And They All Lived Happily...Ever...After
Disability in literature. I know, totally off-brand for me, right? I mean, absolutely unexpected.
One might even say I have an obsession with it--which might be fitting in some capacity because I have obsessive compulsive disorder. But in truth, from birth, disability has been my norm. I grew up in an adapted, accessible home. I grew up not really knowing any able-bodied people until I went to mainstream public school. For a long, long time, I didn't know different.
Until I was about five, I didn't really understand that people were able-bodied. When I visited friends' houses as I got to know kids at my school, it confused me when they didn't have things to make their parents' lives easier--or better yet, didn't need them.
To this day, it boggles my mind that people didn't grow up with a parent who had to spend days in bed, a parent who would fall on the pavement without warning, who would look at a set of stairs and not have to consider whether or not they could climb them.
Disability has affected my life from the moment I existed--not in a negative way--just, in a way. It just was. And it is.
To me, it made sense to write about characters that I've known most of my life. To represent those who exist but are rarely seen--because when they are, they're portrayed drowning in angst, tragedy, stereotypes, and magical cures.
It's those reasons exactly which make that genre hard for me to read. Experience has created this deep-seated mistrust that the people creating disability in media have done their research, have listened to the disabled community, have chosen to represent them for reasons other than angst, or tugging at the heart strings, or inspiration porn.
When one of the most popular books and movies shows a quadriplegic man choose to end his life through assisted suicide because a life like that isn't a life worth living--and then to have the author herself admit she never spoke to a quadriplegic person before--it just goes to show it's not the representation that sells--it's the tragic stereotype.
Do people like that exist? Yes. Because the world is too complex and too diverse for them not to.
But that doesn't erase the exhaustion that most people within the Deaf/Disabled community feel when that's all they see. When each and every representation has them succumbing to stereotypes, has them full of self-hatred and loathing, and constantly wishing things could be different. When there's no love and no hope and no self-assurance until someone comes along to love them in spite of everything they are.
The blind man who falls in love with the guy covered in scars who thought no one would love him. The musician who loves a Deaf man who can "never hear his music." The amputee who loses his ability to progress in his life until someone shows him he's worth loving. The paraplegic who thinks he'll never be loved because his body doesn't work like everyone else's, then he's proven wrong. And it's always in spite of what they can't do. I love you in spite of the way you're different from me.
I could go on. It's a sad, tragic habit of people who want disabled characters for the angst of it, not because they're people who deserve a cheesy, goofy, sappy happy ending just like everyone else.
And not in spite of their circumstance. Not even because of it. They deserve it because they are people, and it doesn't get simpler than that.
I know tragedy and angst sells. I do. I write it. Because everyone wants their heart-strings tugged a little. They want to see the bitter man go soft and fall in love with the one person that can make him smile. But that bitterness doesn't need to be because he's not able-bodied.
The Deaf man can love the musician, and he can also not care about the music. He can also experience it in his own way--which is just as good, if not better (in my humble opinion). The blind man can fall in love with a man who has scars--but that man with scars can be wanted by other men too. That paraplegic man can work on taking his own independence steps--and not just because the man who can walk told him he could. Let him believe in himself.
Today I got an email from a reader. A simple thing, but profound all the same. "Thank you for not making that character's disability the butt of a joke."
If that doesn't tell you right there the issues within disability in literature, I don't know what else will.
So give me disabled characters. Give me your confident, sexy, empowered, disabled characters who have tragic childhoods and bad break-ups-- who have been cheated on, who are bitter and sad and lonely. And let them fall in love. Let them fall in love with other disabled people. Let them fall in love with able-bodied people. Let all these things happen. Let them be disabled, and these other things, and don't make one thing contingent on the other.