DISCLAIMER: You’ll probably notice that I don’t talk about mental illness in this post. That’s because a) I don’t feel nearly qualified enough to write about that, and b) there have been lots of books released lately about mental illness in a way that there hasn’t been for people with physical disabilities. For the purposes of this post, I won’t be talking about mental illness or mental disability in YA, but if you want to read about this topic, this article, this article, and this article are great places to start.
Anyway, chag Pesach sameach, readers! I’m currently sitting at the dining room table, eating all the bread products I can before the sun goes down. I figured that I might as well do something productive, so now I’m writing this post and smearing my keyboard with pizza sauce in the process. You’re welcome.
I’ve been wanting to write about disability in YA for a long time, but I was having some trouble, mostly because there’s just a severe lack of it. And books about disability that were actually accurate? Forget about it.
And I’ll be honest–I’m mad about it. Nearly 1 in 5 people in the U.S. have a disability–about 19% of the population. Meanwhile, the Goodreads list of YA books with disabled characters has just 90 titles on it. For context, there are 2,942 more books about sexy vampires (magical creatures that don’t exist) than there are about disabled people (actual real, living organisms). Another list puts this number at 271, which is significantly better, but just browsing through the list, I could see that many of them were non-fiction, non-YA, and included titles that many in the disabled community have disavowed (such as Me Before You, which I’ll talk about in more detail later).
So I’d like to share some of my thoughts about disability in YA, to vent some frustrations, and to hopefully inspire people to actually stop and Google some stuff before they go about writing a quadriplegic deaf-blind character, no matter what good intentions they have.
Let’s break down three of the most common tropes about disability and why they’re harmful.
#1: “OvErCoMiNg DiSaBiLiTy” (AKA inspiration porn)
Crack open any YA book about a disabled character, and you’ll probably read something like this: “Dancing is Sophie’s entire life. She’s ready to leave high school behind and become the famous Broadway dancer she was always meant to be. But a devastating car accident that leaves her without a leg derails her big-city dreams. This heart-tugging story about overcoming disability and following your dreams will leave you inspired, hopeful, and teary-eyed.”
Did you hear that? That was the sound of me puking in my mouth.
These kinds of stories fall under the umbrella of what the late disability rights activist Stella Young termed “inspiration porn.” (Her Ted Talk about it is here.) Inspiration porn is the portrayal of people with disabilities as inspiring and brave solely for the purpose of warming the hearts of able-bodied people and opening their minds.
These kinds of stories tend to have lots of scenes with characters crying about their disabilities, sad lamentations of how the character can’t run/dance/hear/see like they used to, the local news rallying behind the character to raise money for a prosthetic/cochlear implant/eye surgery that they need, and a climax wherein they do the very thing they were told they could never do again! They walk! They run a marathon! They pirouette into stardom! They perform an award-winning piano sonata they wrote!
Rather than interrogate the societal obstacles and power structures that disabled people face, they instead portray the disability as the burden and reduce the disabled character to a vessel through which the story plays out–not as someone who has a life outside of their disability. In addition, this trope sells the belief that rather than society making space for and accommodating disabled people, it should be those with the disability who learn to navigate an able-bodied world, no matter how impossible it is.
Just a few books that fall into these tropes are The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen, Push Girl by Chelsie Hill and Jessica Loveitt, Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, and Wonder by R.J. Palacio.
You’ll see “inspiration porn” in the real world, too. It’s every disabled person who’s ever been on Ellen. (For real. Search “Ellen disabled” and watch what comes up.) It’s local news stories about the star quarterback asking the girl with Down Syndrome to be his prom date. It’s memes that your aunt sends that have a boy in a wheelchair playing basketball with the tagline “Your excuse is invalid.”
Another super common trope is…
#2: They’re disabled, but they have superpowers!!!1!
Daredevil, a show that had a great first season and then the writing turned awful and now it’s canceled and deservedly so don’t @ me, is based on a comic book in which the main character is blind. By day, he’s a lawyer in Hell’s Kitchen. By night, he’s the vigilante Daredevil, kicking the crap out of bad guys and making a bunch of “justice is blind” jokes. “What could be so terrible about him,” you ask, “besides his poorly written backstory where his eyes get doused in chemicals as a kid and then he’s raised in an orphanage and mentored by a creepy ninja guy?”
Glad you asked. Daredevil’s powers involve a sort of seeing-through-sound mechanism, so he’s blind, but, like, not really. His disability is negated by his superpowers, and therein lies the problem. The implication of this, writes Ava Jae, a chronically ill author and blogger, is that “the only way to make this disabled character awesome is to make him able-bodied” and that “what makes those characters cool is the way they can erase their disability with superpowers.”
