I remember very distinctly the first time I read about “someone like me” in a book. I couldn’t have been more than ten or twelve at the most, and the book was Mine for Keeps by Jean Little. The main character, Sally, had cerebral palsy—just like me. She wasn’t the sad, crippled friend that you were supposed to pity; she was the main character, a fact that blew me away.
And it wasn’t just Sally. Jean Little’s books were filled with various characters who were disabled or facing other difficulties that were also familiar to me. I know now that Little herself was blind, and once taught at a school for children with disabilities, and I devoured her books like they were food for the starving.
And feed me they did. I’ve been writing since I could form the alphabet, and as any writer will tell you, reading is just as vitally important as practising your craft. Every book I read as a child inspired me to keep writing.
But I have never written fiction with a person with a disability in it. In the potentially 32 years I’ve been writing, I have never taken an own-voice stance in my fiction, at least not regarding my disability. I have written about what it’s like to be a queer woman, what it’s like to be an aboriginal woman, but I have never written about what it’s like to be a disabled woman.
I’ve examined this, in my own mind, and I can only come to the sad conclusion that I am ashamed of my disability. I have never admitted that “out loud” before, but it is a truth I must accept.
My therapist once asked me why I go to Pride events. I instantly answered, “Because I am proud to be queer!” Why was I proud? “Because of all that I’ve overcome to get here.” The obvious was left hanging in the air: why could I not be equally proud of what I’ve overcome as a woman with a disability?
I could state the obvious, and cite all the bullying I experienced as a child, from fellow students as well as teachers. I could talk about the frustration of not being able to do all the things my friends could do. I could go on about being overlooked and not accommodated, even when specifically requesting assistance. Being disabled in a world that is inherently built for the non-disabled is difficult.
Still, I am lucky in many ways. My disability is comparatively mild, and I can walk without assistance. I grew up in a very supportive family, one that never made me feel as though as I was less than the able-bodied.
But if I wrote about being disabled, I’d draw attention to the fact that I had cerebral palsy. People would know, and suddenly I would have to admit to myself the truth: that it’s not just a limp. My cerebral palsy is limiting me in new ways as I get older.
But while shame is certainly there, it is not the only thing that keeps me from writing characters with disabilities. Doing so is a fine line to walk (pun mildly intended). How do I find the balance with shedding light on life with cerebral palsy while not making it the whole focal point of the character or the story? Am I even qualified? Perhaps I am not disabled “enough.”
In the end it comes down to my own self-acceptance and my ability to understand that a character with a disability, or even specifically cerebral palsy, does not have to attempt to speak for all people with CP. They shouldn’t even try. Nor do they even have to be a direct copy of my own experiences. They just have to be their authentic selves.
And that is a lesson I need to learn for myself.
Despite her day job as a bureaucrat, April Laramey is a writer, dabbles in photography, spends too much time on the internet, paints, and occasionally gets some exercise. Her favourite colour is green, she wants to work in a bookstore when she grows up, and when she dies she wants her tombstone to read “To Be Continued…”
You can read more about her at alaramey.com or on facebook or twitter
Great article, April. Very moving.