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[GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Sarah Hendrix on Portraying Disability in Short Stories

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

Sarah Hendrix spends a lot of time reveling in chaos. Not only does she crush a heaping slush pile but she manages several minion duties. She is a PR for Apocalypse Ink Productions. She loves the developmental stages of a project and likes weaving seemingly unrelated things into a beauteous whole. To complete her love of all things unorganized, she has 2 cats, 2 teenage boys and a fiancé and she makes wearable art with small beads. Her stories can be found in the Space Battles #6 from Flying Pen Press, the In Situ, and the FISH anthologies both from Dagan Books, “Ordinary Hero” from Lakeside Circus and “The Coin Whisperer” in Abyss and Apex. You can follow her on her blog, Twitter or Facebook.

Portraying Disability in Short Stories

by Sarah Hendrix

When I wrote the first few words of “The Coin Whisperer” I didn’t know much about the main character, Paul. All I knew is he was relating a story to me about a friend who could tap into the stories that resided in the change in her pocket. Overall, what I wrote was pretty bland so, like a lot of short stories that I start, I set it aside. It wasn’t until a year later that the story and Paul matured into something I felt had a chance at being published.

Although I love the story, I was very apprehensive while writing it. Paul first revealed he was transgender, which wasn’t an issue at all, but then he revealed something that made me pause-Paul was mute. While writing I wanted his disability to be an element of the story but knew that wasn’t the focus. I wanted to portray Paul as an individual who happens to be mute, and has to find a creative way to tell someone something very important.

Short stories pose a big challenge for writers especially when there’s an issue such as a disability. Unlike novels, there is a limited word count to work with. A few short sentences are all you have to explain the limitation. Everything else must be portrayed by the character either in action or in dialog otherwise you run the risk of overwhelming the plot by the special needs.

In a lot of cases, stories that contain a person with a disability centers on the limitation. It’s an old, tired trope that’s been read over and over. To me it’s lazy writing unless the story centers around how the character adapts. But even then it has to be something original before I’ll say it’s good.

When we think of an interaction between two people such as bumping into someone in the hall, a normal person doesn’t think twice about how they react. For the most part, a disabled person doesn’t either unless the disability is recent. A person with a physical limitation may have to have a plan B and C but for the most part, they go about living life. People with disabilities adapt but sometimes have to be creative because they know even with accommodations there will always be challenges.

It’s the adaptations that make it difficult to accurately portray someone who has a physical limitation unless you have one yourself. A writer must let go of their own perceptions and see the world through the eyes of the character. It’s our responsibility as we write the story to notice the little things–such as always carrying a pad of paper and pencil–that allow a person with disabilities to live their lives and put it unobtrusively in front of the reader without making it the focus. Research helps but finding someone who has the disability you want to portray is priceless.

It’s useful to have a great deal of knowledge, but then you have to pick out what’s really important to your story. Depending on the word count you might have room for only a few bits of information or you might have areas where you can fully describe how the character adapts. But remember to focus on what’s important otherwise you might get carried away into focusing on the disability and not the person.

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