Another great example of this trope is the character of Freddy Freeman, who you probably know from the movie Shazam!, which I thoroughly enjoyed except for its portrayal of disability. (Yes, I know it’s a movie, but it was a comic book first, so it still counts.) To begin with, they cast a non-disabled actor in a disabled role, which I’ve already written about my problems with. Freddy uses a crutch to get around, and throughout the movie falls into a variety of problematic tropes about disabled people. For example, the “disabled jealousy” trope is especially glaring when he gets into a fight with his super-powered foster brother Billy (the main character), saying that he wishes he could have Billy’s powers so he didn’t have to use a crutch. And yes, of course disabled people can be angry about and struggle with their limitations, but when this trope is already so overused, and when it’s only there for the purpose of making an able-bodied character feel guilty (not as a genuine expression of a disabled person’s complicated feelings on their disability), it becomes troublesome. Later, in a climactic fight scene, Shazam’s superpowers are dispensed to all of Billy’s foster siblings to help him defeat the Big Bad, and Freddy transforms into a super-powered able-bodied adult, which…yikes. In 1941, when the character of Freddy first showed up in the comic books, “to transform a disabled boy into an able-bodied hero was to give American men [returning injured from World War II] hope that they could still be useful despite what they’d lost,” writes Kristen Lopez, a disabled film critic. “In 2019, with that message removed, it is to say that being a disabled superhero isn’t possible. One’s full potential, in this film, is to be physically and aesthetically powerful and conventional, to be normal.”
Some books that fall into this trope are the Daredevil comics, Moritz in Because You’ll Never Meet Me by Leah Thomas, and Riley in Zeroes by Scott Westerfeld.
And now for the most damaging and upsetting trope of all:
#3: Better dead than disabled
You can probably guess from the name what this trope is about. This gets into a lot of thorny issues about assisted suicide and euthanasia, so no, I’m not going to talk about any “right to die” stuff or anything outside of how this trope is too often leveraged against disabled communities and imply that a disabled life is not a life worth living.
Okay. Remember when I said that I would talk about Me Before You? It’s a romance novel by Jojo Moyes that caused a lot of anger in disabled communities when its movie adaptation came out a couple years ago. It’s about Louisa Clark, a young woman who gets a job as a caretaker for Will Traynor, who became paralyzed in an accident. Long story short, Will is very bitter over being disabled, they fall in love, it seems like there might be hope for the two of them, and then Will ends his life in an assisted suicide facility in Switzerland. Yay, I’m so glad we’ve gotten past the point where we imply that disabled people should just die!
Completely ignoring any controversy over assisted suicide in and of itself, there’s a real problem with how often this trope is used in books about disabled characters. Mercy by Jodi Picoult (in which a woman with cancer dies this way), Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman (in which it’s unclear whether or not a man with CP dies this way), and Breathless by Lurlene McDaniel are a few examples.
The trope comes from “a dominant narrative carried by society and the mainstream media that says it is a terrible thing to be disabled,” says disabled activist Ellen Clifford. And it’s intensely upsetting to disabled readers and viewers–if this was a story about any other minority group, would we tolerate it? I don’t believe so. If there were a book about a gay character ending their life in an assisted suicide facility with his family by his side because they were gay, or an African-American character, or a Muslim character, there would no doubt be an uproar, and rightfully so. So why isn’t there that same kind of backlash when these stories about disabled people are presented?
Dominick Evans, a filmmaker and writer with spinal muscular atrophy, says that “if there’s nothing that says disabled lives are worth living to counter this, then we need to provide this message.”
Clearly, we have a long way to go when it comes to believing disabled people have a place in our society, much less writing books and movies that capture the disabled experience truthfully and respectfully.
“But disabled people really do feel sad/angry/distraught about their disability! How can you disavow stories that show these feelings?”
Yes, of course disabled people feel a wide variety of emotions about their disability! They can absolutely feel frustrated, scared, or depressed. But I’d argue that so much of our anger about disability stems mostly from trying to navigate a world that isn’t built for us.
This brings me to something called the social model of disability. Its roots can be traced to the 1960s, but the term was coined by disabled academic Mike Oliver in 1983. It was a reaction to the medical model, which argues that the issue is the individual, whereas the social model argues that the issue is an inaccessible world. Instead of “fixing” disabled people, the social model pushes for social or political change to break down environmental as well as social barriers to create a more inclusive world.
But rarely do we see this side of things in YA books. The disabled character is always mad at their disability, not at the world that refuses to accommodate them. And while there’s no doubt that there are disabled people (lots of them) who feel angry toward their disability, when this becomes the defining narrative of every disabled character, it is extremely problematic. Disabled readers like me need better, more complex characters that we can see ourselves in.
We deserve disabled characters.
We deserve disabled characters who are the teens trying to save the world from oppressive governments, the football coach giving a rousing speech to his underdog team, the mean girl pushing the new kid into the lockers, the drama teacher who saves the school theater program, the lovesick teen in a small town, the hero that defuses the bomb. We deserve disabled characters who lead full and complex and joyous lives with their disability, not despite it.
- Mikaela Moody’s review of Wonder from the perspective of a disfigured person. She addresses a lot of the tropes I talked about in this post.
- Sarah of the YouTuber duo The Princess and the Scrivener’s video essay on disabled representation. It’s probably the best video I’ve ever watched on the topic and is extensively well-researched.
- This very interesting post about disability on book covers.
- This op-ed by Stella Young about disability and assisted suicide.
- This comprehensive article about how “sicklit” went mainstream and the damaging stereotypes it reinforces about sick teens.
- Annie Segarra’s video on what it means to “overcome disability.”
Until next time,
The Inside Cover