*I have a more recent post with updated thoughts on disability representation in books that you might want to check out! I no longer agree with everything I’ve said in this post, but I’m leaving it up because there are still some good points and comments here.*
We already have so little diversity in books, and we have even less diversity of the disability kind. Then, on top of that, the portrayal of disability is often riddled with problems—a big one being disabilities—whether physical or mental—being magically cured or turning out to be something paranormal.
I feel like some people may not fully understand why this is so harmful though, so I wanted to make a post to explain my thoughts on the topic!
What Am I Talking About?
– Books in which the disability is flat out cured, either with magic or science fiction technology or the power of love.
– Books in which the character has been diagnosed with an illness but later finds out it’s actually something paranormal (e.g. a character thinks she has a chronic illness but then finds out it’s actually just because she’s from another realm).
(I’m tempted to include cases where the character has a disability the whole time but has some sort of power that basically cancels it out or simply doesn’t seem to have any symptoms, but that’s a different topic. Keep in mind that those types of portrayals are harmful for many of the same reasons, but the rest of the post doesn’t apply.)
Why It’s Harmful When Disabilities in Books are Magically Cured or Unrealistically Removed
The one big giant reason is that it’s an unrealistic portrayal and gives people the wrong idea.
In certain scenarios, it kind of gives the message that a person can only be successful at their goals or go on adventures or find love or do whatever it is they’re doing IF they’re able-bodied. Yes, some people’s disabilities do prevent them from doing certain things, I’m certainly not trying to downplay anyone’s struggles or limitations—I mean, *I* couldn’t go on the adventures that many characters go on in the books I read, so I definitely know about having limitations because of your body—but there are also many people with disabilities who are successful and can do all the same things that able-bodied people can do. I’d be willing to put money on it that every single person reading this has at least one person (probably more than that) in their life, whether it be a friend or an acquaintance or a coworker or a fellow student or a cashier at the grocery store you shop at, who has a disability you don’t even know about.
In some cases whatever the character is doing might be more difficult or take more time/effort or require help or be interspersed with more than your average number of trips to the hospital/doctor, but that’s just yet another reason the magical cure trope sends the wrong message—it doesn’t show any of those obstacles I just mentioned.
It also takes away from the seriousness of disabilities and spreads misunderstandings. It makes it seem like they aren’t that bad because Hey, it was cured and it’s gone now! We no longer have to think about that unpleasant thing and put ourselves in the shoes of a character who suffers or struggles or has any hardships that make us uncomfortable and can pretend everyone is able-bodied and has an easy life! I’m not telling anyone that they have to read books about things that make them uncomfortable. What I am telling everyone is that when an author takes a serious topic and makes it less serious, it trivializes it and completely undermines the experience of anyone who deals with that serious topic in real life. And the reality for most people with a disability is that there is no magical cure, it doesn’t go away, it’s something you live with forever, and it’s a struggle to either simply live with it or to figure out a way to keep it under control.
Another thing, it’s a disappointment to anyone who actually wanted to read about that particular disability when it just gets removed from the story. And imagine how especially disappointing it would be to have a disability and think, “Finally! I’ve found a character who’s like me! Who I can relate to!” only to then have that taken away.
Why I’m Becoming More Lenient About It
(i.e. Here’s Where I Try to See Things from Another Perspective)
The thing is, I do recognize that sometimes that’s just part of the story, that the story wouldn’t exist or be the same if the disability weren’t cured or if it didn’t turn out to be explained by something paranormal that looks like a disability at first. And should those authors just not be allowed to write their stories? That hardly seems fair.
And if a disability is portrayed realistically while it is in the book, it’s still doing something good and helping people understand what that disability is like, isn’t it? The fact that it’s cured doesn’t actually detract from how well it’s written up to that point. Having an otherwise realistic portrayal that gets cured is probably better than not having any representation at all. For example, I read a book about a character with epilepsy, and his epilepsy disappeared at the end, but I still gained a new understanding of what it might be like to have that.
There’s also the fact that some disabilities can potentially go away. That’s usually with treatment, even with treatment many disabilities never go away, and cases of spontaneously disappearing ones are definitely rare, but it has happened to some people. I would not consider this a good reason for doing that in a book, I’m simply trying to see all possible points on the other side of the argument.
How to Include Cured/Paranormal Disabilities in the Best Way Possible
I don’t like when disability is cured or paranormal or unrealistically removed in some other way, it’s always disappointing to me when that happens, but I feel like authors are becoming more and more limited. Some may disagree with me on this, but I don’t feel that it’s my place to tell an author, for example, that they can’t write their story just because it starts with a character thinking she has a disability but then finding out it’s actually something magical. So, if you’re thinking of using the trope, here are some questions to ask yourself and tips on how to use it in the least harmful way possible.
1) Ask yourself if removing the disability, or including it in the first place if it’s just going to be cured, is absolutely, truly integral to the story. Seriously think about it. Oftentimes there are other ways to make the story work, they just require some brainstorming and adjusting. I know this because I’ve been planning some books myself with disabled characters and have sometimes come up with ideas and thought, “Well, if that happens, then the disability will end up cured, so no, I’ll have to find another way/reason/explanation.” Don’t take the easy way out just because it’s easier. If the story is still possible with the disability sticking around and staying a real thing, then it should stay. Curing it just for the sake of curing it is not ok. Curing it just to make things easier for the character or to make it easier to make the plot work is not ok (that is NOT what I meant by “integral to the story”). Curing it just because you think it’s required for a happy ending is not ok. As I said before, most people in real life don’t get a cure. It doesn’t do those of us with disabilities justice to portray it otherwise in books if there’s not a legitimately good reason for it. I’m not even saying you have to give disabled characters happy or unhappy endings—I personally am fine with whichever the story calls for, whether it has disability or not—just that, if you want the book to have a happy ending, do it with the disability.
2) While the disability is still in the story, portray it as realistically as possible. Do research. Read blogs. Watch YouTube videos. Talk to people. Hire sensitivity readers. Have people who have that disability read your book and tell you if it’s harmful or offensive. At least if the portrayal is accurate, it could potential do some good by spreading awareness and understanding.
3) If the disability is going to be cured or removed early in the book, make that clear in the blurb. That way people know what they’re getting into and know they won’t be getting a book that actually portrays disability.
4) Maybe even include a foreword or afterword or message somewhere to talk about the disability in your book and explain that it doesn’t disappear for people in real life. Include some links to resources where people can learn more. That could at least possibly help make anyone who doesn’t realize that be more aware.
What to Do About These Types of Books
1) Mention in your review if the disability was cured or not something real, even if you have to use a spoiler tag to hide it. At least that gives people the chance to find out ahead of time that the book won’t actually be about that so they can decide if they still want to read it.
2) If a book has a particularly problematic representation, talk about it in your review. Explain what the problems are so more people can learn.
I’m not telling anyone what to read or not read—I myself have enjoyed some books that used this trope—just that it’s important for everyone to be aware of the reality of disabilities and why magically curing them is not a good portrayal.
*P.S. If you’re looking for more books to read that have disabled characters and haven’t seen it yet, check out my Sci-Fi/Fantasy Books with Disabilities List!*