‘Dana felt a shiver run up and down her body as the accountant, the man she had adored from afar was sitting in the pub. He gazed up at her and smiled.
She walked up to him and after he tapped two times on the empty stool next to him, she sat down.
‘You look great,’ he whispered, He turned his upper body towards her.
She leant, first holding onto his wheelchair, then…..’
Anything seem strange about the passage above? It shouldn’t do. After all, why shouldn’t we, as fiction writers, describe how this couple met? Why shouldn’t our character ‘Dan’ a successful accountant, use a wheelchair and fall in love with, ‘Dana’? After all, in the real world, just as we live interesting and sometimes extraordinary lives, so do people with disabilities.
Why then do fiction writers often omit to have characters with disabilities? Why are they missing from the world the novelist, so carefully, creates?
As an avid reader (and writer) with spinal cord injuries, I love to read about characters who take me on a journey and out of my normal day-to-day experiences. Sometimes, it is also important to be able to identify with characters and perhaps even imagine them living in the real world.
According to The Disabled Living Foundation there are 6.9 million disabled adults of working age. This means 19% of working age adults have a disability. This number rises to 10 million if you include people over the state pension age. With children under the age of 16, 1 in 20 has a disability, 770,00 in total.
This means disability is not rare and as life expectancy increases there will be more and more people living with a disability or serious illness.
Surely no writer would want to alienate 10 million potential readers with the stroke of a pen?
It is likely that one reason which could explain the lack of disabled characters in books is before the 1960’s disability wasn’t something viewed in a positive way. Even after the 60’s attitudes have been slow to change.
Some of you may remember ‘The Spastics Society’ which as a fundraising tactic, had models of callipered children which were used for collecting money. This is how disability was viwed – something in need of charity and something to be pitied. Even the term ‘spastic’, which is now considered to be derogatory was in use on ‘Blue Peter’ in 1981. This was the same year the United Nations declared as International Year of Disabled Persons. It wasn’t until 1994 that ‘The Spastics Society’ change its name to ‘Scope’.
This example helps to illustrate the changing attitudes towards disability that have taken place in society as a whole. Despite major improvements, there are still today examples where people with disabilities are treated as second-rate citizens, the subject of cruel and degrading treatment. The Winterbourne View/Castlebeck care homes scandal, which was featured on BBC1’s Panorama programme in 2011, is just one example.
So attitudes have been slow to change, but the good news is they are changing and mostly improving. There is no real reason why a character with a disability wouldn’t be glamorous or interesting for use in fiction. After all, these days a person with disabilities may be independent, self sufficient and will definitely have lives which are rich in experience.
Have fiction writers been blinkered to what is changing in front of their eyes? We learn in writing classes not to use stereotypes or cliches, but does the omission of characters with a disability form a stereotype in itself? Books for young people and children have adapted so why are other areas of fiction lagging behind?
In The Guardian newspaper on 15th June 2011. Katherine Quarmby, a journalist, film maker and disability rights campaigner, produced a top ten list of books which featured disability, some of them in a positive light and some of them not. In this article, Katherine writes:
‘It’s also interesting to note that there are fewer disabled characters in the canon nowadays, except in children’s literature, where there has been a deliberate attempt to promote positive images of disabled children and adults…’
Katherine Quarmby wrote a book called ‘Scapegoat: Why we are Failing Disabled People’ it’s published by Portobello Press.
When you are next drawing up your character profiles for your next award-winning book and you decide that ‘Dan’needs to be desirable, would you dare to be different and add disabled? If you do, then just imagine the 10 million potential readers all urging you on!
Thanks to Marianne Wheelaghan who let me be a guest blogger on her Blog of a Scottish Author http://www.mariannewheelaghan.co.uk This post first appeared on her blog on March 18th 2013.