It is rare to find any book that has a character with a disability. Usually if they do appear, the character spends the book finding a way to defeat the disability, to conquer it, and to become able-bodied again. There are quite a few disability tropes, and these tropes in general are bad. It’s rare to find any disability in fiction portrayed accurately and not to an absurd extreme.
I have three people in my family that has disabilities. I have two friends with disabilities. Three of these five people have disabilities that are not easy to see; in fact, you could essentially call them invisible disabilities.
In my quest to write diverse characters, I’ve written a few stories about characters with different disabilities. The hardest part I notice is capturing the disability realistically and not using the disability as a way for the character to somehow conquer it – thus making them disability-free, which in of itself is a bit unrealistic for a lot of disabilities are not something you can just treat and it’ll go away. No, the hardest part is having the disability be present in the character, being part of the character, and having it just be something they have to live with as they go about solving a conflict completely unrelated to the disability.
I’ve had at least one reader ask me why I even bother including it then? Because the disability is a part of the character. To take it out would mean creating a very different character and a different story. Writing only about able-bodied people who have no disabilities is something everyone does. Writing about someone who has a disability – of any type – and have it be realistic and positive is extremely rare in our society’s literature.
Take for instance, this concept: A lot of people read books where they can identify with the characters in the book. People especially enjoy seeing an aspect of themselves in the book. Able-bodied people with no disabilities have plenty of literature that can represent themselves – that gives them a voice in our society so that they are easily seen. Having a character that represents an aspect of yourself in a positive manner is a fairly powerful experience when reading a book or watching a movie or TV show. The problem is that people with disabilities that are positively portrayed are not well represented in literature, movies, or television shows. Often they are represented poorly or even negatively. For anyone with that particular disability, a myriad of emotions are bound to come into play, especially if the portrayal is not at all accurate with their experience and the research on their condition.
For example, my girlfriend has dyslexia. She was very excited to tell me about her learning disability, to provide me with information, and to help me develop and write a character who has that same disability. She wanted to see more positive portrayals of her disability in literature because right now they are incredibly rare. Writing about this disability would bring exposure to the complexity that is her disability – it will give those with this disability a voice that can help other people understand. People often regard those with dyslexia in a negative manner – often assuming the worse about them, and part of that is the loads of misinformation that comes from how this disability is represented in literature, movies, and television.
Some of the portrayals of dyslexia in literature and cinema are inherently negative. For example, I found literature and movies that portray a character who was illiterate due to the dyslexia and it focused on all the worse aspects, pushing an extreme example that dominated the person’s sense of self. Sometimes a dyslexic’s illiteracy is explained as due to not just letters in words being backwards, but the words in a sentence being jumbled in a nonsensical way, and most portrayals have the characters unable to ever find a way to cope with this. These examples were the most common approach to describing dyslexia, and often they become the butt of a lot of jokes regardless of the tone of the piece. It’s not a particularly positive view of the learning disability.
These stereotypes were inherently negative, and so to combat that, here is some research and information on the reality of this disability. My girlfriend, due to being more knowledgeable than I am, has provided me with interesting discussions on how it affects her, and to help explain it further she provided several links that detail what dyslexia is actually like in real life.
Signs of Dyslexia (This provides signs of the disability at varying stages of a person’s life. The signs are not all the same at each stage of life, but there is similarities that do crop up in each stage. The list covers not only the negative symptoms but also some of the positive aspects as well. Both are important to note.)
Test for Dyslexia: 37 Common Symptoms (Note: this does not mean a dyslexic person has all of these symptoms, but they may have some on the list. Each person is a bit different when it comes to symptoms of it. The symptoms are in categories to make it clear what they actually affect.)
Dyslexia and Lying (Forum Discussion, and so purely anecdotal): Last post in particular does a good job of explaining it from the dyslexic’s point of view. I’ll quote it here:
Follow me for a minute….
Imagine that you are a child… let’s say about 8 years old. You have dyslexia. You cannot read as well as the other kids, you are always either having to ask question or have the teacher drawing attention to you. “JOHN, are you paying attention?” (the kids snicker – this is the 4th time this morning the teacher has called you down). The entire class is told to finish their worksheet and as soon as you’re done – you can go out to recess. It takes you longer to do it… so you get to go to recess later than the rest of the kids. By the time you get outside – they are already playing soccer, teams have been picked and they don’t want to let you play (after all you’re the “dumb” kid). So – you play by yourself, in your own little world (which works out well for you because your dyslexia gives you an awesome imagination). You see things really, really clearly and things that you think of seem real. Also, because you are so in touch with emotions and naturally empathetic – the emotions are REAL to you… and you can make someone else feel things – simply by explaining things to them.
When you get home, your mom asks “What did you do at school today?” You have two options… tell her the truth – that no one wanted to play with you and you got in trouble for not paying attention… AGAIN… or tell her a story that gets you the attention that you very much need.
