Physical/Emotional/Mental Disabilities/Disorders

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I have been trying to find the most sensitive way of writing this, but after months of not writing a word, and months of looking over past experiences, I’m just going to come out and say it.  I’m tired of procrastinating on this, and frankly, this is scarily similar to my previous post, Cutters, Druggies and Alcoholics.  It’s so similar, I really only have one thing to add, but let’s just get to the typical piece of advice that I have always been saying:

Do your research.

It really isn’t at all as boring as research sounds.  For fan fiction writers, do you ever rewatch episodes or reread chapters to get a precise feeling for a canon character or to just confirm what you remember about that certain scene?  That’s research.  For any writer, do you ever just look up what a word means?  That’s also considered research.  Any piece of knowledge that you purposefully look into is considered research.  I just keep saying it because I feel that writers need to expand their knowledge because the more you know, the more that you can write, and the more that you can write, the more twists you can put to your own tale from your own perspective.  Writing what you know shouldn’t be confined by only your personal experiences.  If that were the case, I suspect most of us would just write about writing and writers.

That being said, physical, emotional and mental disabilities or disorders need to be researched if you plan on using it in your story because there is much confusion about them.

Disability and disorders would be best explained through examples.  Learning disorder and learning disabilities sound like they could be interchangeable, and in many cases that would be correct, but there are differences in criteria.  Someone with dyslexia can grasp information and understand it if they heard it once or only a few times, but have trouble reading it because letters may be backwards or jumbled or squished together whereas, say, someone with Autism may be able to solve a problem one day, but would need to repeat the action several times in order to actually have it ingrained.  Even though the words disorder, disability, and disease can be similar, and possibly interchangeable in some cases, don’t use them lightly.

Dissociative Identity Disorder isn’t the same as Dissociative Identity Disability, and in fact the latter doesn’t even exist.  People with Dissociative Identity Disorder may qualify for a Social Security Disability Insurance, but that’s only because the disorder is so advanced or uncontrollable that the person can’t work or hold a job and need financial help.

Besides knowing the differences between a disorder, disability, or a disease, knowing the differences between specific disorders, disabilities and diseases is also a must.  Most people think that Schizophrenia is when people have different personalities, but that’s Multiple Personality Disorder or Dissociative Identity Disorder.  Schizophrenia is when people hear voices or see things that aren’t there, and there are variations of Dissociative Disorders and Schizophrenia.  They’re not all the same!

This goes the same for disabilities.  Deaf people aren’t completely without hearing.  Most can hear loud sounds like a jet engine or a bomb if they’re right next to it, so it’s more like extreme cases of hard of hearing, and even without being able to hear quieter sounds, they find ways of adapting and communicating.  For example, sign language isn’t universal; there are over 70 different recognized sign languages, and all of them are unique, but this myth of a universal language has been passed around because it seems like deaf people understand each other anyway no matter what country they are from.  It’s not so much that they understand what their hands are saying, it’s more like because deaf people have had to adapt in a hearing world, and they have found ways of communicating that can apply to foreign deaf people.  It wouldn’t be so much having a full conversation (I think) but rather just understanding one another’s feelings and what they want.  It’s the same with foreigners speaking very limited or broken English.  

So besides doing your research, and doing it thoroughly, what else can I say?  No matter how sensitively you write about diseases, disabilities or disorders, someone will find a flaw to take offense at, and most of these “flaws” are because this person has had a different kind of experience, which makes their opinion subjective.

There’s one fan fiction I’ve read that had this kind of reviewer, and frankly it boils my blood.  In a vague summary of the AU fan fiction, one of the canon characters was autistic, and another canon character was taking a class or volunteering to spend time with this character, and she learns about him, people and herself through the course of the months with this character.  The story was so touching that it made me cry!  The reviewer kept complaining because she had a family member with autism and was a genius and could speak, and didn’t scream when he was touched, and made it seem like the author was just writing the stereotype of autism.  The fact is Autism and Aspergers cover a wide spectrum of different behavioral patterns, so no two autistic people are the same.  Lots of people with autism don’t like being touched, or maybe they can tolerate touch if it’s within an area of their body that they can see.  There are also autistic people who end up not talking at all in there life, but there are also those who talk a lot, and use big words that they don’t quite understand their meaning.  Lots of autistic children like lining things up, but other children may engage in other sorts of repetitive activity.  The point is there is no point in comparing a fictional character with someone you know.  Just because you know someone with this disability or that disorder or was diagnosed with that disease does not make that person the permanent mold for all fictional characters.  Many people may view their differences as normal, and wouldn’t have it any other way, and that’s fine, but there are people who don’t like having this difference.

So, what makes me qualified to give you any advice about this, as opposed to the thousands of people out there who have a disability or disorder or who know people with a disability or disorder?  I don’t.  I don’t have a disability or a disorder that I know of.  My neighbor is autistic, but I’ve only talked to him once in the span of the year and a half of living here (he was asking for a mug of ketchup), and I went to school for a few years with someone who was blind, but I never really talked to him either; although I did help him occasionally, so I don’t have any deep associations with disabilities or disorders either.  I’m not qualified to speak for anyone with a disability, disorder, or disease, but I can speak for myself.  

