Q&A

How Can I Depict a Character Adjusting to a New Disability Respectfully?

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I have a character who recently got blinded and now has to deal with what that means. How can I show him struggling and adapting to his new life without caricaturing or stereotyping the experiences of blind people and blindness in general? In addition, my world has advanced enough magic that he could seek out ways to cure his blindness, although it would be difficult. Would it be possible for me to show him going on a quest to regain his sight without implying that blindness is a problem that needs to be fixed?

– Elizabeth

Elizabeth,

Thank you for your question! Depicting a character becoming disabled without falling into harmful stereotypes is challenging.

Blindness, in particular, is one of the disabilities that is frequently depicted in the media, and this comes with a lot of stereotypes and misrepresentation. There is one specific myth about blindness that I want to bring up here because I feel it is particularly important for storytellers to know. This is the myth that sighted people can experience what it is like to be blind by putting on a blindfold. Research has shown that simulating blindness in this way creates an inaccurate depiction of what it means to be blind that presents blind people as if they are incapable of functioning. In fact, these sorts “empathy exercises” actually increase stigma against blind people. For the full details on this topic, please read “If you want to help the blind, blindfolding yourself isn’t the answer.” As with other disabilities, accurately portraying blindness comes down to doing lots of research and consulting with at least one person who has lived experience.

In addition to blindness specific stereotypes, anytime that a storyteller is depicting a newly disabled character, there is a risk of falling into the stereotype of depicting becoming disabled as a horrible catastrophe. Becoming disabled can be hard and it is realistic for the character to have feelings about their situation. However there is a real problem with these depictions being exaggerated, inaccurate, and overly negative.

Because this is a common storytelling challenge, I’m going to talk about this in broad terms that I hope will apply to other people’s writing too. To start with, here are five ways that that depictions of newly disabled characters can become harmful.

  1. The character’s disability is portrayed as a punishment for a flaw, mistake, or wrong that they committed. This is particularly common for blindness, as blindness is often treated as a metaphor in storytelling. Here, physical blindness is portrayed as a form of poetic punishment for a character being metaphorically blind. This sends a terrible message about what it means to be blind. You can learn more about this stigmatizing pattern of treating disability as a metaphor in “Metaphorical Disability.”
  2. Disproportionate attention is given to the tragedy of the character becoming disabled. This is particularly egregious in stories where characters die. Someone dying should always be a bigger deal than a character becoming disabled. Being disabled is not worse than being dead.
  3. A big emphasis is put on what the character is now unable to do, such as the paraplegic woman who “will never be able to dance again.” This is a toxic and exaggerated view of disability based on inaccurate assumptions about what disabled people can and can’t do. In this example it is blatantly untrue; paraplegic people can dance.
  4. The character is reduced to their disability. Any previous interests and goals that the character had are set aside as the story focuses on the character’s struggle with becoming disabled. While it is true that things like learning new tools and doing physical therapy can be a lot of work, there is no reason for the character’s interests and goals to be abandoned. This is a particular problem for stories with high stakes. If the character is a member of a small group trying to stop a demon army from destroying our world, they should still be working on this high-stakes problem as they adjust to their disability.
  5. The character focuses all of their energy on pursuing a cure. Any goals the character had before they became disabled are put on hold by the character as they focus on getting a magical cure. In addition to the fact that magical cures aren’t something that happen in the real world, this storytelling pattern also comes with the harmful assumption that the character needs to be able-bodied in order to pursue their goals. “Magical Cures and Disability as an Obstacle” discusses this storytelling pattern in more detail.

Now that we’ve talked about the ways that these depictions can become harmful, here are some ways to show a character struggling with their new disability without sending harmful messages.

  1. Avoid spending a lot of time on negative emotions and internal thoughts about the character’s disability. Instead, show how the character is struggling in concrete ways, such as showing us the everyday things that the character is struggling to do. This also has the added benefit of avoiding melodrama.
  2. Show the way that treatment, adaptive devices, and other tools are helping the character. Doing physical therapy and learning how to use new tools can be a lot of work, both physically and mentally. Depicting this learning process is a great way to get into the character’s struggle in a context that emphasizes what they can do and how their capacity is expanding.
  3. Have other disabled characters in the story. These characters can serve as mentors to the newly disabled character, providing their unique perspectives and teaching them ways to navigate things like accessibility barriers and internalized ableism.
  4. As the character grows in their understanding of ableism, direct the majority of their anger, frustration, and bitterness at the accessibility barriers in their life, rather than at their disability.
  5. Don’t just accept accessibility barriers when they appear. Instead, address them with tools and accommodations. For example, if there is an idea that the character can’t do a certain activity now that they are blind, question it. Is it actually true that a blind person can’t go scuba diving, or are there tools and accommodations that would make it possible? (Hint: There are blind scuba divers.)
  6. Avoid reducing the character to their disability by making sure that they have meaningful relationships, interests, and goals in their life. Especially for high-stakes stories, find ways to keep the character involved in the challenges of the plot. This is another place where the character’s struggle to adjust to their disability can be shown in a context where they are accomplishing something.

