Michille: Characters with Disabilities

Silent MelodyI am reading Mary Balogh’s Silent Melody in which the heroine is a deaf-mute (that’s how she is characterized in the story). It’s fascinating to read the way Balogh describes how Emily views/lives in her silent world, how she communicates with others, and how they communicate with her. And how sensitively/insensitively the other characters treat her. Some of the language used in reference to the character makes me uncomfortable because part of my day job is public school system special education administration. I keep telling myself that it’s like reading a romance novel from 1972 – yes the rape scene is understandable given the genre and societal norms at the time, just as in 1780, there was no such thing as political correctness when referring to someone with a disability.

Mary Balogh has a blind hero in The Arrangement – also a good read IMO. I read one by Tessa Dare, Must Love Dukes, recently with a blind (in modern terminology would be considered legally blind) hero. He counted steps. I read it just prior to attending the RWA session on characters with disabilities in which one of the presenters said to never have a blind character count steps. Tessa Dare was on the panel and fessed up to doing just that, which opened a dialogue about resources for author research that could lead to more authenticity and autonomy of characters with disabilities. I had wanted to go to the follow-up session, but had a conflict. I haven’t listened to the recorded session of the follow-up yet, but plan to.

Lisa Kleypas has a character with a hook for a hand. One of her contemporaries has a girl who doesn’t speak. If I recall correctly, that was due to trauma. I read one a long time ago with a deaf heroine that was really good (Mouth to Mouth, Erin McCarthy). I couldn’t remember the name of that one so I googled “romance novels with deaf heroines” and this page popped up. Some of these stories look pretty good – adding to my extensive TBR list.

I have a secondary character who is deaf, but he doesn’t have a whole lot of print. Do you have any characters with disabilities? Have you read any that you feel are realistic or not so much? Other thoughts on characters with disabilities and how to or not to portray them?

7 thoughts on “Michille: Characters with Disabilities

  1. I haven’t written any characters with disabilities yet (well, my garden gargoyle couldn’t fly, but that shouldn’t count), and I applaud all the authors who do. I have a lot to learn in that regard. Just hearing the story of Tessa Dare making what turns out to be a rookie mistake to others who understand the issues makes me worry that I’d screw up beyond redemption. Although I should try. I have first-hand knowledge of bad knees—maybe I could work in someone with an artificial leg, or something like that.

    • Since, as I said, part of my day job is special education, I have a wealth of information available to me. I know the dad of a blind child (blind since birth), who is also in my school system and graduating this year. He is then going to a gap year school that will teach him how to function completely independently as a blind person. The final exam is being taken by bus to an undisclosed location and finding his way home by himself. Both my kids have all their senses. This terrifies me. But he’s lived with and helped his kid with his independence since birth. His son is also an amazing singer/musician and has sung the National Anthem for the Orioles. I guess my job has informed my creative voice in adding characters with disabilities to my stories. I just hope I do it with authenticity and not with cliches.

  2. The stories of Helen Keller and Mary Ingalls were huge impressions on my young mind — the way they used their minds to get around their obstacles was really amazing.

    I don’t know if I’m including any people with disabilities in my book — I’ve got a leprechaun who looks like a person of small stature to “mere mortals” — but that’s not really a disability, just different. (-: I suppose one could argue that the “mere mortals” are disabled because they have short lifespans, and many of them don’t know a thing about magic. The leprechaun may or may not have Parkinson’s Disease, but I don’t know if I’ve got the chops to portray that or not. I’m afraid it’s another one of the elements of the story that will simply have to be pared down and discarded (unless I want to abandon the story and take it up when I’m a better writer — somehow that doesn’t seem like a good plan. I’ll have new stuff to tackle in the future.)

    It seems like a writer might fall into the same traps they fall into when they write about anyone who is different from themselves. It probably helps to look at online magazines targeted towards a certain audience, and also to look at literature, forums, articles and other things written by members of that audience.

    Other fiction? Not so sure. I read two fiction books about dwarves about a year ago, and both made me squirm. One guy was doomed to a life of no love because he couldn’t get over himself (common theme iin male literature, no matter what-abled they are). In the other, the guy was a bestie, and I can’t remember if he got the girl or not. There was definitely a weird detour, and I seem to remember her getting pregnant by an old boyfriend while she was kinda/sorta dating the hero.

    It’s really a tough subject to tackle. As writers, we all twist personality and to some extent, physical attributes to fit the needs of our stories. It’s really a miracle that anyone can portray anyone else, and get a third party to thrill to the story . . . .

    • I thought Balogh’s handling of both of these disabilities was great. It didn’t weaken either of them or make them a victim, but portrayed how they used their other senses to a higher degree than the other characters who had the sense(s) they were missing.

