Writing Dissonance: Those Brave Disabled People

“You’ve come so far, I know there’s nothing that will stop you now. You just can’t let it.”

Ahahahaha. Ha ha.

There’s a point to this little quote that I’ve been told in real life. And don’t worry, this will be relevant to writing. It’s just that this topic is rather personal. Shameful, even. But there’s a point in the muddling.

So there’s a growing pique of mine that may seem odd to some, but I’m really starting to dislike characters who are defined wholly by their disability. In novels and TV shows there’s sometimes the background character of the traumatized vet, who has no other personality other than that he’s got PTSD that can blossom into flashbacks and dangerous attacks on other people (even though this is not how PTSD typically works, and turns PTSD into an awful stigma). This is not OK, no matter how tertiary the character is such that you think you need a colorful “tic” for the character to have; it encourages a certain mindset about mental disabilities, and in particular PTSD, and that hurts people with the actual condition in the end. It’s not “just fiction”.

On the other side of the spectrum are characters whose disability are treated with a kind of preciousness that their condition doesn’t deserve… although that’s probably the wrong way to put it. There are no drawbacks to their disability, which is treated as a kind of superpower. I’m thinking specifically of a 2012 Hugo-nominated story here, but it’s not like there aren’t other examples out there. I don’t think autism is just this cool thing to have that gives you insight into the universe, and there are barely any struggles (or, if there are struggles, they’re mild and just part of seeing everything from a different point of view). It can be interpreted as saying, “Look, you have this awesome disability, why aren’t you happy about it?” Even if that’s not the creator’s intention.

Which leads into another aspect of problematic portrayals of disabilities, which is the “honorable example” of a disabled person who surpasses all struggles silently and without complaint. As if it were that easy. Or worse, the mentally affected person who can put it all away with the mere force of their mind, who always improve and rarely regress, and any slippages they have are due to a temporary relaxation or laziness. As opposed to it being like riding a tiger that can be indeed be lulled with the right actions, but is still a wild animal with its own pace and beat. This isn’t to say that, say, cognitive therapy doesn’t work; just that it’s not a panacea.

I have been held to the “don’t regress, it’s your fault if you do, you’re willingly being lazy and that just doesn’t cut it” standard. And I can’t help but feel horrible even though I know that parts of it are wrong. That I do get better, even as I go in circles; it’s just my pace at these things. I suppose I don’t really deserve friends, though. I just wear people down, really.

I hate myself so much. Sometimes it’s enough to make me veer towards killing myself for not being able to continuously get better, and that in itself is just failure, so I might as well kill myself and get it over with. I do eventually stop this kind of thinking, but I’m not able to push it all away like fog, like the invulnerable characters in books and movies do. (At this point someone will tell me that I’m so strong and admirable, and I think I will puke, because I know the times when I’m not, and those words just make me feel like I’m a failure during those times.)

Anyways, that’s the power of fiction: it can put the disabled on pedestals and encourage disappointment when they fall off. People are malleable in some ways, and fiction is one of those ways. I wish it weren’t the case, but it affects even me.

Please… just think the next time you write about this stuff.

3 thoughts on “Writing Dissonance: Those Brave Disabled People

  1. I think I left a supportive comment on one of your other posts awhile back, but I guess I should say that I wandered in here looking for a Shadow Unit ePub, and have stuck around.
    I wanted to leave … empathy, I guess? for the whole Magical Disabled Person silent-struggle frustrations. I finally got diagnosed with fibromyalgia, which is a different sort of difficult than PTSD. I’m finding it increasingly difficult to get up and go to work, and my memory has gone to hell, and I keep losing words and names far more than I used to. And I don’t know if it’s the FM or the meds, or what.
    And then a friend says to me that I’m good for running and keeping exercising, because the FM people she’s known who never get any better just give in and don’t fight it.
    And I just felt so horrible. Even though she was trying to help. I mean, sometimes I run and I feel great for a week, and sometimes I run and can barely get out of bed for two days. There’s no easily proved correlation.
    Anyway, I’m rambling. I guess all I’m saying is, ‘Would you like a virtual cup of tea?’

  2. Ditto.

    And I’m doing something about it: one of the characters in the novel I’m writing has CFS – and it’s just that: she has CFS.

    It affects her life all the time – but she deals with it, she is not her disability, and the last thing she wants is to be a poster child for it because she can do some things, and can’t do many others.

    I try to portray the exhaustion and the frustration and how hard it is for other people to get it – while also having that part be just something she handles. She’s given up trying to get certain people to understand – and she makes her choices and lives with them.

    I hope to get a lot of crap about it – because each person who has to live with a disability has it differently than any other person, so the portrayal will please no one.

    She would shrug.

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