Inclusivity is a hot-button topic. Presently when most people think of inclusivity, we think of gender, sexuality, and race. Each one of those topics are important aspects of creating characters and worlds that feel real. But an equally important aspect of visibility and inclusivity is to touch upon disabilities, both psychological and physical. Given the intersectionality of all such topics, it may seem overwhelming. But fear not: disability representation is easier than you think—albeit more heartbreaking.
Where to Start: How to Avoid Tokenism
Research, research, research. Start by asking the simple question of what disability your character has. Is it PTSD? Is it Ehler’s Danlos Syndrome? Is it blindness? Deafness? Autism? The next step after isolating what you wish to write about is to do your research. That falls into a couple of categories:
Research from places such as WebMD or illness/disease-specific sites if there are any. Look into what kinds of accommodations (braces, wheelchairs, noise reducing headphones, etc.) are commonly needed to help with those disabilities You don’t need to become a medical expert or memorize a textbook about the chosen disability, but having a passing knowledge beyond the stereotypes that you’ve learned (and may need to unlearn) is helpful before you move on to the next step.
Narrow Your Research: Talk to People
There are many good resources for talking to people with the disabilities you’re going to write about. A shoutout in hashtags on Twitter such as “I’m a writer and want to talk with people about including #deafness accurately. Is anyone comfortable answering my questions in a DM?” is an excellent way to find volunteers. Other options are posting questions in places like r/writingresearch or the disability specific subreddit, putting out an Instagram story, or asking the admins in Facebook support groups for said disabilities if you can post the question. Many people are happy to educate a well-meaning individual if you ask your questions respectfully and don’t ambush people. For example, if you want to ask sexual assault survivors about their PTSD, start by asking if there are triggers you need to avoid in your conversation. Don’t ambush them by outright asking if certain positions or actions are traumatizing. Do harm to your characters, not to real people.
Remember to listen and believe the experiences you’re being told. There is nothing more frustrating than explaining to an able-bodied person or a mentally healthy individual what life with a disability is like only to be told it can’t possibly be that severe. Respect the boundaries of your interviewee’s place, particularly if discussing mental health issues or traumatic incidents.
Put Yourself in Their Shoes
You are a person with an incredible imagination! Consider all that you’ve gathered, and then try to apply that to your own personal life. Consider how challenging it would be for you if you were suddenly blind/deaf/traumatized/diagnosed with something life-altering. Think about what parts of your life would be different if you’d been born without legs, without hands, or without senses you can trust. Consider what things in your life you would change: the things you would lose and the things you would gain.
Know What You Don’t Know
No matter how much research you do, if you don’t live with a particular disability you can’t completely know and understand what it feels like to live in that person’s shoes. Leave the stories where the core struggle is the disability for someone with that disability to write (or find someone to co-author with you). But use what you do know to make the lives of your characters authentic! For example, if you don’t have Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, don’t write a story about how challenging life is with EDS as the core plot. Write a story with a different plot, but where a character’s EDS impacts their abilities to interact with the plot points and other characters.
The Best Way to Avoid Tokenism: No Lanterns
Don’t hang lanterns on the disability. What’s meant by this? Don’t be showy with the disability. Just like with any inclusivity, no one wishes to be included just for diversity points. Disabled people exist, and there are more of us than the average person realizes. In the United States, 1 in 4 people live with some manner of disability*. Don’t place a character into your story purely to showcase your research. Have characters that happen to have a disability. Slip in their struggles and joys in the most organic way possible. When in doubt, return to the people who you consulted earlier and ask if they can read what you just wrote or if they can discuss ideas you have. You don’t necessarily always have to make the disabled person an important character, but adding them into the ‘background’ can help make your world far richer.
Whatever you do, don’t retcon disability after the fact. No one likes to find out after the book has been published that such and such character actually has XYZ disability.
* Disability Impacts All of Us
Fantasy and Sci-Fi Specific Points:
Take disabilities into account with your world-building! A disability is only as disabling as the society makes it. Consider, for a moment, the fact that stairs are the norm in our architecture. They lead up to our doors and up to our second stories. In my house, there are single step-downs into the dining room and living rooms. But why? What if, instead of stairs being the norm, in your world ramps were the method of choice for going up and down levels? Would someone who has disabling mobility issues in our world be disabled in yours? What if you designed your world around blindness so that both the seeing and the blind could easily move around and interact with your world. What would you have to make different from our world?
Remember that not all disabilities are painful. Not everyone would want to be rid of their disability, so creating a world where science or magic has simply done away with disabilities is, frankly, cruel ableism. It can make a disabled person feel as if they have no place in your world. If you can, showcase and normalize accommodations, such as Geordi LaForge’s visor in Star Trek: The Next Generation, do so!
Another wonderful and, honestly, fun perk of writing sci-fi and fantasy is that you can make up disabilities! If everyone in your world has magic, what happens to someone who is born without? If everyone in your world had four arms, what happens to the person born with two or five? Making up your own disabilities doesn’t mean you get to avoid doing the above research. It means you have the perk of using allegory and metaphor to help bring accommodation issues to light.
Now that you have these tools in your writing toolbox, go forth and write inclusively!
About L.J. Stanton, the Pedantic Scribe
L.J. Stanton grew up in Calgary, Alberta. She attended the University of Guelph and graduated with a diploma in Equine Science. She is a former horse trainer and riding instructor.
After moving to California Stanton received a diagnosis of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. With the help of her husband, they started the publishing company Sword & Board LLC. Stanton’s debut novel, The Dying Sun, The Gods Chronicle: Book 1, was released in 2020. It was a finalist for the National Indie Excellence Award. Stanton is a founding member of the Scribe’s Journey Podcast.
Stanton now lives near L.A., California.
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