After writing my piece on disability representation in children’s publishing, I felt hopeful that publishers were trying to be intentional and thoughtful about disability representation in their books. Then they started sending me books they felt were good examples of disability representation, and while some of them were great, lots were problematic. One picture book opened with the statement, “I am not disabled,” and proceeded to disparage the term and people who call themselves disabled (Someone with limb differences wrote it). Another picture book published last year, I See You See by Richard Jackson, compares a child that uses a wheelchair to a dog. This picture book has astonishingly made it onto “Best of 2021” lists despite its cringe-worthy representation of disability.
I find just as much recent adult and YA fiction filled with disability stereotypes and tropes. A much-anticipated new release I recently finished, To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara, has a character become autistic after taking medication for a virus. This is problematic because of the myths that surround vaccines, medicine, and their link to autism when in fact there is clear evidence vaccines do not cause autism. Another autistic-coded character threatens to stab students with a virus-filled needle unless they befriend them. These are deeply problematic portrayals of autism that I was astonished to find in what is otherwise a gorgeously written book.
Writing is hard! I have all the respect for writers, and I’m positive that most authors mean no harm in their portrayals. In many respects, ableist stereotypes are so coded into storytelling that it becomes second nature for writers — particularly non-disabled writers — to use them. Disabled writer Amanda Leduc discusses this in her fantastic analysis combined with memoir Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space. She describes the ableist tropes in fairy tales and how those tropes have seeped into contemporary storytelling. And it has seeped into all media, not just fiction. News abounds with ableism, from the CDC stating that it’s encouraging that mainly disabled people are dying from the Omicron variant to speculation about whether school shooters are “on the spectrum” to inspiration porn about disabled people doing regular stuff.
After talking with publishers, reviewers, writers, and readers about disability, I decided that it wasn’t enough to say there needed to be more disability representation in publishing. People in the bookish community need concrete examples of problematic portrayals to understand how and why these portrayals are harmful to the disabled community. At the same time, disability is not a monolith. Our experiences and personalities vary, of course! This is what makes it challenging to write a list of disability stereotypes, because there should be — must be — nuance in the way disabled characters are written. This list isn’t meant as a set of rules so much as a list of things to think about and problems disabled readers frequently find in fiction. I used my own knowledge as a disabled reader combined with discussions in some of the disabled groups I’m in to come up with these nine ableist tropes most frequently seen in books for all ages. As a warning, while I try to be vague about the ableism in books, I do list some spoilers.
9 Ableist Tropes In Fiction
The Villainous Disabled Character
I imagine most people have seen villainous disabled characters in film, such as with James Bond villains. This trope also frequently occurs in books. For example, in the much-lauded Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr, a character coded as autistic turns into a domestic terrorist and bombs a library. The character is the only autistic character in the book, and Doerr plays into stereotypes about autistic people when writing him. This is especially disturbing given the way domestic terrorists, especially white male domestic terrorists (such as the character in the book), are framed by the media as being “mentally ill” or even at times as “on the spectrum.” People on the autism spectrum are not more likely to become domestic terrorists or shooters. They are as capable of compassion, empathy, and, yes, violence, as anyone else.
This is not to say that disabled people shouldn’t be villains. This may seem like I’m negating my previous statements, but like everyone, disabled people come in all shapes and sizes and good/evil alignments. Books containing multiple disabled characters, one of whom is a villain, often read more nuanced than ones with a single disabled character that turns evil. But, I hear some Cloud Cuckoo Land readers protest, there are multiple disabled characters in the book. Yes, but only one in that timeline, and he’s the only neurodiverse character. It makes his violent story arc stand out even more, as if people with autism are more likely to bomb libraries than other disabled (or non-disabled) folks.
The Mystical Disabled Character
Often disabled characters are portrayed as wise and mystical. The heroes visit these disabled characters to receive sage advice and magic potions. Or, when they become disabled, they are suddenly imbued with magical powers. A famous example of this is Bran from Game of Thrones, who becomes wise, all-knowing, and magical when he falls from a window and becomes disabled. Magic becomes a replacement for whatever the disabled person is “missing,” and these characters often become “unlikely” heroes and save the day. I’m using lots of quotations because ableist ideas teach that disability means something is lacking and that disabled characters are unlikely to be heroes, making them the underdog.
