Crafting characters / Representing ourselves / Writing journey

Spoon-Feeding the Able-Bodied Reader

I am a disabled author, editor, and academic. I grew up wanting to see people like myself in my fiction—people with disabilities. All I ever encountered were tropes about disabled people. We could be the wise mentor who dies, the inspirational hero who is rewarded with a magical cure, about the person who triumphs over their disability. These tropes are damaging to us . . . so we decide to write back.

The only problem is that often when we disabled authors write back, we still assume that our audience is the able-bodied public rather than the disabled public. We are still writing for someone other than ourselves. We assume our readers are going to be able-bodied, so we include background about disabilities, seeking to educate the able-bodied public about disabilities.

What often ends up happening in our writing is that we end up writing diagnoses instead of characters. We are so used to justifying our presence in the world that we end up doing it in our writing, relying on the one thing that has allowed us a validated presence in our world—our medical documentation.

We don’t seek to create medicalized stories about ourselves, and we don’t start out thinking that our audience will be able-bodied, but we are so accustomed to filling in the blanks for able-bodied people that it ends up in our work. Our stories end up being as much about explaining our bodies as they are about plot. In doing so, we frequently end up achieving what we resist—we end up writing about ourselves as extensions of our disabilities. This ends up reinforcing what able-bodied readers and writers assume: that we are made up of tropes, we are constructions of our disabilities, and that our disabilities are our central meaning and way of interacting with the world. This is not to say that our disabilities aren’t significant. When I approach the world, I do so as a disabled person, but I also do so as a Queer person, as an academic, as an artist, as a family member, and as a fan of rabbits. We are complex beings, but we are often convinced to give away our complexities because of an assumed audience.

Publishers frequently reinforce this explanation of disabled bodies. We are asked by our publishers to explain disabilities because the reader is assumed to be lazy and uninterested in educating themselves about disability. Our publishers frequently try to convince us to write texts that are pedagogical about disabled bodies because there is a perceived need to educate people about disabilities.

nospoonfeedingI propose that we, as disabled writers, try to shift the paradigm in disabled writing. I propose that we start writing stories for the disabled community rather than about us. I propose that we shift our vision and we look at disabled stories as things that are of interest to other disabled people. We frequently search for stories that represent us, desiring to see ourselves in our texts, and that is often what inspires us to start writing disabled characters into our work and creating DisArt, but we can shift our perspective to writing for other disabled people, creating art that would empower us rather than presuming an able-bodied audience.

With other characters, we assume our readers will educate themselves and fill in the blanks about what they are reading either by understanding the character through context or through their own ability to look things up, but we so often spoon-feed our able-bodied readers, feeling the need to give them all of the details up front, to educate them.

When I teach my writing students, I frequently tell them to avoid the info dump—it seems like it may be time for us as disabled authors to avoid the info dump about our disabilities, to cease trying to give all the details up front, and to stop spoon-feeding our readers and let them educate themselves.


Derek Newman-StilleDerek Newman-Stille is a PhD ABD and teaches at Trent University. Derek runs the five-time Aurora Award-Winning website and associated radio show Speculating Canada . Derek is also the co-creator (along with Brittany Warman and Sara Cleto) and editor of the folklore digital humanities hub Through the Twisted Woods. Derek has written afterwards for publications like Accessing the Future and Playground of Lost Toys. He is currently co-editing a collection with Kelsi Morris titled Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales from the Margins.

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