Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Representations of disability in literature

Over the years, literature has evolved to become more inclusive. More novels are exploring sexuality and narrating stories starring characters that are not exclusively White British. But where are the stories featuring disabled people?

If disabilities are represented in literary texts, it helps bring a stigmatised topic to the centre of public discussion. Like LGBTQ+ characters and wider ethnicities, a disability is just another aspect of humanity, and we should not ignore this reality. Contemporary literature, in particular, should strive to reflect the authenticity of being human. In order to achieve this, authors need to be conscious of every type of person that forms our society. That means: write about people with disabilities.

People need to feel validated, important, and cared about. This is evident in everyday life, with Blue Badges made available for ease and expense of parking, free bus passes on offer to increase and encourage mobility, living benefits if it is particularly difficult for people to work, mobility cars and portable, electric wheelchairs at shopping centres, dogs to aid the blind or deaf, and so forth. But this type of help is not so evident in what we read. We shy away from constructing and presenting disabled people within literature – are we afraid of misrepresenting them, or is there a more worrisome aspect to this unfortunate truth?

You might remember a little novel you spent many weeks revising for: Of Mice and Men

There are a few novels, however, that are not afraid to include disabilities in their narrative. If GCSE English still haunts you to this day, you might remember a little novel you spent many weeks revising for: Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck. This tale follows George Milton and Lennie Small as they navigate their way across the United States during the Great Depression. The character of Lennie is shown to have learning disabilities, with signs of autism displayed through his mindset and the way he viewed the world around him. It is just as important to represent learning disabilities as it is to portray physical disabilities. Too often, we judge people because they do not fit into our preconceptions of what a ‘disabled’ person looks like. Steinbeck’s effort to reference this type of behaviour makes readers more aware of how being disabled is not necessarily always obvious from the outside.

Not only are novels read for entertainment, but texts can also be used for academia. Educating people through literature is a popular form of teaching. Readers can enjoy the practice as well as extracting moral and ethical lessons from it. And if they enjoy the work itself, they are more likely to remember what it taught them. Narratives that feature the problematic viewpoints surrounding disabilities are helpful in provoking discussion – and the willingness to discuss this is the first step to actively engaging with this topic. Once it has been explored, and the issues involved with our preconceptions have been refuted and replaced with more accurate judgements, we can begin to progress.

It is exactly the type of presentation which encourages readers to re-evaluate how they look at people with disabilities

Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn, was published in 1989. Although it is older than most other contemporary fiction featuring disabled characters, it offers an invaluable perspective into the morally problematic ways we might perceive them. The novel, which follows the story of a family who run a travelling carnival as their business, was a finalist for the National Book Award in its year of publication. When the family business begins to fail, the parents use a variety of drugs and radioactive material to purposely change the genetic structure of their children so that they are given physical and mental impairments, such as lost limbs and conjoined bodies. This narrative is arguably disrespectful to disabled people, but it is exactly the type of presentation which encourages readers to re-evaluate how they look at people with disabilities.

Although we would prefer more positive conversations around disability, we currently seem to have mostly thought-provoking portrayals to analyse, debate and accentuate the focus on appreciating and aiding the variety of people in our society. Other literary texts which explore disability in a more positive light are unfortunately not as well-known in our cultural sphere.

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