Storytellers often portray characters navigating new disabilities. Usually this is played for drama, casting a new disability as a terrible catastrophe. While it is true that becoming disabled can be hard, these depictions are exaggerated, inaccurate, and stigmatizing. To do better, we need to examine what’s wrong with these portrayals and explore techniques for creating accurate and respectful representations.
Harmful Mistakes When Depicting Characters Adapting
The process of adapting to a new disability can include physical healing, coming to terms with change, adjusting to medications, learning new tools, and practicing exercises that enhance physical or mental capabilities. In harmful depictions, attempts to portray this process become negative and stereotypical. To understand how this happens, let’s look at the most common negative depictions.
Making It a Tragedy
These depictions exaggerate the pain of becoming disabled, making it a tragedy that is out of proportion with other story events. This is a particularly glaring problem in stories where terrible things regularly happen. A character dying should always be more significant than a character becoming disabled. Treating disability as more tragic than character death sends the horrible message that being disabled is worse than being dead. For any characters who deal with death and destruction on a daily basis, disability should be comparatively mild.
Agonizing Over It
In many stories, characters agonize over new disabilities. In doing so, they have intensely negative thoughts and feelings about becoming disabled—thoughts and feelings that are usually full of ableist messages. While real people can have intensely negative responses to becoming disabled, this isn’t the only response that people have. For example, people can also be practical and matter-of-fact. Unfortunately, intensely negative responses are depicted so often that they seem like the only way that people respond. In addition, the ableist messages that get wrapped up in these negative responses also cause problems.
Fixating on “Never Again”
This pattern emphasizes the things that the character is unable to do now that they are disabled. It is true that becoming disabled can significantly change a person’s life, and there may be important things that they can’t do anymore. It is normal for there to be grief about this. However, in stories many of these “never again” moments are based on false and limiting assumptions about what disabled people can do. This creates a toxic and exaggerated view of disability. For example, the assumption that a paraplegic person will “never dance again” is blatantly untrue. Dancing may be different now, but paraplegic people can and do dance.
Blaming Accessibility Barriers on Disability
When a person becomes disabled there are a number of changes and losses in their life. Stories usually blame these changes on the disability, but many of them are due to ableism and unaddressed accessibility barriers. For example, if a professional athlete loses their career because they lost an arm in a motorcycle accident, it is ableism that prevents them from continuing to have an athletic career. The Paralympics is full of talented and hard-working disabled athletes, but because parasports are underfunded, it is much harder for disabled athletes to get the funding needed to sustain a professional career.
Exclusively Focusing on Disability
Many portrayals of a newly disabled character’s life revolve around their disability. Any previous interests and goals they had are set aside as they struggle to adjust. However, doing this is unrealistic, reductive, and sends the message that disabled people can’t have full lives. This is especially bad if the character stops participating in a high stakes plot, because it implies that disability makes the character incapable of contributing. While healing, learning tools, and doing exercises are work, there is no reason for the character’s other interests and goals to be abandoned—at the very least they can still think about them.
Treating Disability as a Punishment
In some stories, a character’s disability is portrayed as a punishment for a flaw, mistake, or wrong that they committed. Most often there is a metaphorical nature to this punishment. For example, a character that was metaphorically blind throughout a story could end up becoming physically blind as a “poetic” punishment. First of all, using disability as a metaphor for something negative is dehumanizing. In addition, using disability as a punishment sends a terrible message about what it means to be disabled.
Accidentally Depicting Inadequate Treatment
In some stories, patients receive ineffective or insufficient medical treatment. This can work for situations where patients would realistically receive inadequate care, as long as this intention is made clear to the audience. However, in most stories this happens because the storyteller doesn’t know what treatments are available or how to realistically show those treatments working. As a result, the audience is told that the character is being treated, but the treatment and its effects aren’t shown. This is particularly common for mental health care, and it sends the message that people with serious problems don’t have effective treatment options.
Playing Up Harmful “Treatment”
Storytellers in the horror genre like to create exaggerated nightmare scenarios of coercive institutionalization in psychiatric hospitals. Because these stereotypical depictions are designed to be scary, they play on fear and stigma. This is a problem for two reasons. The first is that they increase fear of mental health treatment. The second is that they obscure the dynamics involved in real situations where people are given harmful “treatment,” such as this 2018 incident where a Black man was forced into a psychiatric hospital after calling out racism at work.
How to Respectfully Depict Characters Adapting
Now that we know how these depictions can become harmful, let’s delve into techniques for accurately and respectfully portraying a character adapting to a new disability.
Focus on Struggles Instead of Negative Thoughts
Be cautious about depicting negative thoughts about the character’s disability, as they quickly become ableist. Even when these ableist messages are later refuted, it is still harmful to spend a lot of time repeating them. If you want to show a character struggling, it is more effective to focus on the things they are struggling to do. These everyday struggles are a great opportunity to bring up emotion while avoiding ableist thoughts and melodrama. Also, be careful to keep the character’s struggles with disability balanced with the intensity of the other struggles in the story, so that they don’t become exaggerated.
