Saturday, 19 September 2015

Writing About Disability isn’t Pretty is it?

Having just started submitting my manuscript for Eugenica to literary agents I received a comment that made me ponder the wisdom of having four main characters all of whom are disabled; disability is not attractive!

I agree, it is not. And the fact is that some people have a problem in dealing with disabled people. In fact I used to work with someone who told me that they had a problem with disabled people, I informed them that they were right; they did have a problem! I do not have such a problem but then I am a disabled person myself so that would be pretty counterproductive anyway.

Long John Silver
Curiously literature is not bereft of characters that have some form of disability; in fact there are legions of them. Captain Long John Silver was a rogue who never let having only one leg get in his way. He is the sort of character that I like, a bit of a good guy and a bit of a rascal. He is objectionable in many ways but he has his redeeming features, unlike Shakespeare’s Richard the Third who is just all bitter and twisted, his bile being occasioned by the fictional hump and limp the Bard inflicted upon him.

Of course Richard is not alone, there is Captain Ahab also. Here is a man so bitter about being left disabled by a creature that he was trying to kill, the temerity of the whale to fight back, that he committed everything to gaining his revenge on Moby Dick. I was quite glad that the white whale won that encounter actually.
Capt Ahab

Then there are the Tiny Tim type characters. I really do not like them. Simpering, pitiable and pathetic. They are no more convincing than Shakespeare’s King Richard. I know, there are such people in the real world but I do not find them interesting. Besides, the truth is that even disabled people are more complex than that.

Disability is not the issue it is just the first impression. Inevitably when a reader begins to read Eugenica they are going to come upon my characters as disabled young people. This is inevitable because that is what they are but it is not the sum total of everything that they are. As the story progresses more and more of the characters is revealed, their hopes, fears, outlooks on life, abilities and also how they cope with being what they are; both able and disabled.

Antony Sher as Richard III
Let me illustrate them for you briefly. Grace has a missing left hand and right leg due to suffering a form of limb reduction whilst developing as a foetus. She has lived largely in isolation and is self-reliant as a result. Thomas is blind and black, a double burden for living in 1930’s Britain. He is also kind, brave and a gifted musician. Mary has Turner Syndrome but colours every day with a love of life expressed through singing, dancing and acting. Hector is losing the use of his legs but is a voracious consumer of knowledge. Neither of them has an ability that balances out their disability, all of them have abilities, just like everyone else, and a pronounced disability as well, unlike most other people.

It is somewhat saddening to learn that there will be those people who will look at the synopsis of Eugenica and discount it immediately because it has disabled people in it. Yes, disappointing, but not surprising. People do not limit their prejudices just to their choice of reading material after all. I have been on the receiving end of such prejudice many times in my life and I accept that it is part of the human condition. It is not an enviable trait and it can be challenged but it is there all the same.

Tiny Tim
If I have been successful in writing Eugenica then the reader should finish it thinking of Grace, Tom, Mary and Hector not as disabled people first but rather as admirable people who have disabilities. That is definitely one of my objectives in writing the book. How successful I have been will only be known later and that will depend upon how many people get to the end of Chapter One and choose to keep on reading.

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