Writing Disabled Characters - Elizabeth Kay

I’ve written about a boy with a terminal illness (Felix, in The Divide) and I’ve written characters with psychological disabilities. I've also tried writing someone who was blind. But only now do I realise that I’ve never written about anyone who was physically disabled.

This revelation came after an operation on my foot for Morton’s neuroma (a painful but benign inflammation of a nerve) which resulted in me being unable to use my left foot for a while. It was a revelation. I’ve been a faithful follower of Melanie Reid’s Spinal Column in the Times every Saturday, the diary of a someone rendered tetraplegic after a fall from a horse, and I try to be thoughtful and considerate to those I encounter with physical problems. But oh boy, is it different when it’s you! Writers know that personal experience is worth ten Wikipedias when you’re describing something subjective, and we hark back to painful episodes in our lives when we want to express the anguish that one of our characters feels in a certain situation. But it’s the little things that really count. The little bits of information that you don’t get any other way, the things you see every day but don’t really register, the things you know must be true but haven’t really thought about until someone waves them under your nose. That’s our job, as writers. Waving small considerations under our readers’ noses.
            Taking forever to go up or downstairs is infuriating. We take for granted the number of times we travel between floors to look for something. When you can’t you have to remember everything. You can’t use crutches and carry something at the same time, however, so a rucksack is the only way. Being stuck in the house is horrible. Fresh air and a change of scene are the things that jolt our minds into new plotlines, and we get stale in every way without it. I bought an automatic car last year, knowing I was going to have problems, and my insurance company has okayed my using it because only my left foot is affected. So once I felt able to walk between Lidl’s carpark and shop floor with the aid of a trolley and their lift, I had my first solo outing. I was so excited that I spent ten times what I intended. Normally, I hate shopping and do it as rapidly as possible. But no one notices that you have a bandaged foot and are walking rather slowly, and manoeuvring your trolley to avoid theirs is a bit like driving a Dodgem. Not to mention being told rather brusquely to move out of the way when someone wants to get something.
            My next bit of education was being pushed around the London Wetland Centre in a wheelchair by my husband. There’s no charge for one, and the paths are mainly wheelchair friendly. Unlike the barriers, which are all at exactly the wrong height so that you can’t see anything. But the real menaces are small children, who seem magnetically attracted to walking just in front of the chair for as long as possible so that you’re constantly worrying about running into them. Their parents simply don’t notice. Although some people leap forward to open the gates and let you through, there are others who just stand and watch, like kids on a motorway bridge, hoping for a car crash to liven up their day. On the other hand the canteen staff were wonderful, and carried the tray as husband couldn’t manage both that and the chair.
            When you can’t get your foot wet, showers and baths are out. To begin with it’s not so bad – you get in a stock of wet wipes, and use them liberally absolutely everywhere. But you can’t wash your hair with them, and eventually clean hair becomes an obsession. So it’s a sit-down session in the shower with your foot sticking out of the door, covered with a plastic bag just in case. But oh, how wonderful it felt afterwards. The clothes you can wear are limited, of course. Only trousers with wide legs will fit over the bandage, and the shoe you wear on your good foot has to have a sufficiently built-up heel to match the Velcro contraption you wear on your bad one. So you go for perfume and jewellery. I’ve been trying to find something to say here that isn’t gender-ist, and I’m failing miserably. Aftershave and a flamboyant shirt, maybe?
            The way I usually cheer myself up when I'm feeling down is by going for a long walk in the countryside, or doing some gardening. Clearly, the long walk was out but gardening... hm. As I began to recover I didn't need the crutches all the time. I could wear a Wellington boot on my right foot, but only the Velcro sandal on my left - but with the aid of a plastic bag round it, bush lopping was Go. I did fall over, of course - but hey, what's a bit of mud compared with a tidier shrubbery? And the best entertainment of all has been the tits inspecting the nestboxes. We hope for the chirping of tiny beaks in a couple of months' time.


There are pluses, of course. Only wearing one sock at a time means fewer to wash. Actually, that’s the only plus I can think of… other than the total and fantastic lack of the sudden spasms of electric-shock pain that is typical of Morton's neuroma.


