How Should I Approach Disability in a Pirate Story?

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This question may actually be more for Fay Onyx, but let me know what you think.

I’m working on a humorous not-at-all-realistic story where the main characters are pirates. If I have pirates with peg-legs, hooks, and eye-patches, then I support a stereotype about certain disabilities. But if I don’t, then I fail to have disabled characters in the ONE genre where we expect them to be an active part of the story.

So what do you suggest?

Thank you.

-Dave L

Dave L,

Thanks for the question!

You have a third option: do a bit of research and create non-stereotypical disabled characters.

I suggest starting by looking into four main areas:

  • Disability in historical piracy
  • Historical adaptive equipment
  • Common stereotypes about disability
  • The specific disabilities you are thinking about representing

To get you started, here are some common stereotypes to avoid:

  • Making the disabilities or adaptive equipment into jokes
  • Using disability or adaptive equipment to make a character more threatening
  • Making disability the reason why a character does bad things
  • Having your character be bitter about their disability
  • Making the character pathetic or helpless

When it comes time to create characters, the main thing you will need to do is figure out what the character’s disability is and how they deal with it. This includes figuring out which adaptive equipment and accommodations the character uses. When in doubt, I suggest erring on the side of empowering the character.

Because it is easy to make false assumptions about what certain disabilities are like to live with, be sure to do some research that includes the first-hand experiences of people living with that disability. There is an active disabled community on YouTube that can be a great resource for this. You can also check out the Mythcreants podcast episode on research.

Keep in mind that the more central the character’s disability is to the plot, the more research you will need to do to create a respectful representation. If you aren’t up for doing lots of research, then don’t make the character’s disability a plot point. It can just be part of their everyday life. In fact, there are a lot of stories about disabled characters that fixate on their disabilities to the exclusion of everything else. This gets dehumanizing, and it can be a good thing to have some stories with non-stereotypical disabled characters that don’t focus on the characters’ disabilities.

Best wishes,

Fay from Writing Alchemy

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  1. Dinwar

    One note: eyepatches generally weren’t about disabilities. They were about photosensitivity. Wearing a patch over one eye allowed them to maintain night vision when going from the deck to the (much darker) hold–the covered eye never adjusted to the bright deck, so they could see in the hold by simply switching which eye the patch covered.

    As for depth perception, it’s relatively easy for your brain to adjust. I have one eye that didn’t work for a long time, and my brain does this automatically. Not good enough to play sports–I can’t judge the speed of a ball–but good enough to not run into things more often than other people. There’s a lot of visual cues most people aren’t consciously aware of that folks with one eye pick up on and use to determine distances. So someone used to wearing a patch wouldn’t have any trouble navigating. They would, however, be able to see topographic maps as 3D wire-frame structures (that’s how I see them; I literally cannot see them as flat images).

    • Makhno

      This is a modern myth.

      • Dinwar

        The eye patch thing has been demonstrated to be effective several times. That it works is not a myth; whether it was done or not may be in question, but the efficacy inclines me toward it being done. Please note that I do not believe that only information from documented sources should be used here; “documented sources” have well-known flaws, including simply not including a great deal of information. To give one example, there are few if any records of lower-class marriage and family life in the Roman empire, because the lower-classes couldn’t write and the upper classes didn’t care. We know that not everything was documented. Ergo while we can say that if it was documented it very likely did happen, we cannot say that if it wasn’t documented it very likely didn’t happen.

        And there’s no reason for someone on the lower deck to wear an eye patch.Wounds weren’t exactly uncommon in the lower decks, nor did they have the resources or inclination to hide them. Missing limbs, scared faces, and the like were part of life. This was even more true with the rise of syphilis. If the person was concerned the they could be fitted with a false eye–they’d been around since 2,8000 BC, and in the age of piracy several types (metal, glass, and several ways of attaching one) were available. Not sure how expensive they were (my reading suggests there was a range), but a ship’s company after capturing a prize or two should have been able to afford one.

  2. Bryan

    So on a similar topic, I’m working on a Beauty & the Beast style Fairy Tale with similarly light-hearted protagonists. Would the same advice apply there, or would there need to be additional support for the Beast’s return to “Normal”? Or maybe a Shrek-Style Subversion where they both become “Beasts” because they love each other as they are?

  3. Jeppsson

    This reminded me of a workshop with disability scholars I attended a while ago. This scholar sent a pirate action figure around the room, and then asked wath kind of figure it was. Everyone goes “uh, pirate of course”. She then made a point about how dependent on context and cultural tropes we are when we put someone in the “disabled” category. The pirate action figure actually missed a hand and a leg. When people see someone who’s missing a hand and a leg, but has regular clothes and normal protheses, everyone thinks “disabled”. But give them a hook hand, a wooden peg for a leg, pirate clothes and an eye patch, and people don’t think “disabled” any longer, they just think “pirate”.

    So, uh, this wasn’t advice really, I just remembered this anecdote.

    • Cay Reet

      To be fair, if someone wears clothes usually associated with pirates, they’ll also be thought of as ‘Pirate’ without any disability.

      I can see where the scholar came from, though, the pirate with the peg leg and the hook and the eye-patch (or any combination of those) is a stereotype which involves disabilities.

      • Jeppsson

        I didn’t think the point was that missing arms and legs are NECESSARY to be thought of as a pirate. You can be able-bodied and still be placed in the “pirate” category, sure.
        I think the point was rather that “pirate” eclipses “disabled” in these cases, so when a pirate DOES miss an arm and a leg, we tend to think “pirate” only, rather than “disabled pirate”.

        This is interesting in itself, since most people think of a disability as something your body objectively has, and it’s gonna be there regardless of which other categories you belong to. But in actual practice, judging someone disabled or not is sensitive to a lot of different factors.

        • Cay Reet

          Yes, that’s interesting. It shows that disability is also context sensitive.

          Another group where I would guess that the group itself could eclipse physical disabilities would be warriors.

  4. Cip

    The Amazon TV show Black Sails has an excellent representation of disability. When (Spoiler, kind of, if you’ve never read Treasure Island) Long John Silver loses his leg there is a whole arc of his emotional reactions, the physical issues in that day and age and his attempts to find adaptive equipment that works for him. He’s never used as a stereotype, you just see a normal man having to deal with unexpected and really shitty circumstances. Also, the other characters are brilliant representations of pirates that don’t play into the usual tropes (not an eyepatch in sight!).

  5. Bryan

    Funny thing is I just saw a YouTube video with this exact topic. Hannah from SixBlindkids has been blind since but she just got an eyepatch because her right eye began swelling last summer. So now she’s wearing it all day and making silly pirate noises, but don’t worry about it too much, because she likes “sound effects”, and making silly noises is just the sort of thing she does for fun!

  6. Bryan

    So i just found out from a friend that Medival Europeans believed that little people had shorter lifespans that those of average height. This belief was based on misinformation that focused on an extraordinary rare tumor in the brain. If a group of such folklore creatures where real in the (disability-inclusive) storyline, how might they exist in modern times without perpetuating real-life stereotypes about dwarfism?

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