A friend recently sent me this article from Disability Horizons remarking on how there are few disabled characters in books. My friend meant it as an encouragement to me as she’s currently been busting my rear in gear to finish a YA novel I’ve been working on which features a protagonist with CP. But as I kept reading the article I couldn't help but wonder how much classical literature the author read in school.
From the Greek god Hephaestus (husband of Aphrodite) to Mr. Rodchester in Jane Eyre literature is full of characters with disabilities. The Secret Garden, Moby Dick, Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, all a dripping with various people with all sorts of screws loose and body parts missing. The fact is you can’t get away from disability even well before the disability rights movement started. The frail, dysfunctional and dependent individual has been a favourite go to metaphor for writers for most of history.
I was in a class at RADA once when the teacher made the argument that disability was considered much more a part of life during previous points in history. OK so it was harder for those of us with physical limitations to get around back then, and we didn’t have nearly the support we need, but farm accidents and the wear and tear of old age happened throughout all of human history, and humans have always had to deal with it.
A better question would be to ask why do we not recognise such famous literary characters as have disabilities when they clearly do? If a writer’s job is to express the varying manifestations of the human experience, then it is our job as readers to understand that. If we honestly think that there aren’t a wide array of characters with disabilities in literature, either we haven’t read very much, or we have a problem with our perception of disability.
I tend to think it’s the later reason which is more of a culprit than the former. Our society teaches us to see disability as “the other,” a way of being where nothing is like what most people know. Stories, however, work to make us aware than there is no other, there’s ‘just one kind of folks,’ as Scout Finch would say. Disability is just another facet of the human condition, one that you cannot get away from. It makes a great metaphor, but the fact is, our bodies breaking down is a reality we have to deal with in our own lives, not just within the confines of an over romanticised novel. The fact that the disability of any character may someday be our fate is a scary prospect.
There will aways be characters with disabilities in books. It is a rich field of symbolism that is too good for most authors to pass up. Wether or not we understand that these characters are actually disabled tells us more about our own blindness than anything else. Like so many other things in literature, it’s all in how you read it.