When was the last time you read a YA book with disability representation?
We talk about diversity so much in the YA book community and I cannot stress how good and crucial it is, how different it is from even 10 years ago. The strides we’re making? The ownvoices authors bringing telling their stories? The diversity advocates who won’t stop championing marginalised books and authors no matter how tired they are?! This is incredible.
But whenever I see the book community talking about diversity, we talk about POC, Black and queer books…but yet?
Me: 👀waiting for them to talk about disabled books and authors👀
Here’s the thing about most marginalisations: they’re seen as undesirable and shameful. Being queer is still illegal in so many countries. Black people are murdered for the colour of their skin. Slurs are spat at immigrants and biracial kids struggle to fit into multiple cultures. Nothing about these things are easy or should be talked about less. Talk about them MORE.
It’s just…we don’t seem to talk about disabilities in that as well? Not to mention how often disabled rep isn’t even intersectional. I sit here and cannot think of a YA book by a Black autistic writer published by the Big 5 in the last few years. 😐(Hopefully I’m just wrong though!)
When was the last time you read a book by a disabled author? What was the last book you read with a disabled main character? Are you struggling to…think of any?
I’m autistic. Not all autistics consider themselves disabled, but I am. I’ve read 7 books out of 105 with disability rep this year. 1 of those had an autistic character.
Now some of this blame is always going to lie on us, as readers! I mean, have I actively searched and bought as many disability books as I could have? No. But have I also been reading a lot of books published by the Big Publishers and been trying to keep up with new releases and found they do not care about representing disabled characters at all?! *deep breath after that long run-on sentence* Well, yes. Seems you have to search for underrated books if you want disability rep. 😳
Today I’d like to talk about some things I wish I saw more in books with disabilities!
July is actually Disability Pride Month and I’m feeling bad it’s taken me so long to get a post together! But…ya know…busyness and mental illness over here 🙂👌🏻 I also would like to do a rec post…so hopefully I’ll get that up someday soon too. I’m excited but nervous to be writing this post because I do not know everything and I’m learning everyday to be a better ally as well as advocate.
And if I mess up in this post or use the wrong language, and if you feel comfortable correcting me, please do. 💛
OTHER POSTS YOU MIGHT LIKE 👀
This should be such an obvious request — yet I look at my disability list of books I’ve read and am kind of mind-blown about how few are from #ownvoices authors. This needs??? to change??? desperately???
The more I learn about disabilities, the more I realise I don’t know, and the more cautious I am to call a book “good rep” when I haven’t lived that disability. I personally know how to watch out for problematic tropes and harmful stereotypes. But what about accuracy? And details? I want to sink into reading more #ownvoices stories so I KNOW I am reading their truths. (That is not to say disabled lit is meant to exist to educate ableds or those who haven’t lived it! But it’s so important to see accuracy on page.)
This also makes me think of how inaccessible publishing can be for disabled authors. Those who write very slowly, can’t go to conventions or do interviews, those who need translators or special writing equipment, those who can’t stay focused or find the energy to finish writing or need extra mentoring to translate their atypical thinking. 😕 I think there’s room for publishing (also agents and editors) to better accommodate their disabled authors.
One trope I see crop up a lot is: a fantasy adventuring featuring a disabled character…but the disability is barely mentioned and honestly doesn’t affect the story at all. NOW this isn’t inherently bad because having a disability isn’t a competition. Having ADHD that you’ve learned to work with is going to be different to someone in a wheelchair — it will affect the story differently. But often times I see abled authors doing this and it can feel (at least to me) they are slipping in some rep without having to do much work. This is not always the case, but it’s something for abled authors to think about. We can still enjoy these types of books, but maybe we shouldn’t hold them up as Golden Disabled Fantasy Examples.
I really really want to read books where the disabled character gets to have adventures too and is disabled the whole way through. Fantasy stories with wheelchair users. Paranormals with kids with cerebral palsy. Deaf romances. Vision impaired teens in epic fantasies. Magical realism that centres on mental illness. Weave it throughout the whole book and let it impact the character so sometimes they have to sit down instead of run, sometimes they have to leave a sensory overloading situation, sometimes they have a huge miscommunication and they struggle with it.
You know why? Because every time we have a book about a character LIVING with their disability and STILL having an adventure is a huge boost to a community who has been told for centuries that they’re undesirable and should be invisible and quiet if they have to exist at all.
I can’t say how often I hear someone say to me, “I can’t even tell you’re autistic!” but they’re also like: why do we have so many misunderstandings, why can’t you change your schedule for me, why do you repeat yourself a lot, why did you forget this and this, you’re obsessing over something again, why are you so blunt, why did you–
I wish people understood more what autism is and I bet most disabled people wished the same too. We need more visibility and we need people to understand. Or to accept as is, without understanding completely. I think books could help with this so so much.
