Commentary

Respectfully Depicting a Character Adapting to a Disability

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

Colonel Quaritch speaks with disabled veteran Jake Sully. In Avatar, rather than tempting Jake with great power or vast wealth, Quaritch assumes that what a disabled man wants most in life is the use of his legs.

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

Felicity Smoak from Arrow. On Arrow, Felicity spends several episodes adapting to her disability, then is suddenly given a magical cure.

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.

Show Trade-Offs

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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Comments

  1. Dave L

    M*A*S*H did a couple of these well, IIRC

    At one point there were too many patients and Hawkeye didn’t have time to do a proper surgery on one soldier’s leg, because if he did another soldier would have died. Afterward, when he wondered how he’d explain that to the first soldier Potter said, “Start w/ ‘Son, you’re alive'”

    Another time, Winchester’s patient has minor but permanent nerve damage to his hand. Unfortunately, the patient had been a concert pianist, and the damage was just enough to end his career. The pianist understandably was depressed, but Winchester gets some sheet music, including Ravel’s Concerto For The Left Hand, which Ravel composed for a musician who lost his right arm during World War I, reveals his own inadequacy in playing music, and shows the pianist that music is still there for him:

    “Don’t you see? Your hand may be stilled, but your gift cannot be silenced if you refuse to let it be… The gift does not lie in your hands. I have hands, David. Hands that can make a scalpel sing. More than anything in my life I wanted to play, but I do not have the gift. I can play the notes, but I cannot make the music.

    “You have performed Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Chopin. Even if you never do so again, you’ve already known a joy that I will never know as long as I live. Because the true gift is in your head and in your heart and in your soul.

    “Now you can shut it off forever, or you can find new ways to share your gift with the world–through the baton, the classroom, or the pen. As to these works, they’re for you, because you and the piano will always be as one.”

    The pianist plays Ravel on the Officer’s Club’s old piano, and the music IS still there for him

    Of course, they also had an ep where Hawkeye lost his sight and one where Klinger lost his hearing, and those…

  2. Jarosch

    While I am not disabled, and can not speak for anyone else, I think the Stormlight Archive did a good job with this.

    One of the secondary characters, Rysn, breaks her back and loses her ability to walk in book 2. While the book trips up a little bit in making it partially her fault, having taken several extreme risks to get a good trade deal (it makes sense in context), it is never depicted as a punishment, merely an unforeseen consequence of her actions. It also avoids the ‘magic cure’ trope, despite healing magic existing in this setting- and, furthermore, the justification he gives makes internal sense with other things in the story, and furthermore has implications to be discusses elsewhere.

    Sanderson obviously did his homework with this. Rysn essentially invents her own accommodations- for example, a wheelchair she can push herself, which did not exist yet in this setting. In a detail that is definitely drawn from real life, a large part of her adjusting to her disability is exchanging letters with others in a similar situation- which is very much A Thing in the modern disabled community.

    Sanderson could have stopped there, and it would have been a good depiction, but what happened next pushes it, in my opinion, from good to great.

    He gave this minor side-character her own spinoff novella, of significant importance to the meta-plot, where she goes on a long quest that is- crucially- unrelated to her disability. Her condition is just one obstacle of many, and not even the biggest one, that being that she is just a human in a world of superhumans.

    In the main plot, mental illness is very much a core theme and motif of the series, though it does not come to the fore until the later tomes. Depression, trauma, and the struggles they bring are major elements of the character arcs. The execution is a little more hit and miss, but it is addressing these themes more directly and more earnestly than anything else I have read in the epic fantasy genre. Sure, Game of Thrones and its imitators have the main characters going through traumatic and stressful events, but only SA has really addressed the kind of toll that being the protagonist and doing protagonist things through catastrophe after catastrophe for months and years at a time would take on you. The writing is raw and vulnerable and, if I am being honest, hits a little close to home.

    Sanderson also cites his sources in the forwards, so that is nice.

    • Jarosch

      A bit of a tangent: The justification given for why the ‘magic cure’ is off the table is actual an interesting one, in its own right, in how it ties into other character work, and in the way it ties into another topic.

      See, the magic healing in this world is tied to your self-perception and self-image. In Rysn case, she had been disabled for so long by the time Regrowth was re-discovered that she had mostly adjusted to it, and so her mind- or, at least, the part of her mind that matters as far as the magic is concerned- did not consider it a ‘wound’ anymore, just another element of her body, like hair color. What is metaphorically true as an aspirational goal in disability circles is literally true in this setting, and supernaturally validated.

      What makes this especially good is that this is not a one-off. It ties into the mechanics of the magic itself, and also into the character arcs. One of the characters has brand-marks from when he was a slave, and these have resisted all attempts at healing. At first this seems like a random detail, but contextualized with the above, it is in fact a subtle but profound character detail. His physical scars can not heal until his (significant) mental scars do.

