Coffee and Conversation; Disabled Characters: Descriptor, or Definition?

 

Grab a cuppa and a comfy seat, and let’s chat a while. It’s time for Coffee and Conversation.

When I was six, my family was driving on a highway late at night. Streaks of headlights and taillights painted the dark. For the first time, I realized that each car held people living lives as important to them as mine was to me.

I wanted to know what those lives were, and to share my own..

Do you write any disabled characters?

That’s one of the questions posed by Rose B. Fischer‘s Redefining Disability Project.

It really made me think, and, at first, I was a little embarrassed, because I couldn’t think of a single one…

Was I unintentionally discriminating against people who didn’t fit my own image of ‘abled?’ Did I think, on some level, that they couldn’t be interesting characters, with lives and conflicts worth reading about?

And then, I started to remember…

  • Vaara, who is not only mute, but has no understanding of spoken language as a communications device for most of her childhood, and lifelong difficulties in the conversational arena.
  • Liacivaar, like my own secondborn child, Elijah, Liacivaar was born with profound brain damage, and died a short time later.
  • Tisira falls from a tree as the result of a telepathic attack…
  • … and awakens as Nockatee, bereft not only of her memory, but also her self.

After I realized this, I started to feel better. No, I wasn’t ignoring disabled characters. But was I capitalizing upon their disabilities? In each case, above, the disability is a central theme of the character’s story arc. Without the limitations imposed by it, the story could be easily resolved.

So, was I taking advantage of my disabled characters; giving them disabilities only so that I could exploit them?

And that’s where the Kifo Island Chronicles comes in…

Kifo Island is my fictional hospice resort. During the April 2014 Blogging from A-Z Challenge, I wrote 26 flash fiction stories, each of a man, woman, or child who had come to the island to live, die, or work. Among my cast of characters were more than a few with life-altering or threatening disabilities:

  • Ava has leukemia, and struggles against the control of emotionally unavailable and overbearing parents.
  • Terrance’s heart is failing and being broken at the same time.
  • Donovan, is an albino who finds an unexpected family.
  • Exuberance has metastitic cancer, and a far bigger problem in judging men.
  • Gladys is dying of old age and Parkinson’s Disease, but has a mission to see to, first.
  • Iris has been severely abused and neglected, but sparkles with the capacity for love and joy.
  • Josiah is ravaged by the effects of drug abuse, but has found a reason to live his remaining days well.
  • Linwood suffers from age-related dementia, and a grief too deep to accept.
  • Mauve is an ancephalic infant whose death offers life.
  • Percy has an inoperable and terminal brain tumor, and trains therapy animals.
  • Quincette, in the grip of an eating disorder, saves two lives and changes her own.
  • Robert is on the autism spectrum, and wrestling with life-altering news.
  • Serrah has a congenital heart defect, and misses her Mommy and Daddy.
  • Timothy has cystic fibrosis, and a relationship in trouble.
  • Ubunta was trafficked as a sex slave, and wants what’s best for her unborn child.
  • Wilma is blind, and discovers a body.
  • Xavier has testicular cancer, and beats his wife.
  • Yvette is the victim of longtime spousal abuse, and lives a secret life through art.
  • Zeke suffers from mental illness, which he uses to his advantage as a stand-up comic.

My daughter, age 9, explores disability through adaptive handwear. Journey Through the Body, April 2014.

These characters are different than the ones above. Their disabilities are part of their stories – but only part. Each of them is a person, with a life that is be affected by illness, infirmity, or being at the mercy of others who violate them in some way – but this isn’t the sum of them, only one factor in their reality. It might be an overarching theme – but they are people. Some of them are consumed by whatever condition they have; others try to deny that they even have a disability, and others find a degree of balance with their disability, accepting the real limitations it imposes without allowing it to have a greater impact on their life than necessary.

Just as the people I assisted dealt with life in different ways, according to their natures, so do the characters I write for whom disability is a fact of life. Because they are people, first and always. People who live, love, work, play, and sometimes die – and, just like in the real world, their disability isn’t all they are. It can be a descriptor, but not a definition – just like my being tall means that there are times I have to duck when a shorter person could pass through. It’s my reality, but being tall isn’t the only thing that I am.

If you write, do you have any disabled characters? Does their condition, whatever it is, define them, or is it simply one aspect of their nature?

Do you have any favorite characters with disabilities from literature, television, or elsewhere? I’ll pour the coffee; let’s converse!

11 comments

  1. I love literature because it is about all kinds of people with all sorts of characteristics and traits. A disability of some kind can be one of them and hopefully it is occasionally because that is how it is in real life. Literature should reflect life, even in the most imaginary of circumstances. I like literature for being both made up and reflecting reality all at once.

  2. Hm, a thought-provoking post. I write about people with psychological disorders. Sometimes they’re the antagonist, sometimes the victim, sometimes working along side the protagonist to solve the mystery, and growing stronger psychologically along the way. Honestly, I’m a little afraid to write about disabilities I’m less familiar with, for fear I would get it wrong and offend someone.

    • I know what you mean, Kassandra. For the Kifo stories, most of the conditions affecting the characters were left vague; I only used relevant details as needed, because the stories are really about the characters and the way the island affects them.

      I’ll be doing some research before I carry these stories any further; to be sure I don’t make foolish mistakes. I did spend several years working with a diverse group of people with a diverse array of disabling conditions, so my passing knowledge reflects that.

      But you raise a very good point – it wouldn’t do to not know enough about a condition to avoid insulting or offending those who live with it.

      I like that you use your knowledge base to create characters in a variety of roles, and that some of them get to find greater strength in the process.

    • hit enter too fast. I’m getting behind replying to people’s posts, but I will come back. Once I get to where I can post more than 2 times per week, I have your posts saved to respond to on the blog.

    • So very much to learn…and I totally see your point. Maybe there’s the basis of my next post…

      The funny thing is that, when I went back to read the stories, there are several where the disability isn’t even mentioned. I only know it’s there because I’ve written outlines for the novellas I’ll be developing them into. In the story, it’s an integrated part of who they are, and just doesn’t need to be addressed as something separate from the rest of life – I’m not sure that’s exactly how I want to express it, but it’s in the right neighborhood.

      I’m tempted to change the title, but maybe it makes a better point left this way. I can come back and address it as something I’ve learned along the way…

      Clearly, this project is having an impact on me…

      • Most of my stories don’t “mention” the disability per se. For example, I have an upcoming short story about a character who uses a wheelchair. Obviously, her wheelchair is visible but it’s just a fact, no one discusses it beyond a couple of instances where she needs physical space or something that another character might not. There’s no “Oh, why is Captain Alvarez in a wheelchair…?” discussion or anything. Readers may assume she was injured in the war, but she actually wasn’t.

        I’d leave the title–everything’s a learning experience!

        • I’ve left the title, but my next post will deal with the issue of those ingrained speech and thought patterns we don’t even recognize ourselves, and what we can do about that…

          A fair number of the Kifo stories don’t detail the disability, either – it’s not always relevant to why a character is there, and, even when it is, it might not be relevant to the story I’m telling. I know what the conditions are; often that’s enough to create the story.

          I’m so glad you’ve created this forum. I’m a believer in regular self-examination and living life with awareness, and I’m growing through this process. I suspect I’m not the only one.

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