Guest Post, McKenzie Zalopany: Writing on Disability

When taking your first Fiction Form and Technique class, you can pretty much count on three things: half a dozen stories involving an “epic” party in high school, one to two overly-opinionated, Hemingway-worshiping students who totally know more than the professor, and one noir story where the murderer was the drunk detective the whole time. My first short story ever submitted was a Greek Myth Sirens spin-off that ended in suicide—not great.

A wonderful professor I had during undergrad used the phrase “first exit choices,” meaning your story’s plot is metaphorically driving down a highway and suggested we skip the first five exits, or rather ideas, and go to sixth, seventh, or eighth exits. By the time Fiction three rolled around, my classmates and I were doing just that—expanding ideas, sharpening plots, and being as weird as possible in all the best ways. Something I’ve noticed, which can happen in professionally published forms of writing too, was the continuation of writers improperly capturing disability: writers using disability as a plot device, prop, and/or metaphor to push the narrative forward.

What I don’t want is to deter writers from including disabled characters, but to bring awareness to the possible ableist prose that often ensues when they do. We live in a time where intersectional activism is extremely prevalent, and while I loved the advice to exclude racist dialects and sexist tropes I’d received in class, I didn’t hear much advice when it came to representing the disability community. It’s not that my classmates or professors are purposely enforcing ableism, but rather our society doesn’t talk about this particular –ISM as much as it should.

So how can you be a better disability-inclusive writer, you might ask? For one, your disabled character doesn’t always need an origin story. When writing your able-bodied character, you don’t always include their birth, right? It’s just the same with your disabled character, they were born, and now they’re tooting around. It’s not always by car crash, they’re not always in a mental institution; and no, they wouldn’t rather die in the end of your story than be disabled.

If you do want to explore disability activism, maybe research important issues that affects their community (and ours for that matter):

  1. Accessibility
  2. ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act)
  3. Disability involving Veterans
  4. Disability represented in pop-culture
  5. Special Education
  6. Ableist language

Sometimes, when creating a character, (and this goes with writing any minority) ask yourself, “am I appropriating?” or “am I stigmatizing this character?” For example, creating disabled characters who are bummed about their disability, or characters who are bummed about having disabled children only propagates the stigma that disability is a bad thing. Creating strong disabled characters is just as important as making differently raced characters in any form of art.

Once you start acquainting yourself with disability activism you can’t not see tropes that are embedded in pop culture’s representation of disabled characters. As a comic book and general action hero narrative lover, I’ve noticed how most of the villains are assigned with disabled elements: A missing arm (Klaw), a breathing condition (Bane), mental illness (Joker) or exterior differences (Freddie Kueger). Now, I’m not saying there aren’t any disabled superheroes, I mean look at Dare Devil, Finn when he loses his arm, Luke Skywalker, Cyborg, or Oracle, but even those are widely debated characters that teeter within the rhetoric of the disability community because of their unrealistic representations of disability. My point is, if you’re into creating graphic novels/comics, try to not to default your villain as disabled, whether it be exterior, physical, or mental, or balance it with a disabled superhero, sidekick, etc.

Lastly, if you are or aren’t including a disabled character, try and avoid ableist language by knowing the origins of words. Look, we are writers and we love words, so why not do a little more research in the language you are choosing to fill your art with?  For example, if you’re writing a poem about yourself, and you’re going through a tough time and feel fragmented, don’t use words like “My body lay still and lame.” The word “lame” is a derogatory term used against people with physical disabilities. And while you might not think that word is offensive, people with disabilities do. There are so many other words, people!

There is a reason we writers will go through three, five, ten drafts when working on a piece of work. We’re all driving down the same highway, and our destination is to create a well-rounded, interesting piece of work. Why wouldn’t you or I want to create an inclusive story, poem, graphic novel or whatever medium, that resonates in a powerful or fun way?