Last Friday, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to be on a panel called How We Change the Stories We Tell About Disability with Haddayr Copley-Woods, Kiah Nelson, Sherry L.M. Merriam, MA, LPC and Vetnita Anderson.
During the course of our discussion, we covered everything I’d written about in this post, but we also talked about quite a bit more.
Why Representation Matters
Too many fictional characters are based off of stereotypes, which we all know is never a good thing. The problem is, those stereotypes are often the only thing storytellers know about disabilities in general.
Why is that? Easy: because everything they have at hand is based off of stereotypes. Do you see the pattern here?
Then, people who consume those stories rely on those renditions to figure out what to think of real people who carry the labels. That’s part of why people automatically assume people with dyslexia are illiterate, people on the autism spectrum can’t have friendships and so on.
That, in turn, leads to real life consequences like job loss, opportunity loss, and various kinds of abuse. Fortunately, there are many folks who are working hard to change the way the world views us.
When I logged on this morning, I discovered one of the people who’s working on that wrote an article that fits in nicely with this point: Neurodiversity: Employers Need to Help People “Come Out”. While I realize the term is borrowed from the LGBTQ movement, it also fits the phenomenon of people with invisible disabilities.
Going into the panel, I knew there’d be a huge amount of overlap in experience between different types of invisible disabilities. A part of me will always be a little surprised when I hear a story just like mine out of someone else’s mouth, though. It’s especially surreal when the details of their day to day experience is different than mine.
The next day, I was on another panel, Writing While Female, and a lot of that was echoed. It reminds me that those of us who aren’t part of the mainstream privileged all face similar challenges, regardless of label.
We did talk a bit about actually including disabilities in stories.
There’s a lot of tokenism that goes on when it comes to disabled characters. Usually, stories only have one character with some sort of disability, or two at the most. You can’t really portray any sort of diversity with only one character.
Hidden disabilities are common enough that they can be easily applied to multiple characters.
No, really! There are lots of people out there with LD, developmental disabilities, mood disorders and hidden physical disabilities like chronic pain. I know many, and you probably do, too. As mentioned above, though, the protective instinct within us all is to keep them out of sight.
There’s also the tendency to keep how these difference effect the characters static. Disabilities change over time, both during day-to-day life and over months or years. This goes for physical disabilities, as well.
I have friends who can sometimes walk without any kind of aid, but other times, need a wheelchair. I can usually read with ease, but other times, I can’t decipher even one letter words. It all depends on environment and current life circumstances.
Part of this also relates to using the disability as the sole identifying trait for the character. As I’d mentioned in the post I’d linked earlier, disability is only a PART of personality, and it should be handled as such.
When it comes to the story itself, it shouldn’t necessarily be used as a plot point, either. There are ways to make it influence the way characters act and interact without turning it into a plot device.
If you’re a fan of crime stories, Seeds of Doubt, by Stephanie Kane does a pretty decent job of handling dyslexia without letting the label take over the story .
In the Publishing World
This hadn’t dawned on me before the panel, but a big reason we don’t see more stories with well rounded disabled characters is because they don’t fit into the genre box.
The issue many editors have is the need to buy stories that will sell. When it comes to disability, they get hung up on whether it’s an inspirational story or a tear jerker. If the disabled character doesn’t fit into either of those boxes, they’re not seen as viable.
That, in turn, goes full circle to the subject of stereotype.
It’s so easy to just tell writers to create better characters and to inform themselves, but we have to remember that they’re just a part of the whole publishing process. We also need to work with editors, people in the publishing world, animators and everyone else involved with getting stories out.
When it comes down to how the panel itself went, I think it went pretty well. From what I’ve seen from attendees, that seems to be the general consensus.
I know I had a little trouble with word recall/pronunciation and my working memory cut out on me once or twice, but everyone seemed pretty understanding about it. Overall, I thought it was a great experience, and I’m grateful to have been a part of it.