In regards to quests, it is not possible for a character to successfully go on a quest to cure their disability without sending the message that disability is a problem that needs to be “cured.” The entire quest is literally treating the disability as a problem that they are fixing. However there are ways to incorporate a character’s struggles with disability into a quest without sending this negative message.

  1. Probably the most common way to do this is to have the character start on a quest to cure their disability, but they learn a lesson about self-acceptance along the way. Either the character changes their mind and doesn’t go through with the magical cure, or the character changes their goal to be something more altruistic. For example, if the character gains a magic item that will grant them one wish, they can decide to use that wish to make the world a better place. However keep in mind that subverting a harmful pattern in this way is tricky to pull off. I’ve discussed it in more detail in “How Can I Respectfully Subvert the Magical Cure Trope?”
  2. Behind a character’s quest to cure their disability is usually an activity or goal that the character feels unable to pursue while disabled. Instead of having the character pursue a cure, have them pursue their actual goal. Here the character’s quest is to get the tools and skills needed to accomplish their goal as a disabled person. For example, if your character is a painter that went blind, they could go on a quest to find a new way of doing art. In doing this, they could learn a new artistic medium, such as ceramics, or find a way to continuing to paint that works for them. (I highly recommend searching online for blind painters.)
  3. The character focuses on continuing the quest that they were on before they became disabled. Becoming disabled is a serious change in their life and, as a result, the way that they go about working on their quest will also change, but their quest is still their main focus.
  4. The character takes on a quest that involves fighting ableism. This could start with the character learning about ableism. When they encounter a barrier that matters a lot to them, they choose to fight it. For example, their continued participation in a group could be threatened by group members that believe ableist stereotypes. In doing this, it is important for there to be some recognition that the character is building on a long tradition of disabled activism.

I hope that this answer helps with your storytelling project. Happy writing!

— Fay from Writing Alchemy

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Comments

  1. Arix

    I have a character who is basically a humanoid/anthropomorphic dragon. In this world, his kind are naturally inclined towards magic, able to instinctively cast simple spells at a young age and having an innate Detect Magic sense. He, however, was born without any magical connection at all, so he has no such sense and no ability to cast spells. I didn’t intend for it to be a disability parallel when creating him, but it did soon dawn on me that yeah, it basically is.

    Is there anything I need to look out for with this? Even before I made the connection, I always intended that he would never be ‘cured’ of his lack of magic, he would never seek nor be offered a cure, and he’s definitely more defined by what he can do rather than what he can’t, and my hope is that any minor errors can be patched by it being two steps removed from reality (being both a fantasy creature and a fantasy ‘disability’), but I don’t want to be caught unawares in how I portray it.

  2. Mara

    Thanks for your insights on this topic.
    I have a character who is temporarily over sensitive to light due to living in entire darkness for months and has to wear a blindfold because of this. He is on his journey home, not on a journey to fix this. I want to write how he struggles with various things, orientation on his journey. He is skilled in a weak kind of magic already and this helps him a little with orientation although it’s exhausting to use. He hopes that he will see again but (for reasons I haven’t made up yet) isn’t certain that it may not be permanent. But he has magic as aid so he is not devastated by this. In the end he will see again but his eyesight will be blurry.
    I’m not sure if this counts as a disability and if there’s something I should be aware of.

  3. Michael

    I agree this can be problematic. Still, if you have a world where magic exists capable of cures, it seems rather unrealistic to portray no one using this (or only refraining when it’s a disability). It might not be the individual either (their parents might get this cure, for instance). Further, if you have a disability, that is a problem in most cases. Call me an ableist if you like, but it seems pretty odd to deny. It particularly applies in another world that might well not have accommodations or understanding able to alleviate issues. I have conditions many likely qualify as disabilities-it would be great to have get rid of them. Am I wrong to wish for this, or pursue what treatment exists, and portray a character that does this? You seem to think so. I disagree, although like I’ve said yes this can be problematic. A way might be to portray a number of disabled people, with some of them not wanting it gone (or most even). I will probably just avoid the subject, since it does bring up hostility, or can caste disabled people in a poor light. That however leaves a certain implied issue with worlds having magic and such capable of curing, but it has to be ignored then.

    • Eddddd

      Interesting point- in fact, you could see lots of potential examples in the real world- eg someone with spinal paralysis becomes interested in stem cell research because of its potential to let them walk again, and eventually becomes a leading scientist in the field of stem cell growth. So would a story about that character’s journey be ableist, because the character is motivated by “fixing” their disability?

      That said… there are A LOT of stories about disabled characters getting their reward by being cured, way more than other potential happy endings for characters with disabilities. some pushback is not unwarranted. Theres definately room for more stoties where the character in a wheelchair is on a totally unrelated quest to save their brother or sonething.

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