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Discovering Disabled Characters in Literature – A Call For Action

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The question for today:  Where are all the disabled characters in literature?  Diversity and representation in literature has been a hot topic over the past couple of years with online campaigns aiming to create dialogue about this issue, and what can be done to support books and authors that go unread and unnoticed by us readers.

I have written about the need for representation and diverse characters, particularly disabled characters, during the first year of RYV!, and have seen a growing interest in this focus online, especially among disabled readers who want characters they can relate to.  However, the biggest challenge I, and many others have seen, is that majority of such books that exist are written by able-bodied writers, and sadly, provide inaccurate depictions of what it is like to be disabled and/or live with a particular condition that the character(s) have.  These disempowering characters and images does nothing to uplift disabled persons who are starving to see their lives in books, and to have characters that embody their existence.  

This “literary starvation” is especially real for disabled people of color; a good portion of characters with disabilities are white.  This double-edge exclusion prevents us from having characters that not only have similar disabilities, but share the same ethnic backgrounds as we do.  I know this personally because I have never read a disabled character who was Black like me as a young girl – the characters I liked were either Black and non-disabled, or disabled and White.  It made me wonder if disabled Black people were worth writing about, and if my life mattered in books.  That is something that no child should ever have to ponder when hoping to find a character they can truly connect with.  

Quelling My Literary Starvation with Big Girl Small

I am currently in the process of reading my first book with a disabled character who is a little person.  It is a young adult (YA) novel called Big Girl Small by Rachel DeWoskin.  I received a copy of Big Girl Small from those at Disability in Kidlit, an organization that focuses on the disabled experience in books and gives interested readers the opportunity to review books “targeted” for tweens, teens, and young adults.  It has taken me a little longer to finally sit down and read this book due to my schedule, but I plan to have the book finished and a review written before the end of the month.  I will share the book review on here, as well as give it to those at Disability in Kidlit for its website.  So far, I am really liking the main character Judy, and I can already tell that this is a book that I will get lost in quickly.  This is the first time I have read a book with a character who has dwarfism; being someone who is short myself due to OI, I can relate to Judy in that regard fully.  It is interesting to be able to connect with a character disability wise, though still not ethnically.  I am eager to provide my full review of Big Girl Small, Judy, and the overall take-way from the novel.  So… stay tuned.  

My Call for Action in Supporting Diverse Books & Authors

As an aspiring children’s book author, I want to do my part in closing the diversity gap for disabled children who have multiple identities, and I know that there are many who possess the same passion for inclusion and validation to be present in books.  I am huge on supporting authors and books that actually do this, which is why I am putting this special call for action out there to my readers:

I want to discover books, across all genres and reader age groups, that have disabled characters that are truly phenomenal in their character development and in the storyline, how their disability is discussed and the way the character combats challenges, and could be considered role models for disabled people, young and old, to claim as their own.  

I do not want characters who teeter the “inspiration porn” line; I want characters whom you absolute love or love to despise, characters that make you wish you could be their BFF, characters that captivate your mind long after the last word has been read.  I want to know about these characters, and the authors who created them.  I especially have an interest in reading disabled characters of color and knowing of new authors of color in this call for action.  

How to Respond to My Call for Action

There are two ways to go about it:

Either send me an email about the books and authors that fit what I am looking for to:  Vilissa@rampyourvoice.com.

Or, if you have copies of such books that you are willing to send, you can do so by mailing them to the RYV! address:

Vilissa Thompson
PO Box 1286
Winnsboro, SC 29180

Regardless of how you reach out to me, I want to do my part in bridging the gap of diversity in books, and supporting the authors who empower disabled people through the written form.  

Final Thoughts

Being a self-proclaimed disabled Blerd (Blerd = black nerd), reading was instilled in me early on by my Grandmother (“Big V”) who read to me growing up.  My love for reading only grew with age, and it is with books where I find true solace.  It is imperative for all people to find books that speak to them on many levels, and touch special places in their hearts they never thought words from a page could.  I hope that the book I am writing, and the books that currently exist that are brought to my attention, will give every child and adult that unique reading experience.  

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of StockSnap.io.)

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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