Writing & Blogging

A Guide To Writing Disabled Characters

No matter the story that you’re writing, you should make sure that there is a diverse cast of characters, and a part of that diversity should include disability. Disability is an overarching term that includes a wide variety of conditions, both mental and physical. Maybe you’ve never thought about including a disabled character(s) in your novel or maybe you’ve thought about it but weren’t sure how to approach it. Regardless of your reason for including one, my goal in this post is to help you write a disabled character that is a rounded character that is an accurate representation of a disabled person.

People with disabilities are a huge part of the world, and that can include everything from amputees to learning disabilities. If you're going to write a book with a disabled character, you should know that there is a right and a wrong way to do that. This is a guide to help you write a disabled character correctly, both from a standpoint of correct information as well as not demonstrating ableism within your book.

Only write from the POV of a disabled character if you’re disabled, but you should include disabled characters – There was a great tweet that I saw that I can’t find that talked about how you should only write from the POV of a minority/oppressed group if you’re a part of that, which I thought was really great. For example, if you’re not a woman, you shouldn’t write from the perspective of a woman and demonstrate the misogyny women faced because that’s not your story to tell. Similarly, you shouldn’t write about the ableism a disabled person faces from the perspective of a disabled person. This is partially because no matter how hard you try you can never completely understand it and partially because it’s not your story to tell; someone with that disability should be the one telling it. You should still of course include disabled characters because disabled people are everywhere.

Decided what type of disability they will have and research it using respected sources – So you’re going to include a disabled character in your story. Awesome! To do it correctly, you need to pick a specific disability and research it. Just having a character who is in a wheelchair is not enough. Why do they use a wheelchair? How much moving are they able to do out of it? Many people who use wheelchairs are able to walk; they just can’t do it for much distance. Plus, many disabled people don’t use an assistive device. When you do your research, you need to make sure that you’re getting your information from respected sources because Wikipedia isn’t always correct. And check out multiple sources to get the full picture.

Don’t include them solely for them to inspire other characters (see inspiration porn post) or as a plot twist – This makes me so mad. Disabled people don’t exist to inspire abled people, and a character shouldn’t be disabled for the sake of making an abled person sad.

When it comes to having diverse characters in your book, the type of diversity many forget is disabled. Disability comes in many different formats, such as learning disabilities, physical disabilities, mental illness, autism, and more. And like with all things, there are correct and incorrect ways to write disabled characters. Here is a guide to writing disabled characters so you can not only write these characters correctly but also write them without ableism.

Remember that their disability won’t be their entire life; they’ll have other likes and interests that aren’t affected by their disability – Does my disability affect most of my life? Yes. Is that the only thing going on in my life? Hell. No. I love blogging, makeup, crime shows, books, and more. I spend my free time blogging, writing, and reading. Your disabled character shouldn’t only exist as their disability. Not only is that kinda ableist, but it also makes them a flat character.

But also remember that their disability can affect their entire life depending on what it is – A lot of this will depend on what kind of disability they have and its place in the story. Let’s talk about if they are your main character’s best friend. If they are disabled because of a chronic illness that isn’t managed, it might play a large part of the plot. On the other hand, if their chronic illness is managed really well, then maybe the only way it’s featured in your story is they use a wheelchair some times and take a lot of medications. If their disability is a loss of hearing, maybe your main character learned sign language before the events of the story and that means they can communicate easily with the love interest’s deaf mother. For both of those characters, maybe the only way their disability affects the story is that they use sign language.

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If you have questions, find someone who has the character’s disability and ask them how certain things would affect them (but always be kind and professional, and thank them for their time and energy by buying them a coffee or something) – Sometimes, research can only get you so far. You might have general questions or specific ones one how elements of your plot would affect a disabled character. I mean, I know for certain that no medical website depicts the human aspects of living with rheumatoid arthritis correctly, like how it affects my life on a day-to-day basis. In this case, come up with a list of questions you have and find someone with that disability who is open to answering them for you. As a thank you for their time and energy, be sure you pay them! Not only do many people who live with chronic illnesses and/or a disability have limited energy, but they also have their own life. Depending on how many questions you have and/or how long it takes for them to answer them, they could spend a lot of time and energy answering them. Offer to pay them or buy a gift card to their favorite coffee place, restaurant, store, etc..

Depending on how large of a role this character plays, hire a sensitivity reader with a disability (the same one as the character’s) – According to Writing in the Margins, “A sensitivity reader reads through a manuscript for issues of representation and for instances of bias on the page. The goal of a sensitivity reader isn’t to edit a manuscript clarity and logic, although that may be an additional service offered. A sensitivity reader reviews a manuscript for internalized bias and negatively charged language. A sensitivity reader is there to help make sure you do not make a mistake, but they are also NOT a guarantee against making a mistake” (x). This is super important for everyone who is not writing a marginalized group from personal experience, but doubly so if you are a member of privileged groups, like cis, straight, white, abled, or male. And you absolutely HAVE to pay them! Writing in the Margins recommends a starting price of $250 if your manuscript is 60,000-80,000 words. Having a sensitivity reader can prevent you from writing a novel that does not only feature incorrect information but also features problematic representation.

Example of awesome disabled character: Kaz from Six of Crows, Willow O’Keefe from Handle with Care, and Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Like this post? Check out:

Not All Disabilities Are Visible, Tips for Writing from Famous Writers, So You Want To Write a Book, 6 NaNoWriMo Tips

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  • Reply Emily of Em Busy Living

    This is an awesome guide. I’ll admit that as someone who wants to write a book but who has two feet firmly planted in many privileged groups, I’m sometimes afraid of how to include diversity without seeming like I think I understand their struggles and I’m afraid I’ll really mess it up. I think the idea of a sensitivity reader is a great idea.

    July 24, 2017 at 3:34 pm
    • Reply Kate Mitchell

      I’m so glad it’s helpful! If you’re worried about including diversity, I really suggest exploring Pinterest because there are a lot of blog posts about how to write different diverse groups (or how not to). That way you can have that information in the back of your head when you write before you even send it to a sensitivity reader.

      August 9, 2017 at 11:54 am

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