s never brought up, it’s never pointed out, and it never fucking matters. For me, watching her work was like breathing clean air for the first time in years. I could finally watch someone create, adapt, struggle, succeed, and make it to the mother fucking semi‐finals without some mindless fuck‐stick telling me how impressed or inspired they were.

Write a Briony. Give her a tiny hand and a big gun. Make only the gun matter.

Respect the Time and Resources of Disabled Authors

If you decide to reach out to a disabled author to ask them questions about their characters or their process (which I recommend you do), please be respectful of their time and resources. I cannot tell you the number of times I have spoken with disabled authors who were met with derision or sent hurtful comments because they would not take the time to answer every question that was given to them or were expected to assist or help an upcoming author for free. When you sit down with a disabled author (or any disabled person, for that matter) to ask them questions about disability or ask them to review your work or offer advice, you are taking their time and asking them to perform a lot of emotional labor. This is not a bad thing! Disabled authors genuinely want to be helpful! They really want to see good examples of disabled representation in media and are absolutely rooting for your success! Just remember that they, like you, only have so much time and energy to give and they are well within their rights to say “no” to someone’s request for advice or help with their writing.