Wendy H. Jones said…
Thanks for sharing your experience. Another plus is that you are now more than qualified to write about disabled characters
Chris Longmuir said…
When I had my bunion operation I was given leaflets and on one of them was a firm that supplied something like an oversized waterproof sock that went all the way up your leg to the hip. It was fastened at the top with a kind of double fastening so the water didn't penetrate and was for wearing in the shower, although getting into my shower, which is over the bath, was another matter entirely. But, I'm sorry, I can't remember the name of the firm or the legging they supplied. Good post Elizabeth, and I hope you're back on your feet/foot!
JO said…
Thanks for this - and it's interesting how few physically disabled characters have made it into serious literature. If writers are cautious about writing about them, that's fine. But I fear it's because they are seen as impaired in a way that makes them less visible, less relevant - almost less of a person, as if the disability gets in the way of seeing the man or woman. It needs some thinking about!
Elizabeth Kay said…
Good point, Jo. But disabled characters have overcome this in the past - remember the TV series Ironside? 1967 - 1975. The focus was always on solving the crime, and the fact that Ironside was a paraplegic was frequently immaterial.
Penny Dolan said…
One of the things I noticed (some time ago, while wheeling my mum round the Chelsea Flower Show) was how often bags and baskets and sticky-out things like stubby umbrellas are carried at elbow height, i.e. just right for the face of any wheel-chair user that is behind them. Let alone any sense of moving out of the way to give that person a good view. I know such places are crowded, but . . . Even then, though I have tried to do it, writing a physically disabled character into a children's story (and I mean without some fantasy or "dream" plot device) is difficult. Wish it wasn't so.

This was a really useful post, Liz. Can't say that I liked or enjoyed it because it's horrid work for you. Good wishes!
Susan Price said…
One of the best, most vivid and compelling characters of recent times is Tyrion Lannister, in the Game of Thrones series. He's brilliantly played in the series by Peter Dinklage. He's a dwarf, at a great disadvantage in the world he lives in, and the author's sympathy for him is immense.
Fran B said…
Accompanied and chauffeured my disabled sister on a 200 mile round trip last weekend. Quite an eye-opener. Practised patience - everything takes ten times longer and some things/places are just downright impossible. Grist to the mill as I've not had a wheelchair-user character in my writing yet.
Lydia Bennet said…
As some of you may know, I am physically disabled and have been for 29 years. The whole field of disability in literature and the arts is fraught with as many potential pitfalls as race - disability was often used often in films, tv etc as a sign that someone was evil, twisted and bitter,like so many Bond villains (including some very recent ones). Recently a disabled fb friend took issue with Mslexia's article about writing when they suggested giving your character a disability to add interest, like a funny habit or brand of whisky... they invited her to write an article about the portrayal of disability as a result. One major problem is the many myths about disabilities, not least of which is the assumption that disability means wheelchairs, when in fact a minority are wheelchair users - there are many many kinds of disability - and there's a myth that blind people can see nothing but blackness which leads to much suspicion and nastiness when they seem to respond to movement etc, as of course many registered blind people have some vision. As we do research as writers, into history and geography, so we can talk to people who have the disability which will need to be tackled in our work. Sympathy which seems like pity and sentimental stuff about bravery can cause as much offence as the stereotypes about race, which people claim are supposed to be positive. There has been a trend to use characters with alzheimer's, autism, asperger's, often in a romanticised way. This may be a reaction to not talking about them, but can swing too far the other way. There is still a feeling that disabled people are 'other', not 'us', yet I became disabled in seconds and so could any of you reading this now. At present, the depradations of IDS are leading to more immediate problems even than access, with some losing their homes and benefits. How people manage their own disability is as varied as people are, and managing disability in fiction is something to be researched as something which could happen to you or your loved ones at any time. Carpe that diem folks! :)
Sorry to hear you've been through the wars - and Valerie speaks the truth. My husband has been severely disabled with inflammatory arthritis for some years now and it's only when this happens to you or somebody close to you that you fully realise how disability unfriendly our world really is. And it could happen to any of us at any time. Alan's disability didn't happen overnight - but it was much more sudden and intense than I'd have believed possible beforehand. Over the past few years we've encountered lots of kindness and thoughtfulness but also crass stupidity in unbelievable places. We went to the launch of our local Open Studios event - which Alan is participating in - in our County Buildings last weekend to find that the disabled access door was locked, (it was the weekend, of course) and the lift to the floor where the event was taking place was through another key carded door, so somebody had to go upstairs to find the staff member to come down and give Alan access to the lift! These are all tiny things - but on any day out, the cumulative effect is very wearing. I often thank God for friends without whom I think we would both be even more stressed than we are.
glitter noir said…
Thanks for sharing this, Elizabeth. Moving and, for me, evocative. I've hobbled around with a leg in a cast three times in my life. But the time that comes to mind was in Portland, Oregon--and the troubles that I ran into on light rail cars. People can be incredibly cruel. Half the time no one would allow me to sit, which I could live with--after all, I'd take up two seats, But a couple of times men deliberately tried to 'slam' me: if I had the leg outstretched beneath a seat, they'd raise the seat a bit before they sat, then with all their might on it. The second time I was prepared--I moved the leg and had a stun gun in hand. But I've never been able to forget the deliberate attempts to re-break a poor man's broken leg. I'm sure, though, that anyone who's been slowed down or hobbled has tales of his or her own.

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