Q&A

How Do I Depict a Newly Blind Character?

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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 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

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Comments

  1. Kenneth Mackay

    I don’t know if this helps or not, but I once had an eye infection that required me to have my eyes bandaged for three days. Getting around was no problem, as I was at home, nor did I feel particularly fearful.

    What bothered me most was two things; eating – finding the food on my plate, not knowing if I was missing some or jabbing at an empty plate with my fork, unable to choose combinations, and boredom – television makes little sense if you can’t see the pictures, books are obviously out of the question (and audiobooks require an annoying level of concentration – if your attention wanders for a few minutes while reading, a glance at the page and you can pick up where you left off, but it can take a lot longer to find a precise spot in a recording, especially if you can’t see the controls), and I couldn’t even stare out of the window!

    Of course, my experience isn’t the same as that of a real blind person – for one thing I knew the bandages would come off in three days – but I hope it helps.

  2. Richard

    For study, I can recommend two films. “Day of the Triffids” (1963), when pretty much the entire world goes blind. Yeah, it’s a mediocre movie overall, but it does have at least one truly chilling scene (on the airplane….).

    There’s also “Blindsided”, a 2016 short by Clayton J. Barber – which is way cool in that it shows you should never assume anything about a blind person.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-xOaU4I8Ys

  3. Xzenu

    While it’s important to abstain from shaming people for being disabled, it is also important to abstain from shaming people for wanting/trying/managing to overcome a disability.

    There’s a lot of real life people who leave behind a disability they once had, and this should also be okay. As a person who have previously lived with brain damage which made it hard to walk or speak, I personally recommend against constructing the plot so that it would be unethical or otherwise shameful for the recently blind character to be able to see again.

    • Guest

      thank you – I was thinking very much along the same lines but you said it so much better.
      the impact on a person’s life is extremely, profoundly individual which means their reaction to it will be extremely, profoundly individual. If one person wants a ‘cure’ so they personally don’t have to deal with a disability while another personally doesn’t see the need to change anything about themselves, they are each fully entitled to that reaction.

      In terms of representation in fiction, it rarely hurts to have two or more characters in the same situation and just SHOW different ways of reacting to it. (i.e.: have another blind character who doesn’t want a cure and show both supporting each other’s decision and immediate coping methods)

    • eddddd

      I thought that this was handled fairly well in Dr Strange (the movie). Strange is in an accident at the beginning of the movie and loses fine motor control in his hands, suddenly becoming unable to continue his career as a surgeon. understandably, he doesn’t immediately accept this and views it only as a problem to be fixed. he begins a quest to get back his previous range of motion via magical means. Strange never discovers a way to fix his hands- instead, over the course of the movie he eventually discovers new talents and interests that he can do without fine motor control, and comes to accept how things are now.

      interestingly he never gets a choice- at no point does he specifically have the option of repairing the damage to his hands and choose not to, which, tbf , is realistic. most people don’t.

    • Lord Degarius

      Completely agree with Xzenu on this one. I think it is a delicate balance between the overall plot and the character wanting a solution to his/her physical problems.

    • Bellis

      My view on the issue is that the problem is usually (with few examples that can happen in fiction but are not to my knowledge realistic worries irl) NOT with the disabled person and their choices, but with ableism and societal structures or disabling infrastructure. Depending on the story, it could be very rewarding to point this out.

      So the problem isn’t that some chronic illnesses or disabilities can be cured or their impact lessened dramatically, nor that people persue that, the problem is that everyone is pressured and at times forced to conform to abled/ableist standards.
      One example would be that prosthetics that are closer in appearance to an ablebodied body part are more advanced, more easily available and easier to finance (maybe cheaper and/or covered by insurance) whereas prosthetics that may look unusual or obviously different from an ablebodied person are hard or impossible to get.
      With the eye example, it might be easier to get glass eyes that look “normal” (with all the problems that word implies) but don’t give any benefit to the wearer, whereas technology/magic that supports the user’s ability to perceive or navigate the world (even just your world’s equivalent of a walking stick) are frowned upon and met with stigma. These assistive devices might be under-researched and underfunded or even so niche that the character only learns about their existence by coincidence or through others with the same disability. Maybe your world has otherwise advanced tech/magic but due to an ableist society, their assistive technology is comparatively primitive. Or maybe you show the mirror to this world by doing the opposite and having your fictional society prioritise, research, develop and fund assistive devices that have an actual benefit to the user regardless of how different they look or work from an ablebodied person.

      The problem with fictional depictions of “curing disability” is that they can reinforce societal stigma and ableism and can reinforce the already widespread idea that disabled people SHOULD persue a cure, that that’s the morally right choice or even the only correct choice.
      I’m sure it’s possible to depict a character curing a disability without falling into that trap, but it would probably be difficult enough that it would require a) an author with lived experience or a TON of research AND consulting and b) the spotlight in the story. This is my guess anyway. So if someone wanted to write a story ABOUT the nuances of curing a disability without propping up ableist, assimilationist or erasing messages (which are already very widespread and ingrained and thus difficult to avoid) and were willing to put in lots of research and care, it would be great.
      For authors whose stories are about something else and disability is just one issue that happens as part of the plot, I’d be cautious, at least for disabilities or chronic illnesses that currently can’t be commonly cured, mainly because that’s where the erasure issue comes up and the issue of being shut out of wish fulfillment (so depicting someone having a medical procedure that is standard irl today that prevents a disability wouldn’t be a problem.)

      • Bellis

        Or, more concisely, the problem isn’t a character trying to improve their quality of life (by whatever means are most useful), the problem is society pushing everyone to stay, become or appear ablebodied, even when that approach actually detracts from their quality of life.

  4. K.J.

    I’m actually contemplating an ocular injury for a character, if anyone wants to recommend some resources on that, that’d be great.

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