I won’t lie, fantasy is my favorite genre, and I often find myself enjoying fantasy novels even when there are super problematic ableist tropes. I’ve written before about how I believe I was drawn to reading fantasy as a pre-teen and teen because of my then-undiagnosed health problems. However, I wish I’d been able to see more accurate and nuanced portrayals of myself in those novels. There can be disabled characters in fantasy that aren’t stereotypes! I would LOVE to see this happen more often. But these characters should be nuanced, and disability should not imbue the character with magical powers. Bran could’ve had moments of omniscience before falling from the window and could’ve acted like a normal human child afterward, and not some kind of strange Yoda, his personality before the fall wiped away.
This happens in non-fantasy works as well, where disability gives a character the ability to solve a mystery or see a problem no other character noticed. For further reading about this trope, here’s a blog about the mystical disability and one specifically about blindness. I feel like nine out of ten times I read a book with a blind character in it, they are described as mystical in some way.
Disability as a Character Quirk
Disability as a character quirk comes in many forms. Sometimes these characters are depicted as disabled to make them stand out and show them as important to the novel. For example, in Wicked Saints by Emily A. Duncan, a morally grey character is given a tragic backstory and a scar across his eye that affects his vision to suddenly make him seem more sympathetic and pitiable. Despite his bad deeds, since he is being punished daily by his disability, the reader can view him as a potential love interest. Needless to say, this is not how disability works. Disability is not a punishment, nor is it a personality trait.
Related to this trope, I often read books where the characters are depicted as disabled, but the author never specifically addresses how the character is disabled and instead uses the disability as a character quirk. To Paradise, which I discuss in the introduction, is an excellent example of this. Specific characters are coded as autistic but are never given these diagnoses despite sometimes living in time periods where they would most likely have received such a diagnosis; instead, other characters in the novel read those characters as “weird” and “strange.” To be clear, many disabled people struggle to find diagnoses and don’t discover diagnoses until late in life. It took me more than a decade to receive a diagnosis. But that’s different from a character being written as disabled to provide quirkiness to the story.
This stereotype can also take the form of a character being described as disabled a few times and never again. Disability is a daily, lived experience and can’t be randomly put on or discarded when it fits in best with the plot. I sometimes work as a sensitivity reader, and I see this a lot in pieces I’m asked to read, where after the first chapter, the disability is hardly mentioned ever again.
Disabled Character Provides Character Growth
The protagonist’s actions toward a disabled character, often a sibling in middle grade novels, help them become a better person. Or, the disabled character is an inspirational force in the abled protagonist’s life. The novel Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, and the film based on it, are rife with ableism. In particular, the quadriplegic character Will is the plot device to provide character growth for the main character Louisa, who works as his caregiver. The disabled community has criticized both the film and the book. I have not read the book nor watched the movie because I’d already heard the criticism from the disabled community, but I encourage readers to check out this article about the book and film, which thoroughly outlines the ableism. Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol is a classic, well-known example of this type of ableism as well. His sole purpose is to bring about a change of heart in Scrooge.
I want to connect this to another theme I find problematic but isn’t quite pervasive enough across fiction for its own section: disabled characters providing teachable moments. I see this a lot in children’s books. Just Ask by Sonia Sotomayor and Rafael López encourages abled children to ask disabled children why they are disabled. I continue to be shocked that anyone would think this is a positive message. Going up to a disabled person and asking why they are disabled is extremely rude. A person’s medical history is no one’s business. I highly recommend watching this reel about the problems with Just Ask. Disabled people are not required to teach anyone about their disability or disabilities in general.
Inspirational Disabled Character
Disabled people do not exist to inspire able-bodied folk. Books with this trope depict disabled people as paragons of human existence. They can do no wrong. This stereotype is similar to the above but different in that the disabled character can be the protagonist. Disabled readers have criticized Wonder by R.J.Palacio for being inspiration porn. In it, the main character, who has an undefined facial deformity, leads an anti-bullying campaign and inspires others to be kind. (There have been lots of criticism of Wonder for many reasons in the disabled community. Here’s one excellent article about ableism in Wonder.) I have no doubt the author meant well in writing Wonder, but she also perpetuates the problematic trope of inspiring disabled characters that lack nuance.
Disability Must Be Cured
Clearly, for a disabled character to live happily ever after, their disability needs to be cured, right? No! This is ableism at its most pervasive. Many disabled folks are disabled and proud of their identity as being disabled. And, if you can imagine it, quite happy and enjoy their lives. As Wendy Lu states in an article for Everyday Feminist, “Cure-focused narratives promote the harmful idea that disabled people’s bodies and lives are less valuable because of their identity.” Disability is not an obstacle to overcome. It is a lived experience, a part of a person’s identity. I see the cure narrative in both fantasy and non-fantasy fiction.
