In recent years, there’s a huge rise in bringing minorities to the fore in all sorts of popular culture. POC, LGBT+ and mentally ill characters have been exploded onto the scene, especially on the book scene. Books like Love, Simon and Six of Crows have gotten critical acclaim, finally letting teenagers see characters like themselves in the media.
But there’s one minority the book, TV and film industry are almost completely ignoring. The disabled community.
I can think of four books which feature disabled characters – The Christmasaurus by Tom Fletcher, which features a young wheelchair user as its main character, The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time by Mark Haddon, who’s main character is autistic, Cinder by Marissa Meyer, where the titular character has a prosthetic arm and leg, and Failure To Communicate by Kaia Sonderby, who’s main character has Asperger’s syndrome. And that’s it. In the thousands of books published every month, there’s painfully few published which mention any sort of disability. Even fewer who get it accurate to the actual experience of being disabled. And that has to change.
I’m a firm believer in the fact that everyone on the planet should be able to see themselves in popular media, in books, TV, film, comics, theatre, games, everything like that. And while it’s been fantastic to see the rise in LGBT+ and POC characters in recent years (though there is still a lack of bisexual, pansexual and asexual characters), we are still lagging behind in the disabled characters front.
You’re probably asking yourself why I care so much about this, why I’m so passionate about disability in the media. It’s because I have Asperger’s syndrome, along with dyslexia and dyspraxia. I also probably have a mild case of Ehlors-Danlos syndrome. And I can count on one hand how many characters I have read and watched who are like me, who have a disability like mine.
I was only diagnosed with these conditions at 19, but I had always related to the social awkward characters, the ones who didn’t fit in, who didn’t ‘get’ people. But so many weren’t said to be on the autistic spectrum, were treated terribly (I’m looking at you, Big Bang Theory), or were just simply thrown aside when they stopped being entertaining. The first character I ever found who was like me was Gary Bell, from a TV show called Alphas. Gary was diagnosed as autistic, and I fell for him incredibly hard. Because he was sweet, and funny, and most importantly, he was like me.
He didn’t understand verbal cues, he got upset when his routine was interrupted, or things weren’t exactly how he expected them to be, he had special interests which he could talk for hours about, to anyone who would listen. And that was me, that was completely and utterly me, on so many levels. I was so taken with him, he became one of my special interests for a while. To see him on TV every week was an experience I can’t quite describe.
It was like finally finding someone who understood you, who got what it was like to be inside your head. I loved it, I adored it, and I was heartbroken when the show got cancelled, leaving me with no-one to relate to, again. Sure, I could have looked to Bones’ Temperance Brennan, but was she really on the spectrum? She had never been diagnosed. She didn’t have a routine, didn’t freak out when things happened unexpectedly. BBC Sherlock I could argue, thanks to The Hounds Of The Baskerville episode, specifically the scene where Lestrade and John say that they suspect that Sherlock has Asperger’s, that seeing the same faces in unfamiliar places was a good thing for him.
But that were my two options, until I read Curious Incident, who coincidently loves the original Arthur Conan Doyle books. Personally, I loved Curious Incident, thought it was brilliant and entirely accurate, but to a lot of others on the spectrum, it’s portrayal of autism is entirely inaccurate. So, they’re still without a related character for themselves.
Failure To Communicate is quite frankly the best portrayal I’ve ever found, and the only book about autism which gives its autistic main character a storyline which isn’t revolving entirely around their condition. But it’s so little known, other autistic people haven’t heard of it. It’s been self-published, and so has had very little advertising and is only found on Amazon, so it’s flying under everyone’s radar.
And as for other disabilities, it’s just as bad, if I’m honest.
I thought that with the rise of the Paralympics after London 2012, there would be a change, bring us more characters with prosthetics, characters who use wheelchairs, characters with invisible illnesses, but I was sadly wrong. I had hoped, but it seems that the industry is still ignoring us all.
When will disabled people get to see themselves in the books the read? When will disabled people get to have multiple characters like them to choose from? When will they get to say, to quote The Greatest Showman, ‘This Is Me’?
When authors, agents, and publishers decide to put an effort into creating stories about disabled people, that’s when.
Now, I’m sure there are hundreds of authors out there with stories in their heads, are hastily writing them down now, plotting and planning them, crafting it into the perfect story. But, how many have asked themselves, ‘Is this character cast entirely able-bodied? And does it have to be that way? Why is my default able-bodied, when so many people aren’t?’
How many have asked that question, or have written a disabled character, put in hours of research, making everything as accurate as they possibly can, only for an agent, a publisher turn the book down, or make them change their disabled character into an able-bodied character instead? How many have been told that disabled characters don’t sell, that nobody wants to read a book about a disabled person?
We’ll never know, but I think that that is where we come in, as a reading community. We need to ask for disabled characters, we need to buy everything which includes a disabled character, we need to do the exact same things we did to get more POC and LGBT+ characters to the forefront of pop culture.
Even if you don’t think it’s important, think of the little girl with a prosthetic leg, wishing that there was a heroine with a blade, the teenage boy wishing that there was a hero who saves the day from his wheelchair. Think of all the boys and girls across the world who have been diagnosed with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, the deaf and/or blind teenagers, looking to read about someone like them.
To read about them going on adventures, saving the world, creating friends, and generally being human. It means the world, trust me when I say it makes all the difference in a young person’s life, to find someone like them in their chosen form of media. They feel less alone, less like an outcast, less like they aren’t actually a part of the human race.
You wouldn’t want to never see yourself represented in books, so let’s give these people the chance to see themselves, too. Let’s continue the book community’s representation drive and give these people the representation they deserve.
I think you will find this is an excellent article and brings up some valid points. My daughter has Asperger’s Syndrome , admittedly she does not ‘read’ much but she loves listening to audiobooks and I think she would be happy to listen to charecters that ‘were like her’ so she can relate and know that she is not alone with her fears, anxieties and worries and that she perfectly has the right to be represented.
Thank you again to Bekka great work!
This is a cross posted blog post with her and you can see the post on her blog here
AS ALWAYS STAY BOOKTASTIC!