      Yet another cool implication. One of the characters in this setting- a KING no less!- is a trans man. When his powers awakened they, essentially, recognized his entire body as a ‘wound’, and ‘healed’ it by masculinising it. Everyone is super congratulatory and supportive. So wholesome!

      • A Perspiring Writer

        Which character? I’ve read The Stormlight Archives, but I don’t remember anything like that…

        • Jarosch

          The King of the Reshi isle Rysn went to to pick up her Larkin. He has a more significant role in the Dawnshard spinoff. His name is Ral-Na, check Coppermind.net. A minor character, but it is something. And the wording insinuates that this has happened before.

  3. Jeppsson

    Re subversions: I think it’s probably a good idea to stay off from situations where characters ARE presented with a magical cure, and then they reject it just because they love themselves already. I think this can easily come across as unrealistic (at least unless they have a magical wish that can be used for a number of things, but only once, and they chose to use it for something other than a cure – that’s fine, of course).

    Like, being nearsighted isn’t really considered a disability in our society, at least not unless it’s EXTREME. I’m pretty seriously nearsighted, but it doesn’t much affect my life. Still, if I was offered a zero-cost magical cure for bad eyesight, and I could get twenty-twenty vision just like that, I’d take it! I wouldn’t be “oh no, being nearsighted is part of who I am” or the like. My guess is, that’s true of most nearsighted people.

    It’s one thing to be fine with being the way you are, and thus not lament your condition, nor go on some dangerous quest to find a magical cure. It’s quite another to reject a cure when it’s presented to you and doesn’t really cost anything. It’s probably better to just not give the character a magical cure at all – neither to accept nor to reject.

    • SunlessNick

      I would have my eyesight fixed too, but it’s not impossible that I would continue to wear glasses (with flat “lenses”) because they are now part of my default self-image and I’d feel weird going out without them.

      • Cay Reet

        Same … I’d like to have better eyesight without glasses, as I’m pretty shortsighted, but I don’t think I would feel comfortable completely without them, having worn glasses for 38 years.

      • Sharl

        Same here. I’ve literally been wearing glasses since I was a toddler (and I’m in my mid-thirties), they’re so much a part of me that I resent needing to take them off for passport and ID photos.

        • Jeppsson

          Interesting to hear all your glasses comments! i’ve rather been alternating between glasses and contacts since I was a teenager (I’m 44 now), so I don’t have that feeling at all.

          • Cay Reet

            I guess if you’re alternating between glasses and lenses (which are almost ‘not glasses’), the attachment isn’t that strong. There’s just a lot of mannerisms with the glasses, for one thing – pushing them up the nose, adjusting them, taking them off for polishing – and those become part of your general mannerisms. Then there’s the fact that you have a bit of a protection between you and others, because you’re looking at the world through your glasses. It feels, at least to me, like a bit of extra privacy I’m given.

    • Seio

      While it may be better in some cases for there to be no “cure”, I think that equating needing glasses (socially acceptable, basically without stigma) with things that are considered disabilities isn’t necessarily going to give you a good picture of how actual disabled people would react to that situation.

      Now, I’m not saying that nobody would ever take it or that I’m an expert on every disabled person (or many at all really), but for many disabled people, especially those that grew up disabled, there’s often a very, very strong normalization agenda that’s pushed on them.
      One thing I’ve heard a lot is kids being pushed into “cure”-orientated therapies when there isn’t such a thing as a “cure” and being made to feel bad for existing in the way they do, another related one is the outright denial of disability as A Thing That Exists.
      Sometime sit goes the other way and people are denied any and all capability and responsibility.

      Now, both can foster terrible mental health, self loathing, feelings of guilt and inaedequacy and internalized ableism that would make people more likely to accept.

      But they can also lead to a lot of resentment, anger, frustration, rebellious and activist energy, directed at the people, establishments and society that tried to force their ideas of normal on them without caring about the consequences, especially if we’re talking about older teens/adults and even more so when they have some contact to other disabled people, particularly activists.

      For others, particularly those with neurological differences such as Autistic people, “curing” them would amount to the same as killing them since in that case, the disability lies in being inherently different than the majority of the population.
      I like to explain it as Autism being more of a descriptive term to explain a certain, inherent way of being, rather than something that can in any way be separated form other parts of that person.

      That is not to say that, for example, wanting help with extreme sensory issues or such would be unrealistic, but an outright “cure” is a horror scenario to most Autistic people on par with the idea of the not-them or any other identity stealing creepy crawly.

  4. Jeppsson

    Time to get personal: I’ve mentioned before, in the comments section, that I have a psychosis disorder. Although I don’t think of my nearsightedness as a disability, I do think I have a psychiatric disability, since this is something that has profoundly affected my entire life.

