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We all have seen the headlines: "Touching Moment Where Autistic Boy is Asked to Prom", "Watch This Child With Downs Win Her Heat During a Swim Competition", etc., that are touching at first glance, but in actuality, embody the objectification of disabled people by society, the pity able bodied shower them in, and the habit that able bodied people have of patting themselves on the back for including disabled people or being nice to disabled people.

Of course, overcoming physical or mental impairments to go on and do great things as if you weren't impaired is inspiring; but there is a certain point where congratulations on achievements morph into sympathy, pity, and repetitions of "you poor thing".

I want to avoid this feeling when I write a future character for one of my books, a witch who is blind and has two prosthetic legs. This character overcame a lot and although they exist in a fictional fantasy world of witchcraft and demons, their struggles are very real, and their blindness and physical limitations made things hard for them, just as they would for anyone.

How do I affirm that this character is strong and made it through the struggles of their disabilities, while avoiding the "inspiration porn"?

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    I have muscular dystrophy. I am severely disabled. I don't have anything to add in an answer of my own, but I'd be happy to answer any specific questions that you might have that are too specific to be on-topic as an open question. – Ryan_L Mar 7 at 16:00
  • This article might be useful: tor.com/2019/03/05/… – Galastel Mar 9 at 20:10
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You avoid it by showing us a whole, three-dimensional character with attendant complexity.

Doing great things is not about one thing. Your character has a mix of traits, talents, interests, inclinations, genes (if it's that kind of magic), and more, and uses all those things to deal with all obstacles, not just the ones due to her handicaps. Show us that -- show her combatting those demons, struggling to memorize those spells, having a knack for herbcraft, using her keen hearing. The result will be an engaging, (presumably) successful character who happens to be blind, as opposed to her blindness defining her.

Kari Maaren wrote an interesting article about portraying disabilities. As someone who also has a (mild) disability, I found a lot that resonated with me. Here's an excerpt (emphasis mine):

You want to have a blind character? That’s great. Acknowledge her blindness and how she’s treated because of it, but maybe avoid turning her into a symbol or a metaphor or the Moral of the Story. Resist the urge to claim she’s blind and then portray her blindness as not affecting her life at all. Don’t have her spend the entire story lamenting her blindness and claiming it has ruined her life. Don’t avoid giving her magical powers because she’s blind, but maybe also give her magical powers that don’t arise directly from her blindness. And don’t just decide having her in your story is too much work and leave her out.

  • If I were the character you are describing, I would create a flash or darkness spell. – ShadoCat Mar 13 at 22:41
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By not making her a victim.

One friend I had lived most of her life in a wheelchair, had no motor control and would punch and kick her caregiver until her hands and feet were bound to the chair. People pitied her until they met her. She was a sweet, strong lady who could not be described by the word disabled. She met and married the love of her life, ran a successful business for twenty five years, rode horseback and did what she wanted with her life.

She used mechanical aids, had help but still lived her life. Her parents never treated her like there was anything wrong with her, anything different. She wanted to ride a horse - they never said ‘No, you’re in a wheelchair so you can’t do that.’ They said that they would find a way and they did.

There was one man I knew who decided he was finished because he was in a wheelchair. That decision cost him years of his life.

I know one guy who is one of the most irksome and entitled people I have ever met - insisting that the world adapt to him. It has - within reason. He uses a much larger wheelchair than most and will ream managers out for not having facilities that accommodate him in particular. Yes, you have a ramp, but it should be wider for my chair.

I know one woman who works at a restaurant nearby - clear stroke victim but not a victim. Her right side is essentially dead, so she works with what she has and serves the customers well.

The daughter of a friend of the family suffered a massive stroke while singing opera in Brazil. She was flown home, treated and sent to live with her mother - a retired nurse. Her mother took one look at the wheelchair she had been given, said “There will be no wheelchairs in this house” and threw it away. Her daughter had to move herself - at first flopping like a fish out of water, eventually crawling again. Many months later, she walked. She walks with a slight limp, a small drag to her gait, but she walks. A doctor later told her that with such a massive stroke, nearly half of her brain destroyed, she should have died. He never expected to see someone with so little brain standing in his office.

My suggestion, get to know some people who fit the general mold and talk to them about how they do what you take for granted. How does this person reach for something on the floor? Open a door? Turn on lights?

Most of all, make your witch a woman who is more than just an amputee. Make her cheerful or ironic, kind or angry.

According to my friend who spent four decades in a wheelchair, people who acquire their disability tend to be embittered by it for a period of time which varied from person to person. One recently blind woman she knew was fairly vicious because of the loss of her vision, her fear that her life could never be good again was almost her greatest disability.

