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[GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Erin Lindsey on Why Disabilities are Hard to Write

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

Erin Lindsey is on a quest to write the perfect summer vacation novel, with just the right blend of action, heartbreak, and triumph. The Bloodbound is her first effort. She lives and works in Bujumbura, Burundi, with her husband and a pair of half-domesticated cats.

Why Disabilities are Hard to Write

by Erin Lindsey

Disabilities make people uncomfortable.

Did you cringe just a little bit reading that sentence? I certainly cringed writing it. It’s not even true, strictly speaking. A more accurate version would be: Some disabilities make some people uncomfortable sometimes. But I’m making a point here, so indulge me.

It’s a very common, very human reaction to be just a little a bit on your heels in the presence of a disability. There are a lot of reasons for this, some understandable, others less so. For many, it’s the struggle to respond correctly, without any idea what that really means. Should you talk about it? Not talk about it? Ignore it entirely? What kind of reaction, if any, would be welcomed by the person with the disability? It’s nearly impossible to guess, and that can cause anxiety. In a certain way, I think the people who want most to respond correctly are the ones who work themselves into the tightest knots, because they’re so worried about inadvertently giving offense.

Why am I banging on about this? Because I think it goes a long way toward explaining why we don’t see more of disabilities in fiction, and especially in speculative fiction.

Writers like me are, quite simply, chicken.

However much we might want to bring disabilities into our stories, many of us hesitate. We prevaricate. We mitigate.

Why? For the same reason many of us are uncomfortable in the real world: because we don’t want to inadvertently give offence. People can be justifiably sensitive on the subject of disabilities. Writing about them potentially opens you up to all sorts of criticism: that you got it wrong, that you’re somehow objectifying it, making light of it, or trying to profit from it. That you’re perpetuating stereotypes, or stigmatising. This is especially true if you don’t have anyone in your life who is directly affected by the disability you’re trying to portray, in which case, where do you get off talking about it? Not only do you run the risk of readers not loving your story, you run the risk of actively pissing them off. In the worst case, you might even hurt someone.

So a lot of us shy away from it. I think this is especially true in speculative fiction, because there are so many ways of avoiding the risks. For one, you don’t need to tackle a real-world disability, because you can create a convincing stand-in and achieve largely the same thing. Your character will face similar challenges, cope with them in recognisable ways, but you won’t run the same risk of offending people. You can’t get it wrong if you made it up.

Another way of mitigating the risks is to skirt along the edges of the issue. That’s the approach I ended up taking in my latest book, The Bloodbound. There’s a character in the story who suffers from a depressive disorder, what would in the real world probably be diagnosed as type 2 bipolar disorder or cyclothymic disorder. This character happens to be cast in an antagonistic role. Moreover, the reason he’s cast in that role is related, however indirectly, to his disorder.

You see my problem.

I can defend this choice (though not, regrettably, here, since a proper explanation would contain spoilers). It was very consciously done, and treated, I hope, with compassion and respect. Yet I still felt obliged to pull my punches. I was so worried that people would jump down my throat for implying that depressive disorders make people bad that I ended up backing off the pedal. Oh, the careful reader will still spot it; there are several references to his symptoms, and a recognition by the other characters that they’re difficult for him to cope with, that they colour his relationships and the choices he makes. But I could have drawn much more attention to it than I did.

I didn’t want to get it wrong. I didn’t want to stigmatise. I wanted to achieve the right balance between recognising his disorder without dwelling on it, but I wasn’t sure where that balance lay. The character in question doesn’t get a lot of page time, so making too much of an issue of it could come off as gratuitous. So I went for the lite version.

I think this happens a lot. I think many writers would like to be much more direct about how we deal with disabilities, and with diversity in general, but are intimidated by the potential minefield in front of us. I really admire those authors who’ve managed to overcome that hesitation, to really do it and do it well, because it takes courage – not to mention sensitivity, respect, and a tremendous amount of emotional intelligence.

I like to think I’ll be one of those authors someday in the not too distant future, when I have a little more experience under my belt. In the meantime, I’ll try not to judge myself too harshly, because I think I’m in good company.

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