Direct Anger at Ableism
Access barriers are real, and it makes sense for characters to be upset when they encounter them. For example, a lack of wheelchair-accessible housing causes serious problems for many disabled people. When a character encounters one of these barriers, make it clear that it is the barrier, not the disability, that is the problem. One way to do this is to focus on how unnecessary the barrier is. For example, you might describe a one-story house with a single step up to the front door—a step that could easily have been a ramp.
Address Access Needs
Anytime a disabled character is unable to accomplish an everyday task or participate in something important, they have an unmet access need. When new access needs come up, they should be addressed promptly. This could mean showing the trial, error, and problem-solving that goes into meeting the access need, or jumping to the resulting tools and accommodations. For stories with multiple disabled characters, access needs can conflict. When this happens, a careful exploration of the options usually provides a range of solutions.
Understand Medical Treatment
When researching medical treatment, pay attention to the way it affects the character’s daily life, as this is often overlooked. For example, be aware of the preparation and after-care needed for tests and treatments. Also, watch out for any time that the character is struggling with something on their own. This is a sign that more research is needed to find out what options are available. Even if there isn’t much that can be done medically, the character should still have strategies for managing their symptoms. In addition, some treatments are all about developing coping strategies. For example, a character with anxiety might use a counting technique to help them handle stressful situations. Finally, research when medications are taken, how fast they work, their benefits, and their side effects. Some side effects only happen when a person is going on or off a medication, while others are constant. Keep in mind that, especially for psychiatric medications, the exact combination of benefits and side effects that each person experiences is unique.
Demonstrate That Treatment Helps
It is important to show treatment, adaptive devices, and accommodations helping the character adapt to their new life. When doing this, don’t go too far and minimize the character’s disability. The key is finding the balance between having the character’s disability impact their life and depicting the way treatment, tools, and accommodations help. One way to do this is to show important improvements in the character’s quality of life caused by treatment, while also showing its costs and side effects.
Depict Harmful and Inadequate “Treatment” Accurately
For any story that is intentionally exploring harmful or negligent “treatment,” it is crucial to make clear the role that oppression plays in these situations. For example, the racist stereotype that Black people are less sensitive to pain, combined with a lack of shared decision-making, leads to major disparities in the pain treatment of Black patients. People with multiple marginalized identities often end up in the worst situations, experiencing things like wrongful commitment and forced sterilization. The true horror of these situations is not that they are coming out of nowhere, but that they are coming out of oppression that is deeply embedded in the structure of our society.
Show a Full Life
Avoid reducing the character to their disability by making sure that their relationships, interests, and goals continue to be important as they adapt. One way to do this is to have the character use these relationships, interests, and goals to help themselves cope. In addition, find a way for the character to stay involved in the main plot. For example, they can take on a support role, such as researcher or translator. This is especially useful because it creates the opportunity to highlight the character’s struggles while they accomplish something meaningful.
Fit the Setting
When portraying disability in settings with advanced healing, make sure the depiction of disability fits the setting without erasing the character’s disability. This means that the character benefits from advanced healing in some ways, but that healing isn’t perfect. The key to finding this balance is being clear what the advanced healing can and can’t do. For example, advanced healing might be able to speed up physical healing, but not the process of adapting to a prosthetic limb.
Have Experienced Disabled Characters
Experienced disabled characters can fill a number of story roles, but they are particularly useful as mentors. In this role they can help newly disabled characters identify internalized ableism, teach them how to navigate access barriers, and provide an example of a disabled person with a fulfilling life. When depicting experienced disabled characters, it is crucial to avoid making them inspirational. They can be awesome, but it should be their unique traits and accomplishments that make them awesome, not the fact that they are living an ordinary life as a disabled person.
Harmful Mistakes When Depicting Outcomes
The story outcome is the main result that comes out of the character’s adaptation process. At this point, the character’s treatment has shifted from focusing on intervention to support and maintenance. A disabled character’s outcome sends a strong message. Let’s look at some of the ways that these messages can become harmful.
Using Magical Cures
Many stories end with a perfect piece of adaptive equipment or an instant cure that removes the character’s disability, but these magical cures don’t reflect real-world experiences. Real adaptive equipment isn’t perfect, and many disabilities are ongoing, even when they improve. In addition, recovery from temporary disabilities is gradual, not something that is suddenly bestowed. However the biggest problem with magical cures is that they end story arcs by turning a disabled character into a non-disabled character. This means the audience never gets to experience a victorious disabled character with a positive future in front of them.
Overcoming With Perseverance
In this pattern a character “beats the odds” with hard work and perseverance. It starts with the character showing they are deserving by working exceptionally hard at their recovery process. The character is then rewarded with improvement, frequently more than was thought possible. This follows the classic storytelling pattern where a character earns a victory through hard work. Unfortunately, applying this orderly pattern to something as unpredictable as the healing and recovery process implies that disabled people have more control over our disabilities than we actually do. Just because one person recovered more than another doesn’t mean that they are worthier or worked harder. Nor does it mean that someone could become less disabled if they just tried harder or made “better” life choices. Also, remember that healing requires a balance between work and rest—there aren’t any shortcuts. For example, overdoing physical therapy exercises can slow recovery and cause injury.
