Word Nerdery: Disability in Fiction

I think it’s time that I talk about the crossing over of real life to the world of fiction. Specifically, I wish to talk about disability in fiction, and the fact that not everything can be fixed. Sometimes, there are no magical solutions for difficult things, and that’s okay. 

I’m disabled. I have a condition called Hypermobile Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, which basically means that my connective tissue is all sorts of wonky. Therefore, my joints are unstable and can pop in or out at random intervals. Over the last six years, my joints have become increasingly problematic, which has changed my life. My knees are the worst, but any and all joints can and will be involved. Sometimes, I can get by with minimal amounts of pain and will only need my cane. Sometimes, I’m in enough pain that I need my wheelchair. And some days, the joints that are affected run throughout my entire body, so while I need my wheelchair, I can’t push myself around and am basically bed-bound.

It’s a difficult condition, and it has come to dominate my life. I have several comorbidities involving my digestive system and my immune response to allergens. Between these and the pain, I am managing this disease on a day to day basis, and even considering a simple activity like going to the bookstore relies on acknowledging this disease.

It sucks sometimes.

Most of the time, though, it’s just how life is. There’s really no point in laying on the floor, weeping, as I’d then have to claw my way back up to standing, and that’s a bother. So I get on with life. I have to make accommodations, but life goes on. Time, as they say, marches relentlessly forwards, and I must too or be left behind. It’s not bravery, it’s not inspiring, it’s just life.

However, since my disability has come to fruition, I’ve found that I like reading stories about other people with disabilities or difficulties, and that I enjoy writing those stories even more. The books I’ve read, though, don’t really make sense to me.

Unless written by people with an intimate connection to disability, most books tend to romanticise it. The disabled person is almost always a side character, and they sit around longing for a normal life, totally dependent on the main character to take care of them. While a lot of disabled people need care, and we all do long for normal, I haven’t met all that many people who just sit around and dream. We get on with things to the best of our ability. 

For those disabled people who are the main characters (and here I’m discounting deformities like scars), a lot of time there is a magical cure, and suddenly the disability was like it never existed. This is especially true in fantasy novels, where there is actual magic, but it happens in other books, too. Romance, especially, has miraculous cures. It also has unrealistic expectations of disabled heros or heroines being so attractive and moody that the love interest just falls head over heels. I see this primarily in wounded veteran stories where the hero just hates himself, but the heroine loves him so fiercely—despite the disability—that he decides to live another day. Blind romance stories are especially common. 

“He loves her despite not being able to see her!” 

“Love is blind!”


Now, I’m not saying that there’s anything inherently wrong with wanting to cure disability. Frankly, if we could do away with disabilities, then our world would be a massively better place. It’s not going to happen, though. People are always going to have disabilities, have health issues or injuries that make living a normal life almost impossible. 

That doesn’t mean we can’t live. 

In fiction that is written by people with disabilities, I see a lot more of the main character’s issues just being regular issues. The story doesn’t hinge on them being “broken,” it’s just another aspect of character development. The plot doesn’t involve some magical cure to fix them, because despite not being able to live as normal people do, they’re living their life.

Not every problem can be fixed, but nor does every problem need to be fixed.

Do I wish that I could do normal activities again? Sure. I’d love to be able to hike miles and miles rather than short bursts of walking. But I’m also still doing things that I love. I’m writing books. I’m reading books. I’m editing books. (Sense a theme here?) I’m sewing. I’m drawing. I’m creating.

I don’t need to be fixed. I can continue living as I am, and I’ll be fine. Yes, there’s pain, but it’s not the end of the world. I don’t need the pity filled stares when I’m out with my cane and service dog. (To be fair, most of the stares I get when I’m out with my service dog are of the, “Dog! Dog! I want to pet the dog but I can’t because it’s working, but it’s so cute and ohmygosh dog!” variety. I get almost no notice at all.) I certainly don’t need stories where disability is something to be fixed no matter what.

I’m pleased to note that there are more disabled characters appearing in popular fiction. Yes, it’s still a small percentage, but frankly, we aren’t a massive percentage of the population to begin with. I’ve found loads of disabled fiction stories that are really good, and they’ve begun to outweigh the bad. 

The thing is, though, I’d love for stories to one day treat disabilities like any other character trait. She’s got blue eyes. He’s got brown skin. They’re disabled. It’s just a part of who they are, and it doesn’t need to be changed.

Not every demon can be slain; some will linger in the shadows, no matter how much light you bring to the room. Disability sucks, of that there is no doubt. But it’s not the end of the world. We don’t need accolades for dealing with pain, but nor do we need to be carried. We just need to live as best we can. In fiction and in real life.