In fantasy, magical cures often rid a character of their disability and provide them their happily ever after. I really appreciate Kristin Cashore’s apology for doing this in her novel Graceling, where magic gives a blind character his sight back. In The Witcher novels and show, Yennefer is magically cured of her disability, which I’ve written about before. While I must admit I enjoy the books and show, how powerful it would’ve been to see Yennefer as a powerful and sexy disabled magic user!
Related to the need to cure the disabled character is when the writer gives a surprise twist where — Ta Da! — the character wasn’t disabled at all!!! Their caregiver was lying or making them sick, or something along those lines. Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon is a prime example of this hand-wavy magicking away of disability so a happily ever after can occur.
The Tragic Disabled Character
Oh, how dismal it is to be disabled! These characters often go from able-bodied to tragically disabled. I’ve already discussed Me Before You, but Will’s character is also an example of the tragic disabled character. He goes from a sports star to being unable to walk. The only way out of his sad life is through suicide. Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame is another example of a tragic disabled character, defined by his outsider status, whose life ends in suicide. In The Good People by Hannah Kent, the disabled child’s entire existence is defined by tragedy.
While tragedy can, of course, strike disabled people — as it can anyone — our personalities are not tragic. Our existence should not be only to provide tragic moments in a narrative. If a novel’s entire plot is focused on how tragic it is to be disabled, there’s a problem.
Disabled Characters Don’t Have Sex/Can’t Be Romantic
Disabled characters in fiction are rarely the love interest, nor are they depicted in sex scenes. I’ve been delighted to see more romance novels written by disabled authors with disabled characters published lately, but it’s still a frequent trope. Because it’s a trope that exists through its lack, it’s hard to find an example of a specific book. In The Witcher show, Yennefer was not allowed to be sexy as a disabled character and therefore had to be transformed into a non-disabled character. I don’t know who needs to hear this, but disabled people have sex and romantic lives. Sex drives and romance does not disappear with a diagnosis.
You Can Do Anything! All You Have To Do Is Try!
Listen, if I put my mind to it, I could drive a car, but the last time I did so I passed out and ran into a fence, so do you really want me driving? No, of course not. What if my dream were to become a race car driver? Then I would need to find a new dream, and that’s okay. Disappointment is part of everyone’s life, and being adaptable and imaginative are traits that can help me realize, “Hey, I can do something else with my life.” I find this trope especially irksome because it seems so obviously false and dismissive. No one — disabled and non-disabled alike — can do everything they set their minds to. We all have limitations. Patience and practice are important skills, but so is acknowledging strengths and weaknesses.
I see this trope a lot in children’s picture books. In I’m Going to Push Through by Jasmyn Wright and Shannon Wright, for example, a series of disabled and non-disabled children alike are told their negative thoughts “aren’t true” and that they need to “push through.” In one such illustration, a child with crutches despairs at being unable to play soccer. “What if you’re not good enough? That’s not true!” reads the text. But should the child with crutches be pushing themself to play soccer? I don’t have enough context in the piece to know, but I worry about the possible pain “pushing through” could cause, and I wonder if it could actually worsen the child’s health problems. This isn’t to say disabled people shouldn’t play soccer — many do! Every disability is different, and individuals know what they can and cannot do.
This culture of toxic positivity and ableism pervades children’s picture books. I’m not saying that disabled folk can’t do amazing things. Of course we can! But pushing people to do things they find difficult or even painful just for the sake of accomplishing the task is problematic. People, disabled and abled alike, can recognize their strengths and limitations and set their own goals. It’s okay to fail or be unable to accomplish a task.
Let me reiterate that I know writing is challenging, and I have all the respect for writers. I hope these examples help writers and readers alike think in nuanced ways about disability and disabled life. I cannot emphasize enough the need for writers and publishers to hire multiple disabled sensitivity readers. As I said in the introduction, disability is not a monolith. We do not all have the same opinions or the same experiences. Reading books by disabled authors about their experiences is also essential. Here’s a list of nonfiction I loved by disabled authors about their experiences. I’ve also written lists of excellent middle grade novels, YA novels, and adult novels with disabled characters. Despite focusing on negative portrayals in this piece, there are a lot of wonderful novels out there, and I hope to see many more in the future. We need more nuanced portrayals of disabled people in all genres, ones that think outside ableist tropes.