Don’t make her a saint either. She is a character with quirks and virtues, vices and habits unique to her. You have chosen to take this person’s vision and legs, so mobility is compromised and vision is gone. She needs to adapt and will hate to depend on others.

If you are including her because you want someone who shares her disability to relate - don’t do it. That defines both the character and the segment of society you wish to include as their disability. That is dismissive and annoying.

Many years ago, I wanted to throttle a newscaster who was reporting the progress of the brave disabled people climbing Mt Ranier. It was a good human interest story, though not really news. He started listing the disabilities represented in that group; some were blind, others deaf, some lame and one was epileptic. I remember yelling “That is not a disability” at the tv.

I have never so regarded it. I met a woman in an elevator once, despondent.

“What’s wrong?”

“My son, I just learned he’s disabled. You don’t understand.”

“Sorry to hear that. If you don’t mind, what is his diagnosis?”

Weeping, she said, “Epilepsy.”

“So?”

“You don’t understand - he has epilepsy!”

“So? So do I.”

“What!”

“Yes, and I drive - I just don’t stand at the edge of a cliff. If I had to choose a disorder, I would have chosen epilepsy.”

The doors opened and we went our separate ways. I like to think I might have reached her, taught her a little perspective and perhaps prevented her from teaching her son how disabled he was and must always be.

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    I wish I could select the best answer so that I could choose this. – Sora Tamashii Mar 8 at 14:16
  • @SoraTamashi - I am glad you found merit in my answer. People are so much more than the one thing that society tries to use to define them. I used to say of that one friend that she ruled the world with a stick in her mouth. She was defeated occasionally but never conquered. – Rasdashan Mar 8 at 18:00
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Show us she's capable, not someone to be pitied. If she's blind, she would have to learn how to better use her remaining senses. So when someone wonders "How hard can it be to rob a little old blind lady"? She can hear him creeping around just fine, and she's more than capable of throwing a lightning bolt in his direction. Maybe people seek her out for her knowledge. Maybe they're afraid she'll put a hex on them. But she's not a helpless victim.

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    For a fantastic example of this, Toph from The Last Airbender. This is actually a really good show for representation of all kinds of people just in general without it feeling hamfisted or forced. – Pleiades Mar 7 at 2:51
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    Hiccup (and many other characters) in the How to Train Your Dragon movie series and "Riders/Defenders of Berk/Race to the Edge" TV series have various prosthetics, and they are treated very matter-of-factly. Hiccup's prosthetic is acknowledged, sometimes a problem, sometimes a spontaneous tool. Toothless has a tailfin prosthetic which is also acknowledged, upgraded, sometimes a problem. But no one with a prosthetic is used as glurge. – Lauren Ipsum Mar 7 at 11:02
  • I would be hesitant to give a blind character the super-hearing that Toph and Daredevil have unless I explicitly say it's a magic power. Because it's not really a thing in real life, but just enough people think it is that actual blind people may be sick of it. – Robyn Apr 1 at 1:58
  • @Robyn Will keep that in mind... but since this character is a witch, I'm assuming magic powers are allowed. It would sound weird if she didn't use her powers to make her life easier. – Evil Sparrow Apr 2 at 1:03
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One of my main protagonists is going to have albinism, because I have it myself and the few times we get represented at all it's usually as villains and even if not the representation frequently just plain sucks.

I'm writing him to be basically just a normal guy who has a few challenges in his life that most other basically normal guys don't have to deal with, because the fact of the matter is that's what most disabled people are like. He's basically a nice guy but rather acerbic and can be kind of an a-hole at times. He does all the usual things, has hobbies, forms relationships, etc. One subplot will deal with him butting heads with a university professor with rather bigoted views of disabled people, but most of his other plots will involve the usual college kid drama.

TL:DR, when writing a person with disabilities, write them first as a person.

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Write them as "A Person With Disabilities" not as "A Disabled Person".

It's a fine distinction, but it's quite simply "Put the fact they are a person first and the fact they have disabilities second." Just like you don't need to mention your character is blonde every other chapter, you don't need to mention their disabilities constantly either. Mention them when they are the most relevant. If your MC is struggling to keep a good footing, mention how the prosthetics keep slipping. If your MC feels like they were hit by a bus, don't mention the prosthetics at all even though they don't have legs to feel from. If your MC is able to win a race because their prosthetics are designed a certain way as to give an advantage, have someone point it out because at this point, the disability exists, but is being overridden by an advantage gained from the prosthetics.

