Here’s how not to write characters with disabilities in fiction books for kids.
Avoid These Top Two Stereotypes
More often than not, when it comes to writing characters with disabilities, authors tend to gravitate towards two tropes: the bitter character and the inspirational character.
A common narrative for the inspirational stereotype: the characters struggle with being accepted (or accepting themselves), but throughout the story, they start to successfully overcome challenges, and then, by the end of the story, they end up embracing the disability. These inspirational characters are often seen as saints that can do no wrong, which opens the hearts and changes the attitudes and pre-conceived notions of those around them.
A common narrative for the bitter stereotype: The character cannot accept the disability, and in turn, becomes angry and self-loathing.
These two stereotypes can be difficult to avoid. As you build your character, you naturally address the disability as well as the character’s internal feelings. These feelings might gravitate towards anger, especially if the disability is new. In order to avoid this, you might avoid feelings of anger and accidentally jump into the inspirational stereotype instead.
Addressing disability in fiction books for kids isn’t easy. The most effective way to avoid these two stereotypes is to remember that people with disabilities are not solely defined by their disabilities nor do they fit into nice, neat boxes. Some days they’ll be frustrated. Some days they might be inspirational to others. And other days, they’ll be neither. The same goes with characters with mental disabilities. Mental disabilities can be incredibly subtle and complex.
Creating dichotomy can help you avoid writing two-dimensional characters, avoid stereotyping, and in turn, avoid alienating and frustrating your readers who may have disabilities and be unable to connect with your characters.
Don’t Romanticize the Issue
Another common pitfall that authors of fiction books for kids often fall into (particularly in novels) is the romanticizing of the disability. In the majority of books currently on the market, the character with a disability is paralyzed from an accident and permanently in a wheelchair. The story is then turned into a romance, where the character finds hope—and true love. This story, quite honestly, has been done to death.
Apart from not wanting to repeat the same stories over and over again, it’s also a good idea to stay away from this narrative simply because of the fact that there are innumerous disabilities. Paraplegia is not the only disability that you can write about. Get creative.
Note: The same argument can be applied to romanticizing mental illnesses and learning disabilities.
Don’t Write Unrealistic Characters
All too often, authors want to add characters with disabilities into their stories, but fail to do their research beforehand. This can lead to unrealistic portrayals of accessibility, adaptation, comfort, and even sexual practices when the disability is romanticized. Making a paraplegic a master at maneuvering a wheelchair the moment he sits in one is, for example, quite unrealistic. If your details don’t ring true with your target audience, you haven’t done your job effectively. Research is a critical part of writing outside your comfort zone.
And remember, just because you want to include a character with a disability in your story doesn’t mean the entire story has to revolve around the disability!