Out with any cure tropes! But also out with the autistic kid ending the book hugging everyone. Out with the mentally ill character finding love and feeling good forever. Out with the Deaf teen learning to lip read better solely to make communication easier for everyone else. Out with disabled characters having a secret superpower to make up for their disability. (Can I say how harmful this last one is?! Autistics don’t need to be savants to be worthwhile. People with chronic illness don’t need to be psychics. Blind people don’t need to have super-hearing.)
We literally need books bursting with disability pride. With characters who struggle but also love who they are. With characters who learn to cope better, but STILL have their disability. With people who find love and safe spaces and make the world work for them.
The disability isn’t always the problem. It’s that the world doesn’t accommodate it.
Because hey guess what? You can be autistic and Black and queer! Or pansexual and chronically ill! Or have ADHD and POTS and be biracial! Again, I’d really love to see #ownvoices authors tackling this 🥰 but we need so much more championing of stories that aren’t just about straight/white/boys. It’s genuinely not “too much” to be intersectional with diversity. Did you know a huge percentage of autistics also identify as on the lgbtqia+ spectrum? Did you know a lot of neurodiverse Black kids go undiagnosed?
There are soooo many stories out there. I wish they were on our shelves.
I do understand why many abled authors write side-disabled characters instead of making them star. I kind of agree with the decision too. It’s one thing to be inclusive, another to be in the head of a disabled character and act like you know how it feels — if you haven’t lived it. I’m NOT saying non-ownvoices authors shouldn’t ever write disabled POVs. There’s research and sensitivity readers out there to help. It is worth discussing if that takes away places from #ownvoices authors. (But not today lol.)
It’s definitely more common to see a disabled side character instead of a main character. Most often: It’s the carer’s POV. Maybe the love interest is disabled. Or the Main Character has the sibling with cancer. Again, these stories aren’t inherently problematic it’s just….[deep sigh] there’s so much to unpack here. Usually the main character has huge themes of how GOOD they are to go out of their way to accommodate the disabled character. There’s always a power imbalance. Without the abled main character, the disabled character has no agency or story of their own. They can’t DO something they wanted without help which can be taken away at any time if the abled character gets hurt or mad. Etc. Etc.
None of this is to say the carer of a disabled person should not feel pain or be upset. Look, it’s hard being disabled but it’s also hard having someone you love going through ruinously difficult times. It’s just hard. For example: supporting someone through a meltdown is super emotionally exhausting and sometimes physically painful. But the thing is…it’s worse for the disabled person. And the focus is so very often NOT on them, but rather on the carer’s suffering. Maybe because people think that’s more relatable.
But we need to do better in books. Disabled teens deserve better when reading YA. They don’t deserve to feel like burdens.
This is one I find difficult to talk about eloquently because I have had people label my book (The Boy Who Steals Houses) as slotting into this category — Sam takes care of his older autistic brother Avery and often stresses out about his own suffering.
Full disclosure: Sam is autistic too. He is undiagnosed but never once asks himself if he is autistic too. But he’s over there consumed and obsessed with Avery (obsession is an autistic trait), he struggles to express himself (autistic trait), he sensory seeks the whole book (in tins of buttons, messing with the textures of Moxie’s sewing, his countless rituals in how he steals houses, collecting and stimming with keys, the clothes he chooses, the sensory overload meltdown he has in the finale which mirrors Avery’s at the club). There is a neon sign pointing to Sam’s autism, but I didn’t use the word and I think many people won’t know. I wish I had said it on page! Or at least made Sam think about it. But I’m learning and growing (and making mistakes and pledging to do better) too. I wish I’d taken a more nuanced and introspective view on Sam vs Avery displaying autism in two different ways. But the fact is: the book is about two autistic brothers struggling to care for each other. It’s not about an abled boy resenting his autistic brother.
I think we need more books with disabled starring characters so readers stop seeing them as unrelatable or confusing or rare.
About 15% of the world experiences disability in their lifetime. That’s…not rare. And it shouldn’t be invisible — especially not in books.
We also should be able to talk about disability pride without wiping out disability struggles, but also without any underlying messages of “you’d be happier if you were abled”. PLEASE.
I hope I’ve left us with something to think about.
I don’t intend to write posts that make people feel harried or guilty. I want us to think and then work on doing better. ME TOO, OKAY. I will do better with what I read and promote and consider. I think publishing has some achinly deep gaps in how it cares and promotes disabled books. It hurts? But the more people triumph diversity, the more rep we can call for and the more rep we can get. 💛And I have lots of disability books I want to write too 😍 Someday!!
Make sure your diversity advocacy includes disabled books and authors 🥰
tell me some disabled books and authors you love! or some on your TBR! and do tell me your thoughts on all of this because I’d love to discuss 💛