Nov 3, 2016
It's been a long time since we had a #DiverseReads2016 guest post, so let's remedy that today! As we are currently in the mental health and disabilities phase of the challenge, today we have Lara from Another Teen Reader who shares what she expects from YA as a disabled reader.
Chances are, you guys haven’t met me. Hello. I’m a blogger, reader, schoolgirl, musical theatre addict … and I’m disabled. My technical diagnosis is Cerebral Palsy (which you can read more about on the Scope website if you so wish) and what it means is that I find it really hard to identify 100% with most characters because they are so rarely disabled. While disability doesn't define me, it is a huge part of my life, and honestly I just want to see that recognised in the books I read. I don't speak for everyone in the disability community, but these are some things that I wish would show up in YA – and books in general – to help me see myself in fiction. That, at least, is a privilege we all deserve to have once in a while.
There are very few books out there that reference the disability within them in their cover art, and that makes me very, very sad.
Of course, some disabilities can be tricky to represent - what does autism "look like", for example? How can you show a character has chronic pain or some other invisible disability without it being forced? - but I really don't understand why cover designers and publishers choose not to show a character with a hearing aid when they wear one for the entire book, or hide a character's wheelchair out of the frame when without it, they'd never have a hope of completing their quest.
Actually, I do understand. I understand that book covers are supposed to draw us in, to encourage us to buy; and I understand that the (mostly able-bodied) publishing industry is worried that disability repulses people. (Sometimes, it does, and that's incredibly problematic, but it's also a topic for another day.) I understand that they view representing disability with their covers as a risk. But honestly? I'm probably more likely to buy a book because I see disability on its cover, and relate to it. A lot of people are the same. And there are ways of showing disability without it being ultra-realistic, if you're worried that will put people off - just look at El Deafo, for instance.
Basically, if the publishing industry is listening, representing disability in your covers isn't as much of a risk as you think. And - trust me - it makes so many people feel so much more included. You've got the power - why not do it?
Miracle cures were, I think, a really disturbing trope in classic literature. They happened pretty much the same every time: you've got a sickly child whose illness is incurable. They are hidden away until some well-meaning able-bodied person (usually religious, but not always) teaches them to have a better outlook on life. And then all of a sudden that incurable illness is just sort of ... gone.
*cough* Colin from The Secret Garden *cough*
That trope is worrying for all kinds of reasons (I'm pretty sure I ranted a bit more about them here), BUT NOW IT'S BACK. In Fantasy and Sci-Fi novels, it's quite common for technology or magic to render a character's disability effectively nonexistent.
You can imagine how sad that is, right? I mean, these are two genres where disability representation of any kind is thin on the ground to start off with, and to see your empathy link with a character snatched away like that is ... well, sucky. I guess it might be in the name of realism to some extent - if the magic's there, characters are likely to use it - but to have one miracle cure that solves the entire disability, which in most cases will be pretty complex - seems tacky. And wrong. And ... ARGH!
This ... I'm specifically talking about YA on this one, to be honest, because ableist language (language offensive to disabled people) seems to show up a lot in YA. It's usually in the point-of-view character's internal monologue, and frankly it just feels like a slap in the face. I know they're not calling me a sp*z, or anything, but the use of the word just makes me feel like the author specifically told me to stop reading. WOULDN'T IT BE AMAZING IF, JUST ONCE, A CHARACTER GOT CALLED OUT ON THEIR SLURS?
Sorry, I got a bit over-excited. It's just ... well, I'd love to see someone stick up for me on the page, that's all. Reinforcing the idea that ableist words aren't okay can help so many people's lives, not just those who read it and feel valued, but also because it might stand a chance of erasing the slurs from other people's vocabulary. And ... making the world a better place?
I probably don't have to tell you that there are thousands of disabilities out there. In terms of how they specifically affect people, there's probably as many conditions as there are disabled people. Some are rarer than others, sure, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be written about.
We need to do something to ruin the misconception that disability = wheelchair, or all visual impairments mean complete blindness, or ... oh, A MILLION DIFFERENT THINGS. Variety is important for true diversity.
I discovered Disability in Kidlit (a brilliant website of disability-related books reviewed by disabled people) while I was starting to research this post, a little over a month ago, and I was utterly shocked to see that there were enough books involving disability to keep a site like that going. But ... after quite a bit of digging, I've discovered that there are an awful lot of books out there that feature disability. I mean, loads.
Off the top of my head, I can list two that I'd heard of without having to do extensive research. TWO? I'm a person who looks out for this kind of book in whatever way I can, and I've still only heard of two?
We need disabled characters to be readily available. It's about people like me, who are desperate for representation and - generally - have no reason to go hunting for it because they've no way of knowing it exists. It's about the 1 in 5 able-bodied humans who believe disabled people need to accept a lower quality of life, most of whom have never met a disabled person. It's about the teens who form their perceptions of life from YA lit, and see nothing that helps them understand disability.
It's about books being unable to change people's perception of themselves and other people if they can't be found.
Thank you for that beautiful and enlightening post, Lara! I hope that these 5 things will be done right in YA.