[GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Holly Kench on Labels and Boxes

NOTE: This installment of Special Needs In Strange Worlds features a guest post from author Holly Kench! – Sarah Chorn

Holly Kench is a writer and a feminist, with a classics degree and a fear of spiders. She lives in Tasmania, Australia, where a lack of sun provides ample opportunity for hiding indoors and writing off-kilter stories. Holly writes about her life as a stuffed olive on her blog Confessions of a Stuffed Olive and manages the website Visibility Fiction, promoting and publishing inclusive young adult fiction.

Boxes and Labels

by Holly Kench

I love young adult fiction. I love it for at least a million reasons, but one of those is that, as teenagers, the characters of young adult fiction are navigating identities and choosing (or being slotted into) certain definitions and labels. We’re always in this process as adults too, but as teenagers, the process is heightened and inescapable. It’s part of the reason being a teenager is so fraught with angst and terror and misunderstandings. But it also means that, as readers and writers of YA, we get a rare opportunity to explore certain identities as they develop.

In the Kaleidoscope anthology, edited by Julia Rios and Alisa Krasnostein, we get to explore a whole bunch of identities and experiences that are all too often excluded from fiction, which usually focuses on straight white non-disabled (and/or sparkly vampire) experiences.

In our mainstream culture, we love to have things labelled, especially identities. We want them clearly defined and tidied away in neat boxes. “Disabled” is one of those boxes. But like all our carefully constructed categories, it’s never as simple as we’d like.

In fiction (and other culture like movies and TV), disability is often contained in easy to understand boxes by tropes, such as the ‘inspirational cripple’, who pretty much just exists to make everyone else feel better. Such tropes also limit disabled people to this single manageable identity that doesn’t encroach on the rest of the world. It sets up the idea that disabled people are disability, which could not be further from the truth.

Invisible disability has its own confining tropes. I mention this specifically because my character Mandy, in my Kaleidoscope story “Every Little Thing”, is invisibly disabled. Typically, invisibly disabled characters become divided in fiction and media into two categories: they either recover or they die.

This is certainly not the fault of fiction. Anyone who has had any kind of long-term invisible impairment will have experienced the belief of others that, unless your condition is terminal, you must be going to get better. Or you aren’t trying hard enough. Or you are making it all up. Just like the ‘inspirational cripple’, that’s simply not the reality of disability, and while fiction might not be to blame for these ideas and concepts, if disability is treated rationally in fiction, it can be used to question these myths.

My character Mandy is not dying, nor does she recover. Just as medicine does not always result in a cure in real life, in “Every Little Thing”, magic has no cure for Mandy, but this isn’t important to the story. Like most people who have been disabled for a long time, Mandy is not on some epic quest to find a cure, she’s just living her life like anyone else, if within certain limitations.

Another way disabled people are categorised is via their diagnosis. People decide how they will treat disabled people based on the title of their medical condition. Essentially, is their diagnosis more or less inspirational/tragic? In fiction, diagnosis categorization is often used to increase drama around disability storylines – usually the ones holding up those pesky tropes we talked about. It’s also used to tell us whether we should be sympathetic to the character, or judge them. But a diagnosis is no more helpful for understanding a character, their motivations and experiences within a plot than in real life.

While we find out how Mandy’s impairments affect her day-to-day life, in “Every Little Thing”, her medical condition is never clarified. We never get a rundown of her symptoms or any of her medical history. It’s just not relevant to her story. While diagnosis can be important within a doctor/patient situation, beyond that it’s really not significant in the lives of disabled people or characters, and focusing on a diagnosis can be more harmful than useful.

“Disabled” is only one of Mandy’s identities, however. Being young adult fiction, she’s also a teenager, and this identity affects how her story plays out in terms of her disabled identity. For example, while Mandy’s impairments are a big part of her regular life, she does not identify as disabled. People who are visibly disabled tend to be slotted into the disability category whether they want to be or not, but invisibly disabled people live on this peculiar periphery on the edge of the disability box. Sometimes they may not identify as disabled because they feel or are seen as not really disabled, but I think for many young people growing up with disability, it’s often difficult to separate the negative connotations society puts on disability from the experience of being disabled in a social context. Mandy has yet to have the opportunity to meet many other disabled people and she probably doesn’t know that much about the different models of disability, which would affect whether she would own the disabled identity or not.

