Showing posts with label disability in kidlit. Show all posts
Showing posts with label disability in kidlit. Show all posts

Sunday, February 5, 2017

How to Recognize Ableism in Books: The Sufferer, Magical Disabilities, and Cures | Book Blogging Etiquette (#8)

Consider this post a follow-up to my post about recognizing racism in books. 

Here are some tips to help you recognize ableist narratives and hopefully make you more aware of these tropes when reading. 


Note that disabled people are not a monolith. I can't and won't speak for all disabled people out there. Make sure to read posts about topics like this by as many disabled people as you can to try to get an idea about the things you should avoid.


Wait, what is ableism? 
Ableism means discrimination against disabled people. It's basically racism for disabilities. There you go. As with the other post, I'll underline words that I think you should learn. If you don't know what they mean, google is your friend and savior.

Example 1: The Magical Cure

What it is: 
A disabled character gets cured either right at the start of a narrative or as a goal throughout the story or is on a quest to find a cure for their disability. 

Why it's harmful: 
Disabled readers pick up books about disabled characters because they want to feel represented. When you're reading a book about a disabled character that might have your exact disability, reading about them getting cured is extremely harmful. It also perpetuates the idea that disability is a burden and getting cured is a gift that all disabled people strive for, which really is an ableist statement in itself.

How to recognize it:
Books like MAGONIA for example are pitched with the disability and end up curing it. You can pretty much tell from the blurb in most cases and it's fairly easy to recognize. If the disability magically vanishes, gets healed through a wishing well/sorcerer/quest/whatever, or turns out to be actually the result of something paranormal/supernatural, it's ableism.

Example 2: The Faux-Disability

What it is: 
A disabled character that is just disabled on the page, but their portrayal provides no actual representation. Their disability is neither addressed nor is their experience realistic or relevant to the story. I like to call these characters faux-disabled. You could make the character able-bodied and nothing about the book would change.

Why it's harmful: 
Why add a disabled character to your story if you aren't aiming to represent? Usually these characters are just added to make the premise more interesting and sell the book. This fairly obviously isn't done with the intention of giving representation to disabled people. 

How to recognize it:
This is difficult if you're able-bodied and/or not familiar with the exact disability. Here are some good questions to ask

  • Does their disability limit them during the novel? Is any of their experience different than that of an able-bodied person?
  • Are there reflection passages where the character talks about their disability? Usually able-bodied authors with faux-disabled characters shy away from that because this would obviously show how little they know about disability. Not a bullet-proof way to tell, but it's something.
  • Is their disability a plot point? Is it necessary or convenient for them to be disabled just because of a specific plot point?
  • Is their disability cured/turns out not to be real? Think of books like EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING.

Example 3: The "well you're out then"

What it is: 
Writing a character out of the story or shifting them from a main character to a side character or a side character to off the page after they acquire a disability.

Why it's harmful: 
An easy cop out for an author who clearly does not care about disability. Just delete the character instead of representing. It's extremely disheartening to finally see a disabled character in your favorite book, but then they end up getting written out of the story. Disability is reduced to a shocking or dramatic plot point.

How to recognize it:
You'll surely notice when a disabled character disappears or gets degraded to a side character.

Example 4: The Magical Disability

What it is:
A magic ability as an attempt to make sense of disability. Blind characters who have visions, characters with schizophrenia that can hear the voices of dead people, things like that.

Why it's harmful: 
It's very important here to check whether the author draws a line. This magnificent post from Disability in Kidlit explains quite nicely that disabled characters can have magical abilities without making it an ableist narrative IF their disability is not invalidated. Their example is THE UNBECOMING OF MARA DYER, in which the protagonist has PTSD and magical abilities that aren't related.

In most cases books who utilize this don't necessarily want to represent the disability. Their magic ability, if it's tied to the disability, is often a way to say "hey, so that's why people have schizophrenia/are blind/have PTSD." This can easily come across as a way to try and make sense / justify the existence of disabled people, which is just horrific to think about. Do those disabled people who don't have magical abilities in real life then have no reason to exist? Authors who use this trope aren't aiming to give disabled readers characters to relate to but want to use it as a plot device, which again ventures into ableist territory.

How to recognize it:
If you ask yourself - could the disabled character with magical powers also be able-bodied? If the answer is no it's quite likely that it's an ableist story. Check whether it's a plot device.


Example 5: The "Sufferer"

What it is: 
A disabled character whose disability is a burden, it's just suffering with virtually no good aspects, their life is miserable and they hate it and are longing for a magical cure, maybe even actively pursuing finding one.

Note that not all disabled people think alike and this may actually ring true for some disabled people, but if the author of a book like that is able-bodied, they have no business telling a story like that. If we're talking #ownvoices, any disabled author can write about this. This is very much an issue of staying in your lane.

Why it's harmful: 
This is a classic example of suffer porn. Able-bodied people often are entertained by the suffering of disabled people. Look at books like ME BEFORE YOU. The limited representation we get in media will usually be centered around our suffering. Imagine how you'd feel if the only books about able-bodied people were about how much they wished they were disabled and how horrible their life is because they are able-bodied? Well, it's not quite the same, but you get the picture.

How to recognize it:
A book that centers around the suffering, while not being #ownvoices, and possibly also centering around finding a cure. It's quite easy to recognize if you're aware of this trope's existence.


I recognized one of these things in a book. What do I do now?

  • Rate and review. It's very important to prevent more marginalized readers from being harmed
  • Mention the harmful tropes you recognized in your review while also mentioning that you're able-bodied
  • Inform people who recommend the book of its ableism
  • Make sure to check if it's an #ownvoices book. Don't come for #ownvoices books by disabled authors if you're able-bodied. Stay in your lane.
  • Promote and link reviews of people who have the disability that is portrayed poorly and don't back down when someone tells you that it's just an opinion
  • ABLEISM IS NOT AN OPINION.


More on problematicness:

HOLD UP if you plan on commenting: 

Please do not ask advice about specific books or examples in your own writing. I will not answer them. This post took an immense amount of emotional energy to write, so let's be respectful, okay? If you have detailed questions, feel free to submit them to my Patreon, nothing's off limits there. 

If you want to say thanks, consider buying me a virtual coffee through ko-fi here.  It's a nice gesture and will make this feel appreciated. Also will contribute to me taking the time to make more posts like this.

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