In 2017, I wrote a blog post about disability representation and the “magical cure” trope in books, and I had planned to do another post with more complaints.
But some of my opinions have changed, and as a disabled person myself, my feelings about this topic are complex and sometimes contradictory. And I wanted to talk about not just issues with disability rep, but also issues with gatekeeping who is allowed to write it and what they’re allowed to write. So I’ve decided to do a post with some updated thoughts.
Please remember, this post is about my thoughts. I have seen some of these things talked about or discussed them with others, but I do not speak for the entire disabled community. Also, my experiences are more with physical disability, so that is largely what I’m referring to here, but many of my points also stand true for mental illness.
I’m sorry it’s so long. I’ve separated it into sections, included TLDR summaries, and bolded my main points, to help anyone who can’t read the whole thing.
I feel like this is going to be a controversial post, but it feels important to talk about, so here goes nothing!
What is “Bad” Disability Rep?
Let’s start off by discussing problematic things I come across often (please note some things on this list are not always problematic, which I will discuss later in the post):
1) Inaccurate portrayals. Portraying disabilities as stereotypes, as just a basic list of symptoms, or flat out incorrectly.
2) Disability as plot device. Giving a character a disability just to make something happen in the plot, and usually it’s cured once it’s no longer needed, or it’s just not portrayed well because that clearly wasn’t the priority.
3) Inspiration porn. Writing about disability for the sole reason of being inspiring to abled people. “Look how this disabled character can do things! You can do anything you set your mind to!”
4) Sad porn. Writing about disability just to make readers feel sorry for a character or to kill them off and make readers cry.
5) Disability as a burden to abled people.
6) Villains being disabled/disfigured just to make them seem more villainous.
7) Casually using ableist slurs or terms.
8) Magical, supernatural, or high-tech (but not realistic) cures.
9) Magically compensating for disability. Not a cure, but the character has powers or tech or magic that basically makes it so the disability no longer has any effect. For example, a blind character who has an ability to “see” with their mind.
10) Disappearing disabilities. A character supposedly has XYZ disability, but then it never affects anything or comes up again, or it comes and goes.
I’m sure there are more, but these are ones I’ve seen and was able to think of.
Why Bad Rep is a Problem
TLDR: Bad rep is mostly a problem because of how it can negatively and incorrectly influence readers’, and thus the general public’s and society’s, perception of disability and disabled people, which then causes harm to disabled people.
I worry that cures, compensating powers, inspiration porn, etc. give people the wrong idea. We like to think everyone who reads books, especially adults, can understand what is real and what is fiction, but we are influenced by what we read, and sometimes we really don’t know better. Or we see something so much that we start to think it must be true. Or we internalize something without even realizing.
Many of these tropes don’t portray the actual struggles someone with that disability deals with (whether those struggles are with their own body or with ableism from others), so I worry people will then think disabled people are just faking / lazy / not trying hard enough, or don’t need accommodations, etc. Sometimes you can’t do something, no matter how much you want to or set your mind to it. You can’t think yourself out of a disability.
There is also the issue that some of these tropes make it seem as though disabled people can’t have a happy ending or adventures or love/romance, and that’s simply not true. Plenty of disabled people find love and happiness. And more importantly, we deserve all those things, just as we are, and therefore deserve portrayals that show that. Not only that, some people don’t want to cure their disability, and for them, a cure wouldn’t even be a happy ending.
I feel like some of these tropes also give the idea that, if you become sick or disabled, you either get better or you die. That’s also not true, and that belief is why so many people don’t understand and get fed up after a while with people who have chronic illness and mental illness.
The sad porn, burdensome, and villain tropes dehumanize disabled people, other us, turn us into objects or the enemy. They add to the idea that we’re just burdens on people and society in general and therefore less deserving of life, respect, autonomy, and happiness.
And slurs, well, that one is obvious, right? Sometimes it’s a purposeful choice for a character to use them, but sometimes it feels more like real life ableism (even if accidental), like when they’re used casually in a book’s description.
Why It’s Not Always Bad
TLDR: Certain tropes/rep are bad. Others can be bad, but it depends on context and portrayal. But there should be room for all types of disabled experiences, feelings, and fantasies in fiction. Bad rep will always end up out there, and I think gatekeeping will just lead to more disabled writers being silenced or harmed.
I am going to go ahead and say some of the tropes mentioned above are always bad. A missing limb shouldn’t just disappear and reappear when convenient. Disabilities should be researched so as to not be wildly inaccurate. And if you’re going to write a book just to portray a disabled character as a burden, I recommend you take some time to really consider your beliefs and prejudices and learn about the experiences of disabled people.
But high-tech/magic cures and compensation? Not necessarily bad. Because disabled writers and readers exist. Sometimes disabled writers want to write stories with magical cures or compensation. Sometimes disabled readers want to read those stories. Sometimes people want to explore the creative possibilities that may come with a sci-fi or fantasy world. And who am I—who is anyone—to say they shouldn’t be allowed? Or that it’s automatically bad representation? It’s a trope I personally dislike (at this point in time), but I do think there are ways to do it well. I also did say in my previous post that I don’t feel it’s my place to tell anyone, disabled or not, that they can never use magical cures or technology, since sometimes it might be necessary for the story they want to tell.
