Friday, March 30, 2012

Diversity and Disability

Lately in the YA world (blogs, twitter, tumblr) there has been lots of talk about diversity. These are incredibly important discussions that need to be had, of course, but there's something that has been bothering me about it all. It seems like all of the discussions of "diversity" are targeted toward ethnic or sexual diversity - both incredibly important issues - but there's a type of diversity no one seems to be discussing: disability.

A while back, I did a blog post discussing my disability. I won't rehash it here because, just as I said at the time, it's not something I particularly like to talk about in my professional life because it often inspires labels. However, my status as a legally blind woman does play a role in how I feel about this issue, and it has given me quite a bit of perspective.

There is very little diversity when it comes to disabilities in the media - not just in YA. Often, when disabilities are portrayed it's in didactic, stereotypical, or purely inaccurate ways. Nearly every blind character on TV or in film makes me cringe with how wrong the portrayals are - not just as a blind person, but as the friend of many, many other blind people as well. The same goes for deaf characters and paraplegic characters, though I lack personal experience in those areas, and my perspective may not be entirely balanced.

More than anything, though, these groups are being rarely represented at all - even in inaccurate ways. I can think of a handful of YA novels I've read with disabled characters. I"m not just talking about main characters, either, I'm talking about side characters, family members, love interests - the whole thing.

There are two stereotypes I see, though, when disabled characters do appear. Two frustrating and isolating stereotypes that do more damage than I think the authors mean.

First there's the "extreme" nature of the disability. Since I have experience with visual impairments, I'm going to use that as my example. In real life, when someone is legally blind, that does not mean they see blackness. In reality, only about one in ten people who are legally blind see nothing. That means ninety percent of us (yes, this is the group I am in) have some vision. The amount varies from person to person, but typically at least some vision remains. But most people don't know this because it isn't at all what ht e media portrays. In most books and movies, a blind person sees total blackness, nothing else.

As someone with a visual impairment, I find this insanely frustrating. Because people like me, despite being in the majority of the minority group, are never represented. Is it because our disabilities aren't dramatic enough? There is a similar issue with portrayals of deaf people as well - many people who have hearing impairments can hear somewhat, but are those people ever represented?

Off the top of my head, only one YA novel with a blind character who I found to be accurately portrayed and who had some amount of vision (very little, but still) is the heroine in April Henry's GIRL, STOLEN - which I absolutely loved.

The other stereotype I see often is the "disabled-person-with-superpowers." It's everywhere - in books, movies, TV - and it makes me crazy. Why? Because it feels like overcompensating. It reminds me a lot of the "beautiful ethnic person" trope, in which the one ethnically diverse character is absolutely stunning. Why can't minority groups just be normal, average people?

People with disabilities can be interesting, strong, and capable without being supernaturally gifted - we aren't all Daredevil. But for some reason disabled characters are often gifted in some way, elevating them above their abled peers. I know this isn't how it's intended, but this portrayal is somewhat insulting to the average disabled person, because it implies that we - meer humans with disabilities - are not good enough to be characters unless we have a supernatural ability.

I'm going to be honest with you - most of the time, when there is a blind person in a YA novel, they have superpowers.

But at 17, I didn't have superpowers. I went to a regular, public high school. I had friends. I went to the mall. I had crushes on boys and I drank with my friends when they're parents weren't home and I had all sorts of angst and drama involving family. I did all the things a typical teen does - all the things we as YA writers write about - just with a disability. So why can't there be characters in the world like me? Or with other disabilities? Our lives aren't so different.

All of this said, I do think it's important that, before anyone writes a book with a disabled character, that they do research. Lots of it. Because there's a lot that goes into living life as a disabled person. There are different types of aids and devices to help daily life be more accessible, for example. And it's also something to consider that everyone handles their disability in a different way - some blind people have dogs, others use canes, etc etc.

I"m not here to point fingers or judge existing books. This isn't a critique of anyone's work. I just think that with all of the discussion about diversity, this is an issue that needs to be addressed, too. We need to talk about diversity - ethnic, sexual, and otherwise. There are other minority groups out there that aren't being talked about, and I think disabilities is one of them.

So when we talk about diversity, can we talk about disability as well? Because, trust me, it's a group that is seriously underrepresented and frequently misrepresented.


Lindsay Ribar said...

Interesting post -- a more direct look at something I've given some thought to lately, thanks to Kristin Cashore's author-note at the end of BITTERBLUE. I don't know if you, or any of your followers who might read this comment, have read the GRACELING series -- but there is a main chracter in the first book, who has a disability, but a superpower-of-sorts that pretty much negates it. In the third book, Cashore actually apologizes for her lack of awareness of disability politics of this nature, and turns this character's story into something far more complex than what I think it was originally intended to be. Into something that no longer makes light of his disability, or allows his power to "fix" the impact that his disability has on his life.

Basically, what I'm saying is: have you read BITTERBLUE yet? If you have, what are your thoughts on how she handled this particular storyline? (For the record, I loved it; but I also don't have the same kind of perspective that you do.)

Thanks for the post!

The Romance Bookie said...

Kody, I not only love reading your books, but also love reading your blog just because of the issues you bring up. It's interesting and always so true! I have to say, I don't think I have ever read a book containing someone with a visual or hearing impairment (not permanent ones anyway), but I have always wondered some of the questions you answered above.

For instance, the show "Covert Affairs" has Christopher Gorman playing a blind man. I have always wondered how someone with a visual impairment feels about his portrayal?

And YES Lindsay ^, superpowers really?? Why? It's become almost cliche right?

Kaitlin Ward said...

This is a great post, Kody. You are absolutely right that characters with disabilities are wildly underrepresented--and misrepresented--in books.

