New series offers advice for writing characters with disabilities

Two writers are sharing advice on how to accurately write characters with disabilities in literature in their series, Disability Stories. The series, created by Katie Pryal and Tipsy Tullivan, currently has two promising episodes. The first episode was inspired by the current lack of resources for writing about people with disabilities.

Pryal addresses this issue as it transpired in the preparations for the 2016 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, the largest gathering of writers, publishers, editors, and professors in the United States.

According to Pryal and others, AWP 2016 denied every proposal for disability-focused panels. Pryal states that there will be many consequences to the AWP’s denial of panels focused on people with disabilities and their lack of accessibility, saying that “there will be fewer writers with disabilities at AWP this year. There will be, apparently, zero panels on writing with disabilities, writing about disabilities, or anything having to do with writing+disabilities. Now, the largest organization of creative writing people in the U.S. (the 10,000 people at AWP) has even less access to the knowledge and experience of writers with disabilities. Now, writers who do not have disabilities have fewer opportunities to learn about how to effectively represent characters with disabilities in their writing without relying on obnoxious stereotypes.”

And it’s not just the lack of representation on the panels where AWP falls short. Their accommodations for writers of disabilities who attend their conferences fall short of true accessibility, according to observers. As author Stephen Kuusisto asserts, “In sum, the AWP is a largely progressive and affirming outfit. Except where disability is concerned. I must say that after a decade attending their conferences I’ve found the cumulative experience so demoralizing I’ve decided both to speak out about the matter and to skip the affair. The former is appropriate. The latter is sad.”

The first issue of Disability Stories is called Write characters with disabilities who don’t suck and includes the video below by Tipsy Tullivan, called AWP Tips for Writers. According to Pryal, the purpose of the video is to teach writers “how to use disabilities to create three-dimensional characters. From eye-patches to missing limbs, to my personal favorite, psoriasis, a disability can really spice up a boring character.”

These videos may begin with a commercial which was not chosen by or for the benefit of Rooted in Rights.

In the second issue of Disability Stories Pryal and Tullivan address two common tropes of disability representation in literature – the “tragically disabled” and the “magically disabled.”

Pryal states, “With the trope of the tragically disabled, disability is a stand-in for tragedy, sadness, or sometimes evil… One could even say that if you want to add some tragedy to a character, just give them (or a close family member) a disability. Actually, ugh, don’t do that.” Unfortunately, these tropes occur all too often in popular media, from Disney movies (the Hunchback of Notre Dame) to mainstream television shows (Daredevil). Pryal asks the question, “But why do this? Why can’t a character just, you know, have a disability?” and concludes by saying, “Here’s our writerly advice: If you find yourself using disability as a stand-in for tragedy, just stop. You can still write characters with disabilities. Just remember that your characters with disabilities are allowed to live exciting, complete, fulfilling lives. If you aren’t sure how to go about writing that, go talk to some real, live people with disabilities.” A video by Tullivan accompanies this episode as well.

Emily Pate is a third-year student at Seattle University interested in Strategic Communications, learning Spanish, and working with non-profits. Her work for Rooted In Rights is focused on discussing current events in the community of people with disabilities. Her experience previous to Rooted In Rights includes writing broadcasts for KBOO radio in Portland, OR, and managing a neighborhood blog in the Seattle community. In addition to work, Emily enjoys drawing, spending time with her friends and family, and backpacking.