Disabilities that are only mentioned once or twice—in some cases, this is potentially ok because some disabilities won’t really come up in most situations.
Whether a disabled villain is problematic depends on context and portrayal. If the villain is a fully fleshed out character and disability is just one part of them, and/or if there are other non-villain disabled characters in the story, it might be fine.
Disability as plot device also depends. If it furthers some plot element but is researched and well-written and becomes part of the character and their story, that’s just storytelling and could be great rep.
More importantly, there is no one universal experience when it comes to disability, and I think all experiences should be allowed to be portrayed. Happy ones. Sad ones. Angry ones. Stories that are about the disability. Stories in which the character just happens to be disabled but it’s not about that. Characters who have great support systems. Characters who don’t. Characters whose health improves. Characters whose health worsens. Characters with both physical and mental illness. Characters with just one or the other. Characters who are still able to do all the physical stuff they used to. Characters who can’t even get out of bed. Characters who love their disability. Characters who would give anything to be rid of it. Characters with great coping mechanisms. Characters who are struggling to cope. In some cases, whether something is inspiration porn (or sad porn) or not comes down to nuance and personal experiences. Sometimes things that one person finds problematic and unrealistic might be entirely realistic to another person’s experience.
To get personal for a moment, I hate the idea that all disability rep is supposed to be about characters who are happy and love their life and love being disabled and treat their disability the “right” way because they have great doctors and support systems. Because that is not my experience. And I don’t deserve to have my actual experience be considered bad rep. But that’s exactly what happens when there are too many rules about how disabled characters are allowed to be portrayed. I already sometimes come across reviews like this, especially for books with mental illness when characters don’t do all the things they’re “supposed” to do, don’t have a therapist, don’t take meds, don’t have good coping mechanisms, etc. But that is some people’s real experience, and pretending it’s not ignores all the obstacles many people face even when they do want help. Fiction books don’t all need to be how-to guides for treating disability.
Another thing, even if you feel only disabled people should write about disabled characters, we cannot know if anyone is disabled or not unless they want to explicitly share that information, and writers shouldn’t be forced to share any personal info that they don’t want to. In some cases, doing so could actually bring them harm. So I’m not going to gatekeep. And to be honest, I’ve never had a problem with someone who isn’t disabled writing about disabled characters, as long as they’re willing to do the research.
Yes, sometimes disability rep is going to do more harm than good, and that will always bother me. But at this point, I’d rather let some books with bad rep be published than tell disabled readers and writers what they’re allowed to read and write. Gatekeeping will never stop the bad portrayals, but it will lead to silencing marginalized voices that deserve to be heard.
Readers are still allowed to have whatever personal feelings they have toward different types of rep, tropes, etc. I dislike certain things. I just think, “I personally dislike this,” or, “This is not my experience,” doesn’t necessarily mean, “This is problematic and should never be written.”
What You Can Do
TLDR: If you’re a writer, consider your reasons and do research. If you’re a reviewer, talk about the rep. No matter who or what you are, listen to and learn from disabled people.
If you’re an author, especially a non-disabled one, I do implore you to truly consider your reasons for including disability in your story and the impact of however you’re choosing to portray it. If you’re just doing it because you need a way to make XYZ happen and giving a character a disability is the easiest way to do that, and then you’re going to magically cure it later because that’s the easiest way to keep the story going… Or because you want to make a character seem edgy… Or because you want to make a character seem inspiring… Or because you want people to feel sorry for a character… Or because you want your villain to seem more villainous… Keep thinking about possible other ways to accomplish those things. I’m not saying you can’t ultimately decide to include the disability, I’m just saying to think about it and know that doing so will require more research if you want to do it well, which leads to the next advice… If you’re going to include a disability you’re not personally familiar with, do research into people’s experiences, not just lists of common symptoms. Even if you think you know because it’s a fairly well-known disability, you should still research. If you’re not disabled at all, do research into the disabled experience in general too. (Following some disabled people on Twitter could be a good start! You could also check out the #NEISVoid tag. There are tags for specific disabilities as well.) And if you’re going to magically cure a disability, make sure you portray it as best as possible before that point.
As a reader and reviewer, talk about how disabilities are portrayed, if they’re cured, if they’re compensated for, etc. in the books you read! You don’t even have to give an opinion on whether it was good rep or not, if you don’t know or don’t want to. Just explaining the portrayal helps readers who like and dislike certain kinds of rep find the right books for them.
More importantly, just listen to disabled people in real life. Listen and believe. Fiction shouldn’t be your only method of learning and understanding disability, accessibility, and ableism. Even those of us who are disabled can learn from others. And recognize that, though we share many experiences, every disabled person has different symptoms, struggles, quality of life, access to healthcare and help, support systems, and life experiences and therefore will have different thoughts and feelings and opinions on our own disabilities, and it’s all valid.