Lying is a habit – it gets easier and easier to do….
This is very much what my life was like growing up… I lied and I was good at it. My son does the same thing. Both of us are dyslexic. I am a writer in my spare time… I love writing short stories. I am encouraging my son to do the same thing… he tells me the story and I help him write it… his imagination is INCREDIBLE!
Walt Disney was dyslexic – he told stories too!
Channel your childs energy, when he tells you something that you KNOW is not true – call him on it – gently. “Wow son, that sounds like an incredible story… can I help you write it down? Now… tell me what REALLY happened” Also – try to get him involved in activities outside of school so that he has fun things to talk about.
Notice how the person goes into depth concerning how the child with dyslexia deals with the ridicule from classmates and how they deal with the negative experiences they may encounter in school. This sort of material is absolutely wonderful for a writer to read, for it gives direct insight into the mind of a person with this disability. This is how one person dealt with it, and from the forum thread itself, it looks like there’s a few others who used a similar method. Therefore, when creating a character, information like this could help you develop a realistic character.
Social and Emotional Problems Related to Dyslexia (This post provides a good summary of some of the research on dyslexia, especially in regards to social and emotional aspects of the person’s life.)
This paragraph starts the piece, and helps to dispel some myths almost right away:
Research indicates that dyslexia is caused by biological factors not emotional or family problems. Samuel T. Orton, M.D. was one of the first researchers to describe the emotional aspects of dyslexia. According to his research, the majority of dyslexic preschoolers are happy and well adjusted. Their emotional problems begin to develop when early reading instruction does not match their learning style. Over the years, the frustration mounts as classmates surpass the dyslexic student in reading skills. Recent research funded by the National Institute of Health has identified many of the neurological and cognitive differences that contribute to dyslexia. The vast majority of these factors appear to be caused by genetics rather than poor parenting or childhood depression or anxiety.
This information shows that the emotional and social problems are often more rooted into society’s reaction to the disability rather than anything inherent in the child. Being cognizant of what life may be like for a dyslexic person can be very beneficial toward a positive portrayal of the learning disability and how it may affect various experiences, actions, and reactions your character may have. The article I quoted here also explains some other difficulties a person with dyslexia may have and how they may work around such difficulties, which would be good to read and understand before writing the character.
Caveat: reading research on the disability can be useful, but a problem with research is often it can be too highly focused on negative aspects that the research is trying to treat. This can push a writer toward an extreme version of the disability, which is often not as realistic or accurate as to how a person actually experiences the disability. No one person will have the same effects chronicled in these articles, and each person with dyslexia has a varying degree of severity. It’s important to acknowledge that not all dyslexics experience the world the same way, which is why tropes and stereotypes can be so damaging, for people often assume that people experience a disability the same way no matter what.
There is so much more to a person than just their disability, and focusing on an extreme example of the disability – often portraying it as if it consumes most of the person’s life and self – seems to be the main failing for a lot of literature that tries to tackle this particular disability. Yes, there are people who may have a more severe version of the disability, but there is a lot more that have mild forms of it, and these people are often neglected in any representation of their disability. There is a way to write a character with a disability, and not have it be all that person is, and this is what writer’s must consider when writing any character with a disability.
How do you write the more positive aspects of a disability? Let’s take return to the Signs of Dyslexia article, where at the end of the post, the author includes some positive aspects of the disability:
- They can utilize the brain’s ability to alter and create perceptions (the primary ability).
- They are highly aware of the environment.
- They are more curious than average.
- They think mainly in pictures instead of words.
- They are highly intuitive and insightful.
- They think and perceive multi-dimensionally (using all the senses).
- They can experience thought as reality.
- They have vivid imaginations.
- Assessing Strengths and Weaknesses
These positive aspects of the disability are very important when developing a character that has this. Playing up these strengths can help the character deal with the conflict and resolve it, and leaving any of these out, and focusing only on the more difficult aspects of the disability is unfair to the character and not a particularly good representation of the disability itself.
For example, many people with dyslexia are able to live a good life and function fairly well in society, but focusing only on those that can barely function leaves the impression that this is how the majority experience this disability. Since the majority of literature and cinema today is skewed toward the worst aspects of disabilities, my hope, as I develop this character and write their story, is to create a positive image of those with this disability. We need more examples of this in literature to give a voice to these people, who currently have little to no voice in our literature and cinema.
That’s one of the most important aspects of writing a character with a disability – it’s not enough to just show their difficulties in living due to their disability. There are always some positive aspects, and once you have a more complete understanding of the disability, how it affects various people, and try to understand it from their perspective, you will be able to create a more realistic character. For a person is far more complex than just a set of negative symptoms, and no matter what their disability is, there are some things they are capable of doing quite well, and emphasizing the positive over the negative can help dispel myths and misunderstandings about that disability. Considering how negative our society often views anyone with disabilities – regardless of what they are – this is desperately needed in our literature and cinema.