Ultimately, no matter how Mandy identifies, the most impacting and disabling thing for her is the response of others to her impairments. For Mandy, this comes in the form of someone questioning her because she doesn’t “look sick”, a familiar statement for people invisibly disabled. The “not looking sick” sentiment arises, yet again, because of our need to categorise. Mandy doesn’t look sick, so she shouldn’t be sick. Invisibly disabled people can’t easily be coded as ‘inspirational cripples’, for example, so they need to recover or die. Or at least that’s how so much of the world seems to see it, but it’s not how we should show it in fiction.

One of the great things about the Kaleidoscope collection is that it offers such an array of diverse characters that it shows how ridiculous all these myths, tropes and boxes are. In particular, it shows this by giving us stories that aren’t all about restraining identities, but interesting characters with a range of identities and experiences.

I hope in “Every Little Thing” I’ve managed to write a story that reveals some of the falsehoods behind disability myths, but, despite all of the above, my story isn’t really about disability. It’s about friendship and crushes and learning to let your freak flag fly.

Because boxes are boring (unless you’re a cat).

3 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Holly Kench on Labels and Boxes”

  1. I think that the nature of YA – the fact that the characters are just developing their various identities (and the partitions around them), means that these stories can be used just as easily to build these boxes (like you say), or to break them down.

    Right now there is more fiction putting up walls and setting partitions, but as critical readers and writers we can promote diverse YA fiction and stories that question these boxes and help change perceptions in and out of fiction.

    I think your fear is completely understandable, but if we try, we can help YA to evolve and grow in a more positive direction. And maybe affect fiction and culture more generally while we’re at it!

  2. You raise some pertinent issues in your post. As someone with a ‘borderline’ disability – ‘borderline’ in this sense meaning I can sometimes hide my disability and sometimes I can’t – I’ve put a hell of a lot of energy into concealing my disability when I can and asking for disability access when I absolutely must have it, losing my job and my career in the process.

    In my experience, being visibly disabled is abhorrent and something to be avoided at all costs. Even if that means learning to drive (you don’t need 3D vision or good eyesight to drive; cars get bigger as they’re getting closer, smaller as they’re getting further away and the amount of road visible tells you if you’re too close; WHO CARES ABOUT PARALLEL PARKING AND READING STREET SIGNS?), driving badly and then realising that I’m putting my loved ones at risk so stopping driving. THEN, a few years AFTER I stopped driving, I lost my drivers licence when I moved to Victoria. Victoria is this strange state where they actually expect you to have a minimum of 6:12 vision to drive. Who knew? :-D

    A woman from Guide Dogs came out on Friday to assess me for a cane because I have some blind albino friends who are all like “Damn, girl, you need a cane, stand straight and stop looking at the ground!” although I haven’t broken a toe in about 4 years and, at the moment, I don’t even have bruises on my arms from walking into shit, so I’m doing really well at passing for normal, dontcha think?

    I feel like throwing up when I think about ‘coming out’ and being on-the-street VISIBLY disabled with a cane and, hence, even more of a target for disability discrimination. In May a Big 5 publisher employee (a senior publisher no less) told me no-one in the publishing industry will ever give me a job because of my bad eyesight; she said my only hope for employment was as an admin assistant in the public service under an equity program.

    She was nice up until the point where she asked me what my disability was and I told her; she turned into the Queen Bitch from Hell once I told her. Maybe the issue is less visible vs invisible and maybe a perception that my kind should stick to basket-weaving as is traditional? iunno.

    We should ‘do coffee’ once I’ve ‘come out’ if I really do end up with a cane; maybe then I can talk more coherently about the differences between visible and invisible disability. My beeno friends think canes are cool; they stop you tripping although you get calluses on your belly from the stick hitting shit; 99.9% of people get out of your way instead of ramming you on the footpath for not jumping in front of traffic to get out of their way AND you can hit people with them ;-)

    More power to diversity in fiction in ALL categories. But don’t send me ‘evil albino’ fiction or I. WILL. HURT. YOU. :-D

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