It's about understanding the situation and not forcing it down your readers' throats that your MC is disabled. Show the things they can do both with and without supplementary aid (prosthetics), and let them make an impact on the world for their abilities, not their disabilities.

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A character's strength is shown not in dwelling in the past but in using what they learned there to rock their future. Yes she had hard times, but -like you said- she overcame them and is now much stronger for it. The same could be said to be true of someone who worked through the grief of losing a loved one or all of their physical possessions. Everything we go through has an effect on us. What we do with it is what matters.

If the focus of the story is not centered around how she overcame these struggles and is strong now, then you are less likely to have people perceive her as part of these 'warm fuzzies' stories. Those stories are built to showcase that. If the plot has to do with something else entirely then just have her live her life. If you wanted to have one of the other characters bring up the elephant in the room then have her respond to it in a way that is indicative of her. Is she dismissive -having moved past these struggles- or is she irritated that it keeps being brought up?

I have a friend who lost both his legs when he was young. He doesn't like wearing prosthetics, and so as a result has gotten very strong. He does not look at a problem as something that others should fix for him, he just finds a way to fix it himself. He was on his way to an interview which was on the third floor, and found that the elevator was out. He didn't want to be late for the interview so he hiked his wheel chair up on his back, and climbed the stairs. He is one of the happiest care-free people I have ever met, and has a wicked sense of humor. He likes to pretend to be offended when someone says something that could be taken the wrong way by someone with his condition, but then he laughs and says he's just messing with them and life goes on. The reason I told you this story is because your witch character is someone. She has a personality, sense of humor -or lack thereof- and the events in her life have affected her, but she chose what she would take from them.

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Who is your audience?

The audience for any kind of porn is not the character. (I'm speaking of the intention of the author, not who might actually end up watching it.) The intended audience for actual pornography, for example, is not 19 year old large-breasted women with insatiable desires.

In inspiration porn, the audience is nondisabled people. The work is not meant to inspire those of us with disabilities, but rather those amazing enlightened people without disabilities to whom all praise is due because they...talked to us, noticed us, were nice to us. Or it's a work meant to shame people with disabilities for not trying hard enough to "overcome" their conditions.

Are your disabled characters subjects or objects?

In a real story, the characters are subjects of the work. In porn, they are objects. Objects of desire, objects of ridicule, objects of pity, objects of inspiration.

The sweet girl with Down Syndrome inspires everyone around her because she always has a smile on her face. I've actually had people argue this with me, telling me that people with Down Syndrome are always happy. That is one of the most harmful myths about disability I know. Because it is incredibly dehumanizing. Every person I know with Down Syndrome has a full range of emotions, just like anybody else. Anger, sadness, joy, curiosity, boredom, love, and annoyance.

If you feel inspired by someone with only one emotional state it's a sure sign that you and your emotional states are what the author of the work considers important. The person featured in the work is an object, not a subject. It's not about them, it's about you, the audience.

What is your message?

Is your disabled character symbolic? Does she exist to setup a philosophical pondering? Does he learn to believe in himself so he can work hard to free himself of his limitations? Or maybe he just knows when to quietly off himself so he he won't be a burden on his nondisabled family and friends. Those are all signs that a disabled character isn't there to be a regular character.

We all struggle. It's part of what it means to be human. You can show the unique struggles of disability without making it "special." Pretending that someone never struggles is the other side of this and also something to avoid. It's just not realistic. Authors who insist on having unrealistic characters are using them for a reason. Be honest with yourself and, if you find you're doing this, you can rework your story.

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Is this character the only blind one around? Did she go to a mentor to learn how to navigate efficiently? Is there a school for the blind? How old was she when she lost her vision?

(I read a great book this fall called For the Benefit of Those Who Can See about a school for the blind in Tibet I think? And how everyone thought the kids were mentally disabled, until they went to the school and learned many languages, etc.)

Prosthetics - conjured or manufactured? How often do they need to be replaced? What parts wear out or give difficulty?

Basically, I'm encouraging you to think of the NETWORK around the person. If it were a modern day novel, I'd ask what Facebook groups or online communities she uses for some peer support. It may not be peers here, but there's a network still of people that have taught her things, and who she may teach, or who give tips on a better spell for joint-motion, or what herbs are best to use at the place where the biological leg joins the supplemental, whether for cushioning or other effects.

That's my two cents -- it's not that the novel needs to derail into all of these things, but making it clear that she's not "special" for dealing with these things, she's tapped into resources to make life work. She's "special" for whatever it is in the NOVEL that makes her special -- saving the kingdom, blocking the demons, whatever.

*(disclaimer: Not based on personal experience -- I do try to understand visual impairments due to my job, but that's it.)

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