If I ever want to write about a character having any one of the three D’s, I will.  I will do as much research as I possibly can, and I’ll just jump in and write.  If you’re saying that I can only write if I’m “qualified” to, that’s pretty selfish.  What if I wanted to write a sci-fi fantasy?  Do I have to be an astronaut first to learn all of the shuttles and rockets and have a first-hand experience of outer space?  Well, it would probably really help, but I don’t have the money for it.  Does that mean I’m just going to have to sit on my thumbs and pass up on the idea?  No!  I’ll read about that stuff as much as I can, read interviews, read other sci-fi books, and I’ll forge my way in my story.  

And what about “being sensitive”?  Everyone is different.  A blind man may laugh at his disability, but find offense at those who are trying to be sensitive about it.  “Blind” shouldn’t be a bad word.  “Deaf” shouldn’t be a bad word.  “Autistic” shouldn’t be a bad word.  “Dwarfism” shouldn’t be a bad word.  Yes, there are bad words out there that certainly are offensive (retard, midget, deformed, dumb, gimp, invalid, etc.), but most words depend on the individual.  There are lots of people who find “handicapped” to be insulting, but there are others who find that it’s a suitable word that applies to them, but having a handicap doesn’t inhibit on their pursuit of life and happiness.  Some people even take offense to non-bad words and prefer to just call themselves “people,” and that’s fine too, but keep in mind that everyone is different and view words differently.  

Maybe I’m not one to ask this, maybe I’m not even qualified to say this, but I’m tired of being sensitive.  Do you know the reason why I don’t know anyone with a disability, disorder or any diseases?  It’s because society has put the fear in me that if I’m not sensitive enough then I could get in trouble.  Serious trouble.  I’ve been working at a care center for only three months and most of the patients are in wheelchairs or can’t grasp onto wide glasses, or have trouble talking.  I work in the kitchen and am not allowed to help besides give them a packet of powdered cocoa or read the week’s menu if they want me to, but that’s OK.  I would be uncomfortable with helping them even more.  Sometimes they complain to me that I don’t help them enough, but I keep telling them that I’m not allowed to do much more.  Then there are those I do offer to help and they have indignantly told me that they didn’t need help.  Either that’s their dementia coming out, because some of the patients do have that, or they just don‘t want help.  Either way, fine.  There is a time and place for sensitivity, but I don‘t want to watch it in my writing.

In writing, there may be characters that do make fun of people with disabilities or disorders, just as there are real people that do this, but that doesn’t automatically make the author one of them.  You may find offense at what is being written, but that doesn’t mean that the writer was trying to come off as offensive.

That’s like me trying to write about a different culture.  I’ll probably never fully understand it, no matter how much I read and research about it, I would probably still not fully understand it even if I lived there for a year, but I know that I’m doing the best that I know how to.  There will probably still be people who take offense at what I have written, and maybe even call me a racist if I’m talking about a sensitive subject within that culture.  I am not a racist, nor do I hate people with one of the three D’s, nor do I hate the male gender even though I identify myself as a feminist, and nor do I hate people of religion or of different religions, but I know that no matter how much sensitivity I put in my writing, someone out there will misconstrue what I mean or twist my words, or just find something to find offense at.

You know what sucks?  Classes where the “different” kids were isolated from the “normal” kids, and therefore the “normal” kids have no way of knowing how to behave or interact with the “different” kids and then get in trouble because they never knew how to associate with people with “differences.”  Yes, being in a “normal” classroom can have its disadvantages for someone with a learning disability, but shouldn’t there be an interaction class?  Have a “normal” student partner up with a “different” student and play at recess or do some other activity together.  If parents are uncomfortable, make the class voluntary.  If things go wrong or there are bullying, do what needs to be done as the parents and school see fit.  There wasn’t anything like that in any of the schools I went to, and now I feel self-conscious.  I don’t know the “rules” and frankly, there are so many, and not all of them apply to every individual.

Fellow writers.  Do as much research as you possibly can, and abandon sensitivity.  Life is hard, not just for someone with a disability, disorder or disease, it’s hard for everyone.  We’re all facing something, and it’s not like it’s sugar and spice for me either.  You have a story, and you want to write it, so write it.  Don’t worry about offending people, but if you feel you should clean it up, then do it, it’s your choice, but no one can make you “clean it” when you had no intensions of it being foul and dirty in the first place.  Just write your piece and sit back.

That fan fiction that I was talking about earlier, do you want to know of the other reviews she has gotten?  There were reviewers who had praised her and shared stories about their personal experience with autism or a friend and family member with autism who saw bits of them in the autistic canon character.  One review that caught my eye was that an older sibling read the story to their younger sibling with autism, and they wanted to hear more.  The audience will know that if you don’t mean any harm, you don’t, but there will always be that one who says that you aren’t “qualified” to write about disabilities, disorders or diseases, just as there will be people who say you aren’t “qualified” to write about other cultures, sexualities, religions, addictions or careers.  Writers should not be limited in their craft just because it might be of a “sensitive” topic or that they aren‘t “qualified” to do so.
If you haven't, please read my Mary-Sue: Who is She? Series first.

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cartoonygothica's avatar
[My opossum persona has signs that she may be on the autism spectrum, possibly comorbid with unresolved anxiety and/or depression, and it's because I'm writing from my real-life experiences.  If she is, indeed, autistic, then it'd probably help explain her struggles with socializing, communication, and dealing with criticism.]