  3. Coming to this late, and it got long because this is very important to me. I’m glad to see disabled characters as the protagonist, and added all those books to my TBR list.

    Feels lazy to link to my LJ, but I’ve already hashed some of this out. Also, swear word warning.
    Jim C. Hines asking for essays from minorities got me thinking about disabilities in the media:

    Couple of days later, realizing that I didn’t have disabled characters in my scifi/fantasy works:
    http://datista.livejournal.com/572993.html (I now actively work to include at least one disabled character in each core group of characters.)

    I started to read Cinder by Meyer, but found that the intrigue and YA drama/romance weren’t holding my attention. That said, I really liked how the heroine’s artificial foot is a problem to be solved – by her – to find a better fitting foot, and didn’t seem likely to be something that was completely cured. (I had more problem with how the disease was handled, having worked in microbiology labs.)

    Planetfall by Emma Newman features a protag with a mental illness. I got bogged down in the mystery and religion bits and did not finish it, but the wanting to pass for normal and the shame when the state of her home is discovered rang very true. I almost didn’t want a service dog, because they act as giant, labelled sign that says I’m different. It took a lot to commit to “outing” myself as disabled.

    The Reason I Jump by Higashida is a 13 year old austistic boy’s book about his differences. Short and intense.

    Here’s the part where I admit my biases for anyone not clicking through the blog posts: I am of the bitter/angry cripple camp. Not everyone is angry about their disabilities. There are communities like the culturally Deaf who view the current way society is set up as the biggest hurdle to overcome (social model of disability.) I got sick when I was 10. I’m 33. I have used service dogs for over a decade. My disabilities are not going away. I’ve been angry about my limits and in daily pain for more than 2/3 of my life. I have not adopted “an attitude of gratitude,” and I doubt I ever will. Other people handle it differently.

    If you choose to write disabled characters, make them human. Give them flaws. If you’re concerned you’ve missed the finer points on something, put the word out to people that you’d like readers of that disability to read your work (as with any critique, take it with a grain of salt.) The most voracious reader I know is a Deafblind (big D) mobility dog user in New Orleans, who regularly reads 150+ books a year. She doesn’t wear her hearing aids any longer because they cause her problems. She’s the one who I first saw articulate that the cure narrative was hurtful, as it erases people like us.

    I’m tired of the Evil Cripple (character coding so that the person using a wheelchair is the sidekick is one thing. Using disability/disfigurement as authorial shorthand for “Here’s the bad guy!” is… distasteful.) Don’t pity us. Don’t use us for inspiration. Don’t make us evil just because we’re disabled (It’s not such a big thing to have the villain be disabled if there’s a whole slew of disabled people actively shaping the story. If there’s only one wheelchair user in the whole series and they’re the Antichrist, that’s an issue.)

    But please do all of those before you kill us.I don’t want to see any more of the “death before disability” trope. “Me Before You,” “Million Dollar Baby,” and so many more stories have the character want to die rather than live with a disability. It’s got all sorts of unfortunate implications because we are targeted in real life. It’s hard enough to get out of the head space of “I’m a burden on those I love.” without having our entertainment reinforce the idea that our disabilities are a fate worse than death. A complete cure can also feel like they’d rather be dead than be like me.

    Seeing the character Casey from RIzzoli & Isles become a mobility impaired service dog user who was still the romantic lead resonated deeply. I was cheering for him to adapt and move forward and find a new way to be happy. Having him risk his life on the small chance he’d be “fixed” rather than pursuing a life as a disabled person made me so sad. Then the surgery worked, and I felt so much resentment that the writers wrote him out of his disability and back into his prior, able-bodied life.

    If the choice for the happy ending is always “you get better or you die!” and I never get better…. that’s not a very happy ending.

    There are a lot more voices than mine. Not all of them will agree, just like not all able bodied people agree. I especially rewatch these Ted Talks:

    • Thank you very much for this post, Flo, and the food for thought. Sorry it took a couple of days for it to appear. The links sent it into spam jail.

    • Thanks so much for all the good information, Flo.There was a woman on the RWA panel that said much the same about her disability. She was injured on the job (police officer) and has struggled for years to get to where she is now and is in constant pain. Obviously, she’s living with and not going the assisted suicide route, but she’s not the picture of perfectly happy acceptance of it. Tessa Dare’s character was bitter about his blindness. Mary Balogh’s deaf-mute character was an upbeat character, not bitter, but she became that way at a young age so she doesn’t remember a hearing world. The blind character compensated well, but occasionally would be pissed off because he couldn’t see. And he got annoyed with his family for coddling him.

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