Disability, fiction, and me

I'm sitting in front of the mirror in my wheelchair, wearing my mustard coloured linen skirt. (Again.) I'm a white woman with long brown hair.

I’ve been thinking about disability and fiction. I used to love fiction – I read War and Peace for fun. I hoovered up Austen, Hardy, Dickens as a teenager. Then at some stage, I stopped. 

I asked Instagram for good examples of disability representation in adult fiction – especially books that resonated with disabled readers. 

But why did I need these recommendations? Why didn’t I know already? Why did I stop reading fiction? 

I got more titles than I expected in the question box I put up – thanks to everyone who responded. I made a list of them all and I’m working through them – looking them up, reading samples etc. 

(I’ve saved those stories in my Disability 2021 highlight over on insta.) 

What I can’t help noticing is that very few of these are by unambiguously disabled authors – authors who identify as disabled. 

And the disabled characters are rarely main characters. 

When I compare it to poetry, or especially to non-fiction – the truly wonderful memoirs and anthologies and essays by disabled authors – there’s absolutely no comparison. 

It seems to me that disabled readers are looking for good representation in fiction, but we’re finding it in pockets, here and there. In allegory. In children’s fiction. In minor characters. We’re stretching the definitions at every side. 

Or like me, we’re giving up on fiction altogether. 

Why did I stop reading fiction? I wasn’t clear till last night. Then I remembered. It wasn’t the lack of good representation. It was the ubiquity of bad representation. 

Back in the mid noughties, James and I read to each other a lot. Beautiful literary fiction. And I remember why we stopped: halfway through a book I can’t remember much about, out of nowhere a disabled character popped up. I think it was one of those throwaway ‘she’s disabled! Oh no she’s not – it was psychosomatic all along!’ situations. 

It was very, very far from the first time. So many small, throwaway examples of bad disability rep, all adding up. And we were done. We didn’t ever finish that novel. 

– Lucy Catchpole

(A version of this was first posted on Instagram on the 29th November 2021) 

[Image description: I’m sitting in front of the mirror in my wheelchair, wearing my mustard coloured linen skirt. (Again.) I’m a white woman with long brown hair.]

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