Tuesday, April 27, 2021

How Can I Tell If This is a Harmful Representation of Disability?

A few weeks ago, I was honored to present a preconference on disability justice in libraries with a former student, Jennifer. It was awesome to talk about the overarching lies that the abled narrative tells us and having Jennifer talk about the ways that her library is countering these lies right now.

As I continue to learn and grow in my understanding of disability justice, my preconference (Inspirations, Burdens, and Other Lies: The Disability Community in the Library) continues to grow with me through many iterations, from the confronting name change to the examples I cover to how I cover it.  The following is information that didn't make it into the presentation this time, but it was referenced and provided afterward.

This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, but is definitely a starting off point. I hope you find it helpful!

"Books and Media: A Disability Justice Approach"

When evaluating titles to recommend about disability, here are some things you’ll want to consider:

-Does the book focus on the experiences of a disabled character, or does it focus more on an abled sibling or friend and experiences of the disabled character from their perspective? A lot of media has been created from the perspective of abled people, leaving disabled people acutely aware of how we’re viewed and what society expects from us. Our self-esteem can consequently be formed around other people rather than our own self worth.

-Is the disabled character as fleshed out as other characters, or do they seem to not have thoughts or experiences independent of the abled characters? Besides having few disabled main characters, disabled side characters often are a metaphor or a tool through which an abled main character grows as a person. A clear message to disabled people here is that we aren’t people in the same way abled people are people. This is untrue. Disabled people are people, just like abled people are people, and we deserve our own stories.

-Does the disabled character have special abilities, extraordinary wisdom, otherworldly patience and kindness, or another quality to “make up” for the disability and increase their worth to abled characters? It can be great to see superheroes with disabilities, don’t get me wrong. But if a character is given powers so that it somehow compensates for their disability and makes them “good enough” to exist, disabled readers without superpowers can learn that they aren’t “good enough” just as they are.

-Are any good traits of the disabled character qualified in terms of their disability? (examples: “She was so stunning I hardly noticed her crutches”; “she was surprisingly smart for someone with her condition”) Disabled people have plenty of good qualities that don’t need to be couched in relation to disability; but lines like this tell disabled people plenty about how our worth will be measured.

-Can the character be happy living with their disability, or does their happiness increase when they do things that may be medically ill-advised in order to be more like abled people? Does a disabled person go against medical advice to show how brave or spontaneous they are? This is a common trope where a disability is a metaphor for something “holding back” an abled person. Abled people can read books with this theme and feel inspired. What disabled people learn is that we’ll never live a full life because we are disabled. This is untrue, and harmful.

-Does the character need to “overcome” their disability to achieve success, or is success possible with a disability? Disabled people are under no obligation to overcome their disability; living with a disability in itself is pretty badass. Unfortunately, media rarely teaches this message. Instead, we’re taught that we need a narrative of overcoming disability in order to claim space among abled people, or to explain and then minimize our disabilities in order to fit in.

-Are analogies made about abled characters “overcoming” negative traits like meanness and disabled characters “overcoming” disability, as if disability and meanness are the same? 

One way media uses disability as a metaphor is for a disabled character to overcome their disability while an abled character overcomes their past as a bully, for instance, being forever changed by the disabled character. Aside from the disabled person being used as a prop, it’s a tall order to burden disabled readers with the expectation that their disability means they need to have superhuman kindness and compassion. The world can be frustrating for disabled people, and there should be room for us to display anger and annoyance as well as gratitude. It’s not our job to teach abled people to be basically decent humans. These types of tropes, however, teach us that we shouldn’t automatically expect respect or even basic human decency from abled people, and any negative interaction is up to us to rectify.

-Does the disabled character spend a lot of time wishing they were abled? Just because it’s difficult for abled writers to imagine being content with living as a disabled person, doesn’t mean that disabled people constantly curse their luck. If we do, it’s mostly because of reminders that abled people don’t have to plan as much as we do, and can generally expect their basic access needs will be met at any given time. A disabled person could learn through media that we are expected to dislike our disabilities, which can be detrimental to our self-esteem.

-Are there any anti-disability slurs in the book? Do characters use the r-word? What about words like “m*ron” or “cr*zy”? There are lots of imaginative negative words to use without resorting to shortcuts to describe antagonists in a story, even if these words are used in dialogue to demonstrate how “mean” a character is.

-As a reader, how do you feel about the disabled character in general? As a whole, what does this book communicate to the reader about disability? What would this book add to a disabled reader’s self-concept? This is basically what it boils down to. Admittedly, it can be difficult to gauge whether a book or movie is a good representation of disability. But it can help to try to answer the question of what this media told you about the disabled experience. If you’re left feeling grateful you’re not the disabled character, that’s not a good sign.

 The truth is, decent representation--and especially #ownvoices titles -- are so few and far between that if you recognize the above tropes, a piece of media may still be an important piece of your collection until a time when it can be weeded and replaced by a more worthy representation, lest disabled children don't see themselves on your shelves at all (this is a point I would make about disability specifically, and only in some cases. It is possible for nothing to be better than something if that something is harmful to a child's fragile and growing sense of self). But promotion, obviously, is different.

I know that we can't always know everything about a book before we order it, and we rely on reviews a lot. One more way the abled narrative finds its way into publishing is in reviews themselves. Here is an article by Nicola Griffith on spotting ableism in a book review.


  1. This has given me food for thought. I will be double checking our inventory for the appropriate books.

    1. Thank you so much for reading and considering!