ADo we finally have a good representation of disability in fiction? Admittedly, the publishing industry seems to have belatedly recognized the need to open the door to writers with disabilities. After a successful social media campaign, Amazon recently introduced a “disability fiction” section. The Society of Authors now has a dedicated peer network for writers with disabilities and chronic illnesses. And in 2020, the Barbellion Prize was created to recognize the brilliant works of authors with disabilities. But does that mean people with disabilities finally see themselves and their experiences in the novels they pick up in Waterstones? It depends where you look.
Children’s literature is definitely better and better represented. Indeed, when I asked disabled friends and acquaintances to name their favorite disabled character, almost all of them highlighted books aimed at young readers, such as A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll. Lizzie Huxley-Jones, who is disabled herself, says that through their work as children’s authors and sensitive readers, they see signs of progress. “Even over the last three years in the UK – probably five if I’m being extremely generous – I feel like there’s been a big push to secure autistic talent, post autistic stories, this which I think is great because historically autistic people really haven’t been able to tell our own stories.
While Huxley-Jones acknowledges that there are still overlooked dynamics – characters with chronic pain, for example, or disabled children of color – they attribute recent advancements to the recognition that children deserve to see themselves reflected in stories they read. There’s also the simple fact that many children’s books focus on a group of friends, rather than one protagonist, which creates space for more diversity.
Huxley-Jones hasn’t seen the same commitment to representation in the adult literature business, where they say disability is still seen as a niche topic. Although there are novels with disabled characters, a disturbing number of them stick to damaging tropes – perpetuating stereotypes rather than portraying people with disabilities with the same depth and complexity as other characters. . As Cat Mitchell, a lecturer in writing and editing at the University of Derby, puts it, there is either “a tragic story where the character dies at the end, or a story where either the person miraculously recovers or one discovers that his disability or illness was wrong from the start”.
Several of those interviewed for this article cited Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You as the ultimate example of the problem: the main character becomes disabled and then – spoiler alert – kills himself. “Not only are these stories unrealistic,” says Mitchell, “they are never written as if there are people with disabilities in the audience. It is for this non-disabled look that they write, which is really problematic. She also belittles tales of triumph over adversity, in which the struggles of a disabled person in an ableist world are used to make a non-disabled audience feel lucky by comparison.
These tired stereotypes are exactly what Victoria Scott, who co-led the campaign for Amazon’s disability section, set out to combat with her fiction. Her first novel, Patience, drew on her relationship with her non-verbal sister to explore the complex ethical issues that will come with a future in which genetic diseases can be cured. “I wrote it from a family perspective,” she says, but she deliberately gave the disabled character a distinct, idiosyncratic voice. “I feel like society pushes people like my sister into the shadows, and she doesn’t recognize them…so when I wrote Patience, I wanted her to be a great character. She is funny. She’s a little jealous. She’s a huge Take That fan. And she has all these different parts of her personality. He’s a really interesting and multi-faceted human being. Scott’s determination to portray the inherent value of the disabled life stands in stark contrast to all the stories in which disability is synonymous with worthlessness.
Books like Scott’s, which bring disability to the fore, are important in an industry that undervalues these stories and sees them as niche rather than universal. Scott wanted to create the Amazon category to dispel this idea and encourage other authors to write stories that treat disability as interesting and worthy of artistic attention. Equally important, says Mitchell, is “incidental portrayal”, where a character “happens to be disabled and that’s not really central to the plot”. It’s almost unheard of in adult fiction, she says.
The reasons for this lack of representation are varied, but Mitchell and Huxley-Jones point to the inaccessibility of publishing as an industry. The hours are long and, for authors, payment is often delayed. Much depends on establishing contacts during long and inaccessible conferences. And because publishers pay an advance for a book long before they make any money from it, they have an incentive to stick with the stories and characters they already know how to sell. So it probably shouldn’t be surprising that we see the same tropes over and over again.
Yet the growing diversity of children’s literature shows us that change is possible. If we can recognize that children with disabilities deserve to be represented in books, surely we must be able to recognize that adults with disabilities deserve the same. After all, children with disabilities grow up. Hopefully, developments like Amazon’s new disability category and the Barbellion Award will encourage authors and publishers in the huge space that disability representation could occupy. Diverse stories are important. We don’t always have to die in the end.