Disability and Inclusion in Books

Written by Kate Foster

You may think your individual impact as a writer is minimal, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. How we each choose to write about people not only affects those we write about, but the thoughts and actions of others. As storytellers, especially for kids, each of us has the power to shape opinions and futures.

Approximately one in five Australians has a disability. That’s a huge 20% of the population.

* 20% of the population rarely represented in literature.

* Literature that to date hasn’t always portrayed disabled people kindly, authentically, or accurately.

* Insensitive portrayals which have built, and continue to build, harmful stereotypes.

* Stereotypes regularly using disabled people as inspiration or teachings for non-disabled people.

* Non-disabled readers whose only experience of disabled people is within the books they read.

I’m no expert, no spokesperson, and I can’t and don’t speak for every single disabled person. Each has differing opinions, and it’s worth dedicating time to listen to these voices, as many as possible, and understand the “whys” so you can formulate your own opinion and thus decision.

But, I believe every writer should at some point in their creative process consider including a little diversity in their work.

Saying that, however, right now probably isn’t the time to write from the POV of someone with whom you don’t share a disability. This current discourse within the disabled community politely asks you to leave this to those who do. But, it doesn’t necessarily stop you from including a diverse supporting cast.

How many books have you read where the secondary characters have impacted you just as much as the protagonist? For me, it’s heaps!

There are precautions and steps to take so we all do this in a way that spreads the right message and encourages acceptance. You can’t simply say a character has ADHD or put them in a wheelchair and say you’ve ticked the diversity box. How you present that character matters.

So, if you do choose to include diversity within your secondary characters, it’s important, essential even, to ensure you’re choosing your words carefully, authentically, and sensitively. How?

First, I’d suggest reading and analysing published books featuring the diversity you want to include. Then, check reviews of the book, but specifically reviews written by readers who share that diversity. For example, read a book with an autistic character and find out what autistic readers say about it. Did they like it? Did they find it offensive, inaccurate, damaging? Why? Take the time to understand.

Second, do your research and receive guidance where you can; but choose where you do this carefully. Again, seek out suggestions from the very people you plan to include. Most will have recommendations for the healthiest resources.

Third, use sensitivity readers. The feedback you receive is invaluable and intended to help you empathise and humanise, authentically represent the people who deserve to be seen more in literature, and initiate the right conversations beyond.

It’s imperative you include diversity the right way.

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