R.J. Anderson (rj_anderson) wrote,
R.J. Anderson

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Bad Disability Tropes in Children's Fiction: Please Don't.

I was reading a MG fantasy novel last weekend which I quite enjoyed. It had nice solid worldbuilding, a dynamic and resourceful MC, an interesting cast of supporting characters, and the stakes and dangers were high enough to keep the tension going. I was quite impressed with it overall, and became even more so when a new character appeared on the scene who had a disability and used a wheelchair.

Huzzah, I thought to myself. Well done, author! This lady is attractive, likable, vibrant, talented, holds a position of authority and respect, and even turns out to be the love interest of my favorite supporting character in the book! I look forward to getting to know her and seeing more of the two of them together, and watching this romance continue to develop.


My first impression of this character as healthy and energetic soon turned out to be wrong. She was in fact suffering from a degenerative disease which was slowly and painfully consuming her and would eventually result in her death.

So once again, as so often seems to happen in children's fiction, the character with a disability is portrayed as frail, sickly, and unable to live a full life. An object of pity, rather than a person with whom the non-disabled reader can identify.

That being said, degenerative diseases certainly do happen, and it would be unreasonable to insist that this aspect of life not be represented in fiction. But still, I began to have some misgivings about where the book was headed. I could only hope that, having introduced us to this lovely character, the author was not planning to have her die in the course of the story just for the purpose of adding emotional drama to the plot?

Alas, my hopes were vain. Not only did this character die shortly thereafter, she actually killed herself prematurely so that her lover would no longer be obligated to stay with her, and could then go after and rescue the book's young heroine -- a girl she barely knew, but who was clearly (as far as the plot and other characters were concerned) More Important than herself.

Which was the point where I put down the book and said, loudly and distinctly, "WHAT."

Why, why, WHY do we do this as authors? There are so few characters with a disability in children's literature as it stands, and so few are portrayed with any kind of vibrancy and power, why introduce one just to kill her off (worse, have her kill herself off) just so your central characters can have a bit more angst and interpersonal conflict for a while? I don't even have a disability, and for me the book was spoiled right there -- how much worse would it be for some unsuspecting reader who does have a disability?

Please, let's stop writing characters with disabilities as though they're all doomed to suffer nobly and die tragically, unable to marry or have families. That's what Madeline L'Engle did with the character of Matthew Maddox in A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and though I greatly respect L'Engle as an author, it angered and frustrated me that she would treat my favorite character in the whole book that way.

Let's also stop using disability as a metaphor for ugliness and deformity of spirit -- I could write a whole rant about the handling of Dean Priest in L.M. Montgomery's Emily books, but of course there are even more obvious ones like Captain Hook in Peter Pan.

Let's stop "rewarding" protagonists who have disabilities by having them magically cured once their quest is achieved* -- thus sending the message that those who have not experienced such a magical cure are inferior and unworthy, or have not yet experienced some needed epiphany in life. Kitkryan's post Dear Author, Please Don't Heal Me shows the response of one reader with a disability to a recent and popular YA novel in which a magical healing takes place, and it makes this point far better than I could.

And let's also try to steer our way between the Scylla of the angry, bitter person with a disability who has to be helped out of it by someone who is not disabled** and the Charybdis of the saintly, sunny person with a disability who acts as an Inspiration To Us All.

There are of course some wonderful exceptions out there -- characters with disabilities who learn to work with and around them to accomplish meaningful things; who experience natural disappointment, grief and even depression over their disability at times but manage to get past it without turning into marble saints; who love and are loved (romantically and sexually, even!); who play sports and drive vehicles and fight for accessibility and do all the things that real people with disabilities do every day. But there need to be more such characters.

And there need to be a lot fewer characters like the one I encountered in the book I read this weekend, who seem to exist only as props to be used to arouse the reader's and their fellow characters' pity before being tossed away.


I welcome your comments on this subject, especially from readers with experience of disability. I'd be particularly interested to hear what books you've read that contained good, well-rounded, interesting, dynamic portrayals of characters with disabilities. Tell me a little about the characters involved, and let me know why they are great!

* I have made this mistake myself, in a fanfic where I allowed my heroine to be (magically) cured of her (magically induced) blindness. I would write those stories differently now.

** I did this myself to some extent in Faery Rebels: Spell Hunter aka Knife, though I hope it doesn't come across quite so one-sided and obnoxious since Knife is experiencing a seemingly permanent loss of mobility at the time as well. And I hope the future developments of Paul's character in Rebel and Arrow, where we see him living with his spinal cord injury in a more positive way, also helped to mitigate it. But I'm willing to be called out and corrected on this point by those with personal experience of disability, and try to do better in future.
Tags: books, disability issues
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