    In previous comments discussions, I’ve been pretty vocal about how I think “the social perspective on disabilities” can be overdone. I have insisted that most of my problems, by far, comes from having extremely frightening bizarre experiences, hallucinations and stuff, on and off, not from people’s prejudices. (Btw: Lots of people think you can just medicate away that stuff and then you’ll be fine. The truth is, it’s very common not to get much help from antipsychotic medication, or otherwise only manage to suppress hallucinations and stuff at the cost of terrible side effects. Some people get good help, of course, but it’s COMMON not to.)

    Since then, I have changed my mind (hello Fay Onyx, whom I think I was pretty harsh at in some discussion at some point! I’ve come around to your side now!). I now think my problems HAVE BEEN much more social in nature than I previously realized. To cut a very long story very short, getting tenure at uni, and thus a really stable and secure life situation, financially, socially, and overall in most dimensions that really affect you, made a huge difference to my mental health. So did going to psychodynamic therapy (for my own money, since more short-term therapy forms like CBT is all the rage nowadays and public health aren’t into psychodynamics anymore) where I learnt to let go of a lot of internalized shame over madness. Letting go of that shame meant I could experiment more freely with different coping strategies and mental tricks without worrying about whether something was “too mad” in itself to be a good strategy. That was ultimately necessary for me going from horribly mad to more happy mad (even though it’s still not all sunshine and roses, of course).

    HOWEVER, most people still think of “the social model of disability”, when applied to psychiatric issues, as being a matter mostly of prejudice; like your problems mostly stem from other people being prejudiced against you. And it REMAINS true for me that although other people’s prejudice is a legit problem, it paled in comparison to the sheer terror I used to feel on-off due to my bizarre experiences (occasionally still feels; as I said, not all sunshine and roses now). Even in hindsight, I think getting miffed at some more simplistic neurodiversity-social-model-talk was perfectly understandable on my part.

    The bottom line of this post is that sometimes things are really complicated, and writers without personal experience might do better staying off topics that are TOO complicated altogether.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I’m pretty out of my depth on a lot of this stuff so I can’t offer any particularly insight, I’m just glad you got to a place where you could feel better!

      • Jeppsson

        Thanks, Oren. Also, I’ll have another stab at drawing a generally valid conclusion from this personal story of mine:

        It’s easy to think that “the social model of disability” is the respectful one, and “the medical model” is the disrespectful one. However, telling someone that their problems stem from society and oppression rather than their own brains/bodies can be insulting to them if THEY think the medical model better fits their personal experience.
        Now, I don’t think people’s own interpretation is necessarily correct. For instance (and to draw on my own experiences described above), if you’ve only ever experienced stressful jobs, you might mistake problems largely caused by stress in your environment for inherent, medical problems.
        STILL, it feels insulting to have a third party tell you that you’re wrong about yourself and your own experiences, even if that third party happens to be right on this occasion.

        And for that reason it might sometimes be better not to delve too deeply into certain complicated issues, rather than taking a definite stand on, say, social vs medical models. At least if you can’t say “well, these are my own experiences I’m drawing on and writing about, and I certainly have a right to do that”.

    • Seio

      To be fair, I think that overall the sociobiological model of disability is probably the most spot on, it’s basically saying that disability is an intersection of society and how one’s body works which in my view is probably the best way to view it.

  5. Solartime

    Can you clarify this part a bit more?:
    “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.”

    Like, is this saying that a character’s access to something like adaptive equipment can be used to narratively reward a character? I’m imagining something like a disabled character who speaks up against oppression, or something else I want to make moral commentary on, and so that leads to a character receiving better equipment and accessibility, either directly or “karmically”, to signal something good about this character.

    Sorry if I’m misreading!

    • Fay Onyx

      Thanks for the question. This particular point was hard to articulate, so I will try to clarify.

      One big thing I’m trying to point out here is that there is a difference in rewarding a character by reducing oppression that they face and rewarding them by making their oppressed trait go away. A classic example of this is a character that fights ableism and is rewarded with success that removes access barriers.

      I’m also trying to say that it is still important to not reduced disabled character to their disabilities by fixating on the character’s disability as the only way to reward the character. The character should have other things going on in their life.

      In addition, there is a difference between a character being rewarded with a gift for doing a good deed and a character fighting oppression and achieving their goal. For example, if a character is kind to others and then is rewarded with recovery or an accessibility aid, then the story is reducing them to their disability. This is very different than a character achieving a goal that is about ableism or access.

      I hope this helps.

  6. Emma

    Hi Faye, Just wanted to say when I started reading this article I did not expect something this comprehensive. Fantastic! Thank you.

  7. Jibek Mechler

    Fullmetal does a pretty good job on disabilities, but I honestly can’t think of many other stories

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