By Nan Hawthorne
Being disabled myself, I notice how characters with disabilities in historical novels are portrayed. Like fat people, who more often than not in books, movies and on television are portrayed as selfish or bullying or otherwise unpleasant, people with disabilities tend to be stereotyped. The two extremes they fall into are villainous and saintly. At best they are made to look helpless. Is this a valid concern? Are there no villainous, saintly or helpless people with disabilities? Of course these types exist in real life. However, there are also lazy black people, passive or manipulative women, greedy Jews and drunken Irishmen, but we would never allow ourselves to overindulge in these negative stereotypes. Why do we let the stereotypes of people with disabilities stand or go so far as to use them ourselves in our own work?
Perhaps it is because authors don’t imagine readers with disabilities holding their books in their hands that they are so willing to create two-dimensional characters like these. They may believe the stereotypes. Or it may also be that it seems easy to explain them away. When I pointed out not just one but two villainous characters with disabilities in The Whispering Bell by Brian Sellars, another author explained, “But I just thought it was that his lameness is what made him so bitter and vindictive.” I can’t argue with that, except to say that having the two bad guys be a lame man and a visually impaired man was suggestive of author attitude, and that bitterness is not always a characteristic of a lame person, nor lame people the only ones to be bitter. The point is that it is far too easy, and in my opinion lazy, of an author to use such stereotypes.
In her The Wise Woman Philippa Gregory transgresses in a slightly different way. The seneschal is a Little Person, a dwarf. Because it is a novel, this was the author’s intention. The seneschal is supposed to be rather creepy and the author is using his disability to magnify this. Why could she not have chosen any other type of person? Is it fair to real Little People to find themselves constantly portrayed either as creepy or jesters?
You may say, “But in other times people with disabilities had much more limited options than they do now. Being ‘politically correct’ does not change that.’ You are right, but that’s not the point. The point is that these characters have been objectified, and the author is not seeing them as individuals like anyone else. An example where the author is obviously fully aware of the humanity of a disabled character is Sharon Kay Penman’s Rhiannon, the Welsh wife of Ranulf Fitzroy, in her trilogy of When Christ and his Saints Slept, Time and Chance and The Devil’s Brood. When Penman was a guest on an AccessibleWorld.org book discussion group, the blind and otherwise print impaired callers expressed their appreciation of the portrayal. Rhiannon is blind and has been for most of her life. She is neither helpless nor angelic. She can get good and mad with the best of them, be foolish or hasty, but no more than any other person in the story. She has adapted to her surroundings and navigates it well most of the time. If you remove her blindness from the story, it could still be told just as it is. Her blindness, that is, is not the central fact of who she is. That is reality. I for instance am myself before I am anything else, including blind.
Here is a useful exercise for realigning your expectations of characters with disabilities. Write a story about a dinner party. There should be at least ten people attending from different walks of life depending on your era of choice. Name them, describe them, and tell a little story about each one. When you have finished, use some random method to choose one of the people. This will be your person with a disability, probably one you should choose before you start. Think about the character with his or her disability and whether you find yourself seeing that person any differently. Don’t assume anything, but rather read up on the disability, talk to people who share it, and see if your suppositions are accurate or prejudiced. Don’t feel bad if they are the latter – just remember the exercise next time you write a new character who is disabled.
We live in a world divided into Us and Them, and so long as any group is stuck in Society’s Them category, they will be objectified. That is unfortunate of course, but it also robs your stories of the depth and breadth they should have. Writing stereotypes is far more than a poor choice. It is demeaning to your very art. Doesn’t your talent deserve better?