Questing for a Cure
While it isn’t wrong to want a cure, the story pattern of setting aside other goals to pursue a cure creates problems. First, it treats “fixing” the character’s disability as a necessary first step for pursuing other goals, implying that the character can’t accomplish meaningful things while disabled. Second, treating disability as a problem that requires a dangerous quest for a cure implies that disability is worse than death. Third, quests for a cure don’t reflect the lived experiences of most disabled people. Real-world medical quests are usually for access to treatment, necessary tests, effective medication, respectful providers, and accurate diagnoses, not mythical perfect cures.
Depicting a Limited Life
Many stories contain assumptions about what disabled people can and can’t do. These assumptions are encouraged by the myth that non-disabled people can experience what it is like to be disabled simply by simulating life with a disability. When non-disabled people put on blindfolds in order to learn “what it is like to be blind,” their experience is inaccurate and negative because they lack the skills and tools that real blind people have. This limited perspective of disability leads to disabled characters unnecessarily giving up important parts of their lives because it is falsely assumed that they can’t do them anymore.
Transitioning to Other Harmful Representations
In this pattern, the adaptation process ends with the character transitioning into a different stereotypical depiction of disability. Common stereotypes include bitterness, villainous disability, overemphasis of mental powers, comedic disability, helplessness, and inspirational disability.
How to Respectfully Depict Outcomes
Now that we’ve talked about the ways that depictions of outcomes can become harmful, here are some ways to create realistic and respectful story outcomes.
Focus Moral Messages on Oppression
Anytime a character is punished or rewarded, it sends a moral message about their behavior. Disability isn’t a punishment, and recovery isn’t a reward. In fact, it isn’t appropriate to connect rewards, punishments, or other moral messages to any marginalized identity. However, while identities aren’t good or bad, oppression is wrong and moral messages can point that out. In addition, as long as a character isn’t being reduced to their disability, rewards can include addressing ableism and access barriers. Similarly, rewards can include replacing, repairing, or improving adaptive equipment.
Present Adaptation as a Process
Treat adapting to a disability as a process the character moves through, rather than a goal they pursue. This means that the focus is on the character’s experiences as they struggle with the unpredictable ups and downs of the recovery process, rather than on their achieving specific recovery milestones. In addition, just because a story outcome has been reached, that doesn’t mean that their disability stops being an important part of their life. Living with a disability is an ongoing process.
Make Disabilities Progress Realistically
Do the research needed to make sure that the character’s disability changes realistically as they recover and adapt. For example, getting a prosthesis isn’t the same as being cured and shouldn’t be treated that way. Following an amputation, it is common for folks to spend six months to a year working with their rehabilitation team, and afterward, ongoing care is needed. This matters because unrealistic changes don’t represent the experiences of real disabled people. Two questions to keep in mind are: Is treatment about improving the character’s medical condition or adjusting to their new disability? Is the character’s disability something that gets better over time, gets worse, stays stable, or changes unpredictably?
Use Temporary Disabilities for Full Recoveries
Unlike long-term disabilities, temporary disabilities like concussions and broken bones usually allow a full recovery. Anytime a full recovery is desired, use temporary disabilities to avoid stigmatizing patterns such as overcoming with perseverance and magical cures. The key is being clear from the beginning when a disability is temporary. Keep in mind that recovering from a temporary disability can still be a long, challenging process, but it is different from adapting to a long-term disability.
Remember that managing an ongoing disability is all about trade-offs. For example, medication has side effects, physical therapy exercises take time, and medical equipment needs to be maintained. Characters with few ongoing symptoms will have costs to maintain that state—costs that non-disabled characters don’t have to pay. Showing trade-offs makes the story less about an idealized “cured” state and more about each character’s choices, such as the choice to purchase a manual or power wheelchair. In addition, choosing setting-appropriate trade-offs is important for disabilities to fit into settings with advanced healing.
Return to Everyday Life
Typically, returning to everyday life is a gradual part of the recovery and adaptation process. As this happens, there should be some lasting changes that result from the character’s new disability. For example, there can be tools that are now part of their life, ongoing medical care, medications, daily exercises, accommodations, symptoms, and new ways of approaching challenges. These changes should be present in the character’s daily life and affect how they participate in major plot events, without stopping them from participating.
Subvert With Care
Many storytellers tackle ableist story patterns, like a quest for a cure, by subverting them. Typically, this means starting out by following the ableist pattern and then having a twist that takes things in a better direction. Unfortunately, this is difficult to pull off. Temporarily following an ableist pattern without harming disabled audience members requires a deep understanding of ableism and careful trust-building with the audience. In contrast, completely avoiding the ableist pattern is simpler, and stories that ditch ableist patterns are needed and valued. When considering a subversion, please also consider this underutilized alternative.
Underneath the stereotypical melodrama, the reality of navigating a new disability is complicated and nuanced. By avoiding negative patterns and putting in the work needed to do better, we can show this complexity in realistic and respectful portrayals of disability. It is challenging to adapt to a new disability, but when assumptions are put aside and access needs are met, disabled characters can accomplish meaningful things and thrive in their new lives.
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