Bookish Musings: Thoughts on Disability Representation in Books


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.


Talk to me!

Do you like reading books (or consuming other media) with disabled characters?
How do you feel about these tropes?
How do you feel about rules for what authors should and shouldn't write when it comes to disability rep in books?


Your Thoughts


22 thoughts on “Bookish Musings: Thoughts on Disability Representation in Books

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  1. Roberta R.

    “I hate that I feel like this is going to be a controversial post”
    Not at all! It was very honest and informative and well-articulated, especially the part about gatekeeping. Bookmarking it for my August Tooting Your Trumpet section!

    1. Kit (Metaphors and Moonlight)

      Thank you <3 But I know there are people who believe only openly disabled people should be allowed to write about disabled characters, or only certain types of portrayals of disability should be allowed, or books should never have magical cures (which I used to feel, but I've since changed my stance, and I know disabled people who do like that trope). That's why it feels controversial. But I'm glad you enjoyed it!

  2. Jessica

    In this martial arts book series (by Kylie Chan), there is a guy named Leo. He is black and gay. He has AIDS and gets in a fight where it leaves him disabled. Emma, his boss, begs him to become immortal so he can still be her guard. He is a also black lion. In the past two books, he has been begging his other boss (Emma’s fiance) to kill him. Because he often gets “killed.” He changed his mind at the last moment and decides to be with his boyfriend (Emma’s fiance’s son) instead. But he says he wishes that Emma’s fiance would have fixed his spine. Emma’s fiance loses an arm in a fight, but he can grow one back because he is a turtle.

    Yeah, I do understand that some people don’t know the difference between what is real or not. But I do think there should be strict rules on how to write because books would be boring then.

  3. Angela

    Thank you for such an honest and personal post! I’ve read a few books with disability representation (Chloe Liese includes this in a lot of her romance books), and I appreciate when the author includes information on how it affects the characters in their daily lives, things I might not think about.

  4. Louise @ Monstrumology

    I have a bad habit of staying away from books with disability rep (especially autism rep) because there’s such a high chance of the rep being inaccurate or just plain insulting. What’s frustrating to me is when a disabled author writes about their own experience and audiences call it inaccurate because it doesn’t match either their own experiences or what they think being disabled is like. There’s no one single way to be disabled so disability rep isn’t going to be homogenous.

  5. Mary Kirkland

    I’m disabled too but mine is mostly a mental disability.
    When a disability is portrayed in the right way, I think it’s good and fine. But I agree with you on so many of your points. Authors should really research it before writing it into a story. But I think anyone not just disabled authors should be able to write a disabled character into their books if it’s done right.

    I actually don’t mind villains being disfigured for that reason. Freddy Krueger was terribly burned by the parents and it does make him worse and you can almost feel bad for him, almost. But I know what you mean.

    1. Kit (Metaphors and Moonlight)

      It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who feels non-disabled authors (or just authors who aren’t out about their disability, since we can’t always know) should be allowed to write about it, as long as they put in the effort.

      That’s fair. I suppose that’s part of my point, that sometimes disabled readers and writers may like these things. (I don’t know anything about Freddy Krueger though since I haven’t see any of the movies.)

  6. Sam @ Spines in a Line

    Appreciate your advice to readers! I hadn’t considered all those aspects of the portrayal so that’s a great reminder to keep in mind when I’m describing books and their disability rep

  7. Karen

    I think representation is so scarce across the board that it makes people jump all over it as being inaccurate when it doesn’t (& can’t) represent every experience.

    As we enter this new wave of people getting to write their own experiences it’s gotten somewhat better (accuracy) but there hasn’t been enough nuance for different situations or even what people might need or want.

    This was different than a disability but one where I had to check myself. I’ve had several friends and family go through sexual violence and abuse so I am very sensitive to reading that and years ago it was just find a good guy and great sex and poof healed. I had read a book where the women fell in love and it did kind of magically heal things for her because he was so nice and understanding. It kind of set me off because there was no therapy, no working through it – just he was a good guy and she fell in love.

    Well, in the author notes, she described how she was raped and she wasn’t healed but this story was her fantasy in a way and it helped her move forward and have hope again even if she knew it wasn’t that easy in real life.

    And so much yes to being stuck in a situation where you can’t afford or have access to help. It is not that easy for so many reasons. And even when you can get access it doesn’t always work or it can take years, have relapses. Especially with mental health/addiction.

    It’s hard to parse through good and bad rep – especially if you are not experienced in the issue but we have to make room for different experiences while still holding bad rep accountable.

    Karen @For What It’s Worth

    1. Kit (Metaphors and Moonlight)

      I just saw a tweet about that recently, but in relation to queer rep. How perhaps some of the criticism is because people have so little rep of themselves.

      That’s a good example, even if it’s not about disability. And actually, it brings up the point that adding an author’s note can sometimes help. Just something to say that what was portrayed wasn’t exactly realistic, and therefore readers shouldn’t take it as such.

      It is hard to know sometimes what is good and bad rep, but yes, we do need to make room for different experiences and maybe just talk about the rep more in general so that we can better parse it.

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  9. Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

    This is a really well-thought-out discussion. I love that you give all sides of the issue because it really is a very multi-faceted topic that doesn’t have quick and easy answers. As you say, there is no “one” disability experience, just like there is no one POC or cultural or religious experience. When we try to generalize, I think we sometimes do more harm than good. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important to make sure that representation is accurate and definitely not problematic!

    1. Kit (Metaphors and Moonlight)

      Thank you! I see a lot of, “You should NEVER write about this!” and I kinda felt that way at one point too, but I also know disabled people who *like* those things and want to read and write about them. And I’ve seen portrayals that seemed similar to my own experience or feelings be condemned as problematic. So yeah, it is complex, and I rarely, if ever, see people talking about that side. And yep, there’s also a similar issue when it comes to queer, POC, religious, etc. rep. There’s no one singular experience!

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  12. Quinley

    As a disabled person too, I relate and agree with you. I’ve seen a lot of bad representation too (particularly for my disabilities) in books and movies. And it’s really hard to find a good representation for it. I agree with you about the villain bit– because there can be a well written villain that happens to have a disability but isn’t fully defined by it. One thing, I also wish would happen more is for there to be a disabled hero and a disabled villain going against each other. (So that disability isn’t vilified).

    The “curing” disability trope annoys me too. I’ve had my disabilities since I was born, and the thought of “curing” them is infuriating to me. Because it suggests that someone is “lesser” because of a disability.

    I agree, with everyone else that this a really honest post, and one I really relate to. 🙂 I found your post through Roberta’s blog, so I am so happy I found it.

    1. Kit (Metaphors and Moonlight)

      It sucks that there is so much bad rep out there. But that would be really cool, to have a story with both a disabled hero and villain!

      I think the cure trope is really divisive among disabled people. But yeah, there are a number of reasons to dislike that one.

      Thank you ❤️ I’m glad to know I’m not alone in my thoughts!

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