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Disability representation in literature

The wonder of books. Each book offers so much much to the reader, an escape or self-reflection. I feel silly in only now realising how people with disabilities have been written in literature. All too often we are the villain. No wonder I didn't want to be seen as disabled when I was younger. Who wants to be the villain in a story? Not me.

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References for this episode


Episode Transcript:

Peta [00:00:02] Hello and welcome to The I Can't Stand Podcast, the podcast, answering your questions on what it's like to live with a disability. My name is Peta and I'm your host. I have Cerebral Palsy and I love to answer your questions. If you would like to send in the question for the podcast, there are three ways you can do so. One by Instagram, which is at @petahooke [P.E.T.A H.O.O.K.E]. By email or via my website The links are in the description. OK, without any further ado, let's get into it.

[00:01:01] This week's question came from Jordan. Jordan asked me.

Jordan [00:01:06] Peta, how have people with disabilities been represented in literature?

Peta [00:01:13] Well, it's probably not a surprise to any of you that we have been used quite poorly, particularly in the past. And of course, as I said in my other episodes about the importance of being represented in the media, being represented in literature is just as important. When I was researching for this episode. Always been very aware of the trope of the villain having a disability. And I was proven correct, particularly in early works, many literary villains have a disability. And while I understand many of these literary works are a reflection of the time that they were written. It really just goes to reconfirm to me why people today really struggle to see my life as being positive. Because even when people with disabilities have been reflected in literature, the character is seen more as a vehicle for the reader to reflect on themselves as human being.

[00:02:35] Rather than truly exploring the issues and challenges and positives of having a disability, many literary works perpetuate the social stigmas that we disabled people still experience today. A lot of these characters that were written are truly awful and encourage the reader to marginalise them and exclude them from the story. They are not the protagonist that you're cheering on throughout the novels.

[00:03:13] Of course, it's only natural When you receive a question to personally reflect on the characters that I've read as a child. Being born in the 90s, I didn't really ever experience much literature that included people with disabilities. You know, things like Peta Pan, the villain in that story was Captain Hook, he used a hook as a prostatitis. You look at another story, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, to even call him a hunchback. He was ostracised and had to live in a bell tower in Paris, defining him on the basis of his disability. The Little Mermaid, I remember I was so annoyed when Ariel wanted to grow legs and walk that she didn't feel that she was a full. Person, I guess, I mean, I know she was a mermaid, but she didn't feel worthy enough for the prince unless she could walk. She would give up her speech to be able to walk. Another one that really stuck with me was The Secret Garden. And I remember feeling so annoyed when one of the characters, Colin, just decided to walk. And magically, he was cured.

[00:04:54] I was also pretty obsessed with Harry Potter. I think I was 11 when the first book came out and I read it ferociously. I loved it. In Harry Potter, there was such an ease to cure ailments, to cure disability. I mean, Ron broke how many bones and they just did a magic spell and he was perfectly fine again. When I think back on it, there was really no character in Harry Potter that had a disability and having a disability in a wizarding world, I would imagine to be a lot less challenging than my own. If I could just jump on a broom and fly. Probably would solve a lot of my issues, steps would be less of an issue if I could fly. When you think about it. I used to think I wonder whether if I lived in that world, whether they would cure me. I am fully aware of how silly that sounds because it's fiction.

[00:06:10] I believe now, as an adult, if I had it been presented with positive representations of disability in literature, particularly children's literature. It wouldn't have taken me as long to identify as disabled to see my disability as part of my identity. No wonder I didn't want to be disabled when there was no reflection of disability in my favourite books. When they were the character was evacuated, although with the villain. It seems like a pretty logical conclusion to me that having representation in literature is really important. Presenting realistic information regarding disability, you know, promotes empathy and understanding and acceptance. In both the nondisabled reader and the disabled reader. It's really important that when a person with a disability is in literature, that they're not there for the sake of plot or narration. And they're not solely defined by their disability. Where either the villain or where a plot point to drive the story, we're not the main character, we're often lucky to be even in the side character. And if we are a main character in a story, the one thing we have to overcome is our disability. This reflection is just so inconsistent with the reality of having a disability. I have the same challenges and issues that many people do, we all experience loss, tragedy and excellence and euphoria in our lives. We are not, in fact, the villain. We do not plot against people. We are not maniacal, seeking revenge because of our disability. We are just purely human. There are more and more, particularly non-fiction stories being published, but I think in particular fiction, it's really important because in fiction, the reader themselves are more likely to identify with the person with a disability. Not only that, but by including somebody with a disability in a story highlights the social issues and barriers that that person faces.

[00:09:06] A lot of people, I believe, don't even really realise the sort of barriers that people with disabilities face in the world today. I believe that the general public, it's not that they don't care. But they're not actually aware or they're ignorant to the level of issues facing disabled people today, and literature is a vehicle that needs to highlight those social issues. But in different ways to allow all sorts of people to understand. Not many people will sit down to an academic journal article highlighting issues in the disability sector. If it's presented in a novel, non-fiction or fiction because of the time and effort required in reading a book. A person is more open and more likely to take those issues on board as issues that they should also care about. It makes the character with a disability human, not just disabled. It's important for disabled readers to understand that their stories are worth telling. It's critical that we have varied portrayals to show that the experience of disability is valid. Yes, I have cerebral palsy, but my experience with cerebral palsy would be completely different to many other people with cerebral palsy. Disability presents so differently in each person. So it's important not only to have representation in literature, but also varied representation in literature. To be honest, I have not read that much literature that includes people with disabilities. I've told you many times before that I have a lot to learn when it comes to having a disability and this is an area that I need work on. Because now in 2021, people with disabilities are starting to be reflected in the way that we are in reality. We're not the villain, we've just been made to look like we are.

[00:11:32] Thank you for listening to this week's episode, if you'd like to leave a writing interview on Apple podcasts. I would really, really appreciate it. Reading your reviews is one of the main reasons why I do what I do. Thank you so, so much. Until next time, guys. I'll see you next week. Bye.


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