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?
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 sort of “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.”
Another blindness-specific trope that I want to call out here is the pattern of treating blindness as a “poetic punishment” for metaphorical blindness. Treating blindness as a punishment in this way sends a terrible message about what it means to be blind. While it doesn’t sound like this is what you are doing here, it is important to be aware of this pattern so that anything that might accidentally lean toward this trope can be checked for and removed. You can learn more about the stigmatizing pattern of treating disability as a metaphor in Metaphorical Disability.
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.
Quests for a magical disability cure are a part of this pattern of exaggerated negativity. That is because the character is setting aside everything else in their life (including the other parts of the plot) in order to pursue this cure. This implies that everything they are setting aside is less important or urgent than the cure. Because most plots have stakes that are at least life and death, this becomes the harmful implication that being disabled is somehow worse than any of the death or destruction that is happening in the main plot. In addition, if the character stops pursuing the main plot in favor of this cure, there is an implication that the character can’t pursue the main plot while they are disabled. After all, if they could pursue the higher stakes main plot, why aren’t they? 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, let’s go over some ways to show a character struggling with their new disability without sending harmful messages. One useful technique is to focus on the character’s treatment and progress with learning to use new tools. This is a way to highlight their struggles while showing the audience what they are able to do. Another important technique is to make sure the character still has a full life and stays involved in the main plot. Maybe there is some research they can do while recovering. In addition, it also helps to have more experienced disabled characters and an understanding of ableism present in the story.
In regards to quests, it is not possible for a character to successfully go on a quest to cure their disability without sending multiple negative messages, including 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.
Use a Subversive Ending: 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?
Quest for New Tools and Skills: 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 who 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 continue to paint that works for them. (I highly recommend googling blind painters.)
Focus on the Main Plot: In this option, 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.
Fight Ableism: 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