I’ve been thinking about ways to make characters with invisible disabilities,
learning disabilities/differences in particular, more true to the experience. Here are five ways I’ve come up with.
Diversity Within Disability
I’ve noticed that most characters with a particular disability/difference, like dyslexia, autism, and blindness, have the exact same set of challenges. Dyslexics can’t read at all most of the time, for example. Autistic characters never have any sort of social skills. Blind characters are completely without sight.
While there are people who carry those labels who may fit those descriptions, not all do. Disability is a spectrum. Each person is effected differently, though many experiences may be similar.
Many dyslexics can read well, even if they’re slow in doing so. People with autism often have social challenges, but many still learn social skills. People who are considered blind may be able to discern some sort of colors and light. There’s also the question of being legally blind, where a person can still see well enough not to need assistance walking around, but they can’t drive a car.
Research all of the potential symptoms beforehand, and pick a few to concentrate on. It’s also a good idea to show how severity changes depending on the situation. For instance, a person with SPD may be able to function normally in a quiet classroom, but they can’t handle bright, loud stores.
Avoid Superhero Syndrome
Yes, those of us in the neurodiverse community have some awesome, unique skills, but we’re not superheroes. We observe the world differently, but we can’t pick facts out of thin air. Not all autistic folks have one area in which they can do everything perfectly.
For this category, I’ll give superhero comics a pass, since that’s their thing. Other genres of books and movies, however, do seem to have this problem, especially when the disabled/different person is one of the main characters.
Instead of turning your character into the next Sherlock Holmes, why not consider walking through their thought process or behaviors? Show us how they found unlikely solutions. Have them screw something in their “area of specialty” up once in a while.
Disabled Does NOT Equal Helpless
Although no one’s 100% independent, people with various forms of disability live perfectly normal, self sufficient lives. When writers constantly monopolize on a character’s difficulty to the point of making them unable to function without intervention, they’re reinforcing the stigma of helplessness every person with a disability grapple with every day.
Yes, there are severe disabilities out there that do make life impossible without the help of others, but not all are like that. A common theme I see with dyslexia is that the dyslexic character is either unemployed or stuck in a menial job which can’t fully support them, forcing them to depend on the kindness of others. The reason why they’re in that situation? They’re helpless in the face of their illiteracy. Again, there are people who match that description out there, but the vast majority of dyslexic adults have jobs and can support themselves well.
Instead of making your character helpless, have them find ways around their challenges, either through technology, physical accommodation or routines.
They Are Not Their Disability
|Knitting’s a good example. Read about some of
my routines here.
This one can be especially tricky, since any disability has a powerful effect on the person’s life. My dyslexia, for example, influences how I do things, because I put certain routines in place to help me work with my wiring.
However, it’s not who I am. It’s a part of my identity, but it’s not the only thing that makes up my personality. The same could be said for every other dyslexic I’ve met, as well as those on the ASD spectrum, those with chronic pain, those who rely on mobility aids and everyone else.
That’s where story telling skills and research come in. What does the character enjoy doing? Do they have an occupation? What place do they have in their family?
When you concentrate solely on the disability, you often end up relying on tired stereotypes and reinforcing harmful stigma. Give them a passion, a hobby or job, then think about how their ability level makes them compensate. Just like everyone else, our interests are generally what frame who we are as people.
More Than One Difference Per Character
Did you know people with autism can also be dyslexic? Did you know dyslexics can have SPD? Many people have multiple differences which influence how they live their lives, yet most characters only exhibit one.
There’s also the possibility of undiagnosed variations in ability level.
People are still graduating high school and college without having their dyslexia identified, yet those who know what to look for can spot dyslexic traits right away. Maybe their ADHD was caught, and they knowingly carry that label. Or, maybe their ADHD was actually a misdiagnosis, and is really related to the fact they can’t tune out background noise, due to SPD.
As you’re developing your character, research co-occurrence of differences. Talk to people with the differences and listen to their experiences. Then, translate that variety into your character.
I’ve written before how few good disabled characters there are in fiction, and I’m sure part of it is because of simple ignorance. It’s easier to create someone who’s fundamentally “normal” than to delve into the complicated world of disability.
If you do want to create disabled characters, keep the ideas in this entry in mind. Taking the emphasis off of “disabled” and putting it on “character” will create better personalities and more interesting stories.