Images between covers

Graeme Turner
Throughout history, people with a disability have often been portrayed poorly in fiction books. Characters with disabilities were often pitied or had done something wrong. Some writers used disability to show other ideas such as the problems of a society. Today, writers of fiction talk more about the feelings and thoughts of people with a disability. Writers present characters with a disability as people first. The character's disability is only one part of the person. It is good to read about disability in a positive way. I look forward to more people with a disability becoming writers.
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Graeme Turner on 03/09/2012
A painting of the character Oedipus Rex. His eyes are closed and he has a pained expression.
Oedipus Rex - Brodowski Antoni

Oedipus's self- punishment is blindness.

How have authors represented fictional characters with a disability? Historically they were often depicted as pitiable or evil. But has this changed over time?

Historical image

The young character Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol lurches about on crutches, wishing everyone the best for the season. He is depicted as pitiable, which is a common historical depiction of people with a disability.

In fiction books, disability has been portrayed as punishment or a mark of sin. Oedipus, in Sophocles's play of the same name, pulls out his own eyes as penance for the relationship he forms with his mother. In Shakespeare's Richard II a hunchback is used to represent the character's evil.

Earlier writers seemed to regard those with a disability as lesser people, or focused on the limitations of the disability. These characters were often not suited to real relationships. In Dickens's story The Cricket on the Hearth Bertha is blind. She is someone to be pitied and not fit to be married. In Victor Hugo's The Man Who Laughs the hero's face is carved into a permanent grin. He can only be accepted by a girl who is blind and that believes him to be always smiling.

In some stories disability is used as a metaphor for the human condition. In The Country of the Blind by HG Wells, a traveller visits a lost valley in South America where the inhabitants have become blind.

The traveller is viewed by the inhabitants as being obsessed with seeing, and they think he needs to have his eyes removed. The story uses blindness as a metaphor to talk about the narrow mindedness of society.

In Jose Saramago's novel Blindness, the idea of being blind is developed to portray the breakdown of civilisation. A man's sudden loss of sight is a condition that soon spreads to others. The newly blinded people are detained together. Social structure breaks down as they fail to take care of themselves.

Celebrating achievement

In the 20th century more attention is paid to the achievements of those with disabilities. In Alan Marshall's memoirs I can Jump Puddles he writes about contracting polio as a child. He offers real examples of how people with a disability can overcome obstacles and achieve significant outcomes.

Such positive narratives are also present in fiction. Joanne Greenberg's In this Sign deals with a couple who are Deaf. They leave a Deaf facility to face life in a hearing world and rise above any difficulties with the aid of sign language.

Point of view

In more recent times, writers have moved more fully into the heads of those with disability. In the popular book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, the first person narrative evokes the world of a boy with autism. He prefers red and green foods and enjoys maths problems. And in the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes, he is determined to solve the mystery of the dog next door that's discovered dead and presumed murdered.

A further insight in this style is offered in Terry Truman's novel Stuck in Neutral. Sean is a teenager with cerebral palsy who tells his own story, concerned that his father considers Sean's life not worth living. Inhabiting the character of the boy, the book invites the reader to consider how we cannot assume how other people live their lives.

Character first

There is a move by some authors to present characters with disability as people first. Their disability is simply one issue they also need to confront. An example of this style is expressed in the funny and moving depiction of Dolores Price in She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb. Her mental health is just one of the issues she must handle together with those of family and physical abuse.

Increasing awareness of the human qualities of people is celebrated in small achievements. In recent times Rhubarb by Craig Silvey features Elena Rigby. She is blind and her frustration with life is transformed when she encounters cello player Ewan Dempsey. She, at least in a modest and fleeting way, is allowed to discover that life can offer more possibilities.

How far we've come

We can see how writers have shifted from showing disability as something evil, to now presenting people first. I look forward to writers with a disability not only tackling memoirs but using creativity to move into more adventurous narratives.

Hopefully writers can continue to create characters who are people first, and who just experience disability as simply another problem in a way that we all encounter issues, but still offer an authentic insight into the disability experience. Perhaps these stories will offer a more positive message concerning the capabilities of those with a disability.

What characters with disability have you encountered in fiction?

Readers comments (1)

I seem to be encountering more and more characters with disabilities in the books I read. I have just finished Justin Cronin's The Passage, which includes a character whose eyesight is slowly deteriorating. Unfortunately he supposed to be guarding a compound against hordes of genetically engineered vampires - who I suppose could also be considered as having a disability because they react badly to sunlight. The character who is slowly going blind, is one that sometimes evokes sympathy but at other times evokes pity even scorn. He is too scared to tell anyone about his disability thus putting those he is supposed to be guarding in peril. He fears lose of status and usefulness to society, which most of us with a disability would have felt at some stage.

And then there is the main character of Max Barry's Machine Man. He has an accident where a leg is severed. He is a mechanical engineer, so he builds a new leg. He then has one great mechanical leg and one ordinary organic leg. So he decides to replace the other organic leg. The novel is a black comedy. The main character has a total inability to relate to others and is only interested in turning himself into a better human. I didn't really pity him as I think everyone wants to be better, he just took it to an extreme. I would be very interested how a reader who has has a limb removed in an accident would react to this novel.

To me it would seem both authors were walking a fine line with these characters: on one side pity, on the other side sympathy evoked by empathy. I think it is then up to the reader on to which side of that line the character is then pushed during the story.

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