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.
Friday, March 30, 2012
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.