This month in the Romance Academy, we're delighted to welcome Brooke Winters who talks about the importance of representing disability in romance and #WriteDis...
I have been reading romance novels since I was a teenager. I love that in a romance novel anyone and everyone can have their happily ever after. And as a disabled writer and reader I want to see myself represented in novels.
I want to read characters with visual impairments, like I have. I want to see sexy heroes who are disfigured and hot. I want to read about people, like me, with chronic pain who can still live happy and fulfilling lives. I want to see wheelchair users, people with canes and sticks, autistic people, mentally ill people, learning disabled people, Deaf people.
I want every disabled person to be able to pick up a romance novel and see themselves in the pages of the book.
As romance readers we are lucky because there seems to be more disability representation in romance novels than in many other genres. When I think about some of my favourite romance writers they all include disabled characters in their books.
J. R. Ward for example has multiple disabled characters and represents a range of different disabilities. The heroes in her books include a blind King, a disfigured warrior, and an amputee. Another of my favourite authors is Lexi Blake. Lexi Blake’s heroes all tend to be or have been in the military. Some of them have PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and some are amputees. It's not just her heroes that are disabled, she has also written disabled heroines. The last book I read was Kresley Cole’s Dark Skye and I was delighted to find the hero was disfigured, physically disabled, and experienced chronic pain. My favourite Dark Hunter (Zarek) is disabled, the hero in the book I'm currently reading is blind, and I have a long to be read list of romance novels featuring disabled characters. As romance readers we are fortunate to have so much choice when it comes to disability.
However, putting disabled characters into a book and representing disabled people well are two different things. Some of the authors I mentioned have written great disabled characters and avoided many of the tropes that disabled people find harmful but there are many more books that feature ableism, discrimination against disabled people. In fact, most novels with disabled characters contain ableism to some degree. As romance readers and writers I think we need to be aware of how ableism can manifest in romance novels and the ways that this ableism harms disabled people.
A common and harmful trope in romance novels when it comes to disability is the miracle cure. The disabled character finds some kind of magical force, changes their lifestyle, or discovers a medical breakthrough that cures their disability. This can be harmful for a number of reasons. Many disabled people do not want to be cured. Being disabled is as much a part of people's identity as their ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation. Among many disabled people disability is viewed as a difference rather than something that is inherently bad and writing about many disabilities being cured is like writing a romance novel where a gay character becomes straight. It's harmful, it's erasing, and it's not desirable.
There are some conditions that most people would love to have cured. While I like being autistic and disabled, I don't want to live with chronic pain for the rest of my life and I would be incredibly happy if someone found a cure for anxiety and depression. However, writing this into your romance novel is harmful. I don't want to live with chronic pain but I have no choice. I don't want to be anxious but I can't change that.
When I read characters with chronic pain being cured as part of their happily ever after it makes me feel like people with chronic pain can't have a HEA. I find it particularly difficult when that cure comes at the end of a book. By that point I've invested in the novel, I've connected with a character who I thought was like me only to find that in order to be happy they have to change the thing about them that made me relate to them in the first place. It feels like a betrayal.
Writing disabled characters who engage in treatment and attend physiotherapy is, of course, absolutely fine and I would consider it to be a good thing. That's the reality of many disabled peoples’ lives. However, writers need to write these things in a way that does not feed into the ableist narratives around disability. For example, one writer, who wrote otherwise good disability rep, ended the book with her disabled character realising that she should have been attending physiotherapy and that it was partly her fault that her disability had impacted so much on her mobility. To an abled person this may not seem ableist but it feeds into a number of harmful ideas about disabled people.
Disabled people are often viewed as a burden on the state and on the people who love them, and disability is usually considered (by abled people) to be a bad thing. Writing a disabled character who realises that she should be doing more to make herself less disabled feeds into this idea. This ending suggested that lack of engagement was just laziness, ignoring the very real difficulties that many disabled people have with physiotherapy. It also suggested that her impairments would immediately get better and this is rarely true. Physiotherapy is physically demanding, it often means having to sacrifice other things that you want to do due to lack of energy or the pain caused by exercise, and it takes time to see the improvement (if there is any). It also reinforces that idea that many abled people have that disabled people would be able to do more and would be less disabled if only they did yoga/more exercise/stretches etc. The same can be said of other types of treatment, particularly psychological treatments.
Writers also need to be careful when writing about alternative treatments. Disabled people are often exploited by people selling expensive and ineffective treatments for various disabilities. It's irresponsible for a writer to suggest that something with no medical evidence can treat a disability. This is often seen alongside writers writing about cures for things that disabled people do not want cured (like autism).
As writers we have to be mindful of the language we use to describe disabled people. Often what the general public think of as being the correct term is something that disabled people find offensive or harmful. For example, while many abled people like to use people first language, many disabled people find it harmful. This is particularly true of autistic people who overwhelming prefer identity first language, which means you would call us autistic people rather than people with autism. There are, of course, different preferences among different disabled people and it's important that writers writing disabled characters make sure they are using descriptions that most people in that group find acceptable. The best thing to do is check with organisations that are run by disabled people. Don't assume that you know the right words.
Common and harmful perceptions of disabled people often find their way onto the page of romance novels. The eternally innocent, child-like disabled person. The figure of pity. The dangerous, mentally ill villain. The inspirational disabled person, considered brave merely for existing. The hero (or heroine) who didn't think their life was worth living because of their disability until they met their true love. Disabled people can, and do, live happy, fulfilling lives without any need of a cure. Mentally ill people are more likely to be the victim of violence than the perpetrator. Disabled people aren't inspirational just for being alive and you don't have to be brave to be disabled.
Disabled characters are, more often than not, written for an abled audience by abled people. The miracle cures are written because abled people can't imagine disabled people being happy. The mentally ill villains are written because of the stigma and fear surrounding mentally ill people. I hope to see more disabled characters in all romance novels in the future and I hope that there is less ableism when disabled people are represented. And I really hope to see more disabled writers from all backgrounds and with all kinds of impairments writing and publishing romance novels. Everyone deserves a happily ever after and that includes disabled people.
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Brooke's latest release, a short story in the Summer Love anthology, is out now. For more information about her and her writing, check out her website and follow her on Twitter.