I'm glad you're talking about it, because I think we're just not made aware enough. As a white person, I am very aware of the fact that my race is overrepresented in books (and etc) and am aware that this is not a good thing, but I don't have that same awareness as a non-disabled person. I just don't think about it when I'm writing. And there isn't an excuse for that at all.

cindy said...

fantastic blog post, kody. thank you for sharing your thoughts on this very important topic.

Veronica Roth said...

I'm so glad posts like this exist, because I think many writers (including myself!) are sort of trapped in their own privilege/lack of disability/sheltered upbringing/etc. and don't even know to think about this kind of stuff. I certainly wouldn't have if you and I hadn't talked about it before.

So while I feel a lot of sympathy for people who are ignorant of this kind of thing (I mean, we see "blind person with superpowers" so often I think we start to believe it's totally okay, which is sort of disturbing, upon reflection), I also think it's super important to challenge that ignorance!

And I'm so curious about Bitterblue, because it sounds like Kristin Cashore had some major guts, admitting fault and making changes. How very cool.

Anyway, thanks for discussing this issue!

Kody Keplinger said...

Lindsay - I have not yet read Bitterblue, though I would LOVE to, because I loved her other books and the blind character in Graceling, despite my issues with it. I'm even more curious now that I know she apologized - must read!

Romance Bookie - I am not a fan of the blind character on Covert Affairs. He is an prime example of Blind Person with Superpowers - not because he's supernaturally gifted, but because he, despite being blind, has still ben elevated above his peers by being so spectacular. I watch and forget he's blind, actually, which is not necessarily a good thing. I actually discuss him in a post I did for about blind characters on TV.

Becky said...

After reading your post, I'm actually flabbergasted when I think back to the books I have read that featured blind characters. (And I read a lot of them, or as many as I could find at the public library while in early high school.) Every single one of them had no vision whatsoever. Seriously. I had no idea that the actual stats were so different.

I will definitely be checking out GIRL, STOLEN. In fact, I just placed a hold on it now.

Liz Czukas said...

Kody, I'd love to get the names of some other books with visually impaired or otherwise disabled characters. I've read a couple of tremendous books about characters who become disabled (usually amputees) and have to learn to deal with it, but that's not really the same thing, is it? The Running Dream, Izzy Willy Nilly, and Long May She Reign are all lovely examples of that style.

Recently, I've also read 2 books by hearing people who wrote hearing-impaired characters, and the whole time I kept wondering if they were doing a good job of it or not. I don't have personal experience to compare it to. The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin was the first, but Five Flavors of Dumb might be just the book you're looking for. The MC is wearing hearing aids, deals with some deaf-related issues, but mostly the book is about her normal teen struggles, including getting herself named the manager of a band. It's a fantastic read!

Janet Gurtler said...

This is such a wonderful and enlightening post. Very thought provoking which is definitely a great thing.

vic caswell (aspiring-x) said...

there's this show called SWITCHED AT BIRTH that i've grown to be addicted to. several of the characters are hearing impaired- deaf and i had absolutely no idea how frustrating that could be before i saw the show. of course, i still don't KNOW how frustrating it is, but it's a learning process trying to figure out how life is felt and experienced by folks who fall outside of what you have lived. that is one of the greatest powers of story- the ability to walk in another man's shoes for a time (even if in a limited capacity). you are so very right, we need more diversity.

Becca Christiansen said...

I wrote a paraplegic MC once. He's one of my favourite characters I've ever written, but not easy. I watched a lot of YouTube videos -- there's this paraplegic guy on YouTube who films videos about how he does stuff like getting in a car, disassembling his wheelchair, the different kinds of wheelchairs, and all sorts of stuff. It was fun research.

Lindsay Ribar said...

Kody and Veronica - Yeah, I'm really curious as to what both of you will think of that particular story arc in BITTERBLUE. I loved it so much that it made my heart hurt. But then, I feel that way about a lot of things. :)

amsterdamassassin said...

I'd love to hear what you think of the Amsterdam Assassin Series, where the love interest of the main character, freelance assassin Katla Sieltjes, is a blind musician, Bram Merleyn. Several chapters and scenes are written from his 'POV'. If you like, I could arrange a review copy of the first novel, Reprobate, for you.

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Erminia Cavins said...

Excellent points. The disabled people are more often portrayed as people who can’t do anything on their own in various media. And while there are some outliers, they are few and far interspersed, not to mention just introduced in passing and never in lead role.


Maggie Malone said...

I’m trying to think of a TV show or movie that has a lead character that has a disability and not have a superpower, and only a couple come to mind, though they are not the main protagonist. You’re right, it seems that some writers have the mindset that without a superpower, a disabled person would be of no function to a storyline or just be there to be taken care of by the main character. I hope there are more novel or show writers that would think and explore the possibility of a disabled protagonist in their story.

Pahein said...

Hey! I've been reading up lately on diversity and inclusion, which is how I chanced across this article. As someone who wants to make videogames, I think it's ridiculous that protagonists no matter where you look are practically universally able-bodied. (Of course, that counts outside of videogames too, but I can only contribute so much at once.)

So when I started work on a small, interactive story-type game the other day, I decided I wanted to make the protagonist blind, because it COULD make PERFECT sense in universe, and because-- as, of course, it should be in fiction-- why the heck not?

This post came to me at the perfect time-- not only do I think legally blind-but-not-without-vision makes more sense for the story, but because it can become a character interaction that I'm pumped to write! I'm really excited to go do research and contribute in what little ways I can to diversity in fiction.

If I finish it, I'll be sure to link it to you. Thank you so much for writing this!

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