Breaking Down Disability Stereotypes in Literature

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What’s with the under-representation?

When we talk about representation in literature, we often think about diversity in terms of race, gender, and sexuality. However, it’s crucial to also look at how disability is portrayed in literature and how it influences societal attitudes towards people with disabilities. The representation of disability in literature can break down stereotypes and misconceptions, but it can also reinforce them. Disability representation is not just about the physical representation of disabled characters, but also their sexuality and the narrative surrounding their disability. In this blog post, we will delve into how disabilities are portrayed in literature and the impact it has on the disabled community.

Disabled Characters and their Sexuality


Representation of disabled characters in literature often lacks sexual representation, with their desires being ignored or hidden away. This can lead to the stereotype that people with disabilities are not sexual beings, which is not true. Disabled characters should be able to experience love and intimacy like non-disabled characters. However, authors often avoid sexual representation for disabled characters because it’s considered taboo or uncomfortable for readers. This reinforces the misconception that disabled people are asexual, which ultimately leads to isolation and lack of acknowledgment.

The Disabled Narrative

Disability narratives are often intended to be “inspirational,” rather than reflective of real life. These stories of inspiration, while heartwarming, are not necessarily an accurate portrayal of the disabled experience. They also do not take into account the vast range of disabilities and how individuals with disabilities can experience life differently. Disabled characters should be depicted as multifaceted and three-dimensional characters, rather than solely as inspiration or a plot device. Diversity within the disability experience must be fully explored, including different levels of functioning, and varying emotional responses to disabilities.

Overcoming the Obstacles of Writing

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In addition to exploring how disabilities are portrayed in literature, it’s important to look at the challenges disabled writers face in the publishing industry. Disabled writers are not well represented in the literary world and often face technological obstacles such as not having accessible writing software. They also face the challenge of not having exposure or access to the industry. Disability representation within the publishing industry can change this reality by promoting books by disabled writers, providing accessible writing tools, co-authoring programs, mentorships, and so on.

The Success of Disabled Writers

Despite the aforementioned challenges, there are disabled writers who have overcome barriers to success. Their writing serves as an inspiration to others. For example, Harriet McBryde Johnson, who has spina bifida, was an internationally recognized writer and disability rights activist. Her works include Accidents of Nature, a book with a disabled protagonist that has won several awards. Another example is Mat Fraser, a disabled actor and writer whose one-man show, Thalidomide!! A Musical, has received accolades from audiences and critics alike.

So what?

Representation of disabilities in literature can be a tool to fight the stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding the disabled community, but it can also serve to reinforce them. The disabled narrative must be explored fully, showcasing multifaceted and well-rounded characters. However, the publishing industry has yet to provide full access to disabled writers, or promote their works on equal footing with others. Changes to the publishing industry and attitudes towards disabled characters in literature can make a significant impact in the representation of disabilities. By writing about disabled characters as multifaceted and unique individuals, rather than a ‘character’, or a “plot device”, we can create a diversified and inclusive society where all experiences are equally acknowledged and celebrated.

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