Debunking Disability Literature
For the 3rd Annual Book Party today, our Senior Editor, Madison Parrotta, debunks some books with disability representation. Not all books are written equally, so we wanted to dive into some of the harmful and stereotypical messages that hide between the pages.
Disclaimer: This post contains spoilers for all the books mentioned.
My Brother Charlie by Holly Robinson Peete and Ryan Elizabeth Peete (2010)
Genre: Children’s picture book
Disability representation: Autism
Synopsis: The story of a girl named Callie and her twin brother, Charlie, who has autism.
Why it’s harmful: It plays into stereotypes of autistic people and includes problematic symbolism. There is puzzle piece imagery that directly connects with Autism Speaks, an organization that claims to be in support of the autistic community but actually contributes to the fear and stigmas surrounding autism. Additionally, multiple negative connotations of autism are brought up throughout the book:
- The term “special needs” is thrown around. This phrase is problematic because people with disabilities shouldn’t be described as special: they’re just different from what others may consider “normal.” The word “special” is a vessel that has unnecessary emphasis placed on it.
- Callie often mentions how hard it is being Charlie’s sister because he has a disability. It’s better to describe the experience as “different” rather than “difficult” — the latter term is dehumanizing to people with disabilities and adds to the rhetoric that it would be better if disabled people were “fixed” or “cured.”
Roll with It by Jamie Sumner (2019)
Genre: Middle grade contemporary
Disability representation: Wheelchair user
Synopsis: A contemporary middle-grade novel following a girl with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair as she navigates growing up.
Why it’s harmful: The main protagonist, Ellie, has internalized ableism, which is when a person with a disability discriminates against themselves or other people with disabilities. Internalized ableism pushes the narrative that disabled people aren’t equal to the able-bodied people around them — a mindset usually influenced by those same people — until they start to believe it themselves.
- Ellie and her mom move in with Ellie’s grandparents, who are elderly and need help in their old age. Ellie’s mom ends up hiring an aide to help Ellie at school, even though she claims she does not need an aide and is capable of doing things herself. This enforces the idea that able-bodied people can and should tell people with disabilities what to do and give them help without asking what they want.
- During Christmas, Ellie and her family go to church. Ellie’s grandpa sees a little girl who reminds him of Ellie and tears up because she’s able to walk. While the grandfather does have memory issues, the scene encourages the idea that people with disabilities need to “get better” to make their loved ones happy.
A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle (1981)
Genre: Young adult science fiction/fantasy
Disability representation: Wheelchair user
Synopsis: A fantasy novel that takes place within the universe of L’Engle’s famous novel A Wrinkle in Time.
Why it’s harmful: There is very obvious ableist language present when describing one of the recurring characters throughout the book, Matthew Maddock, who had an accident that led him to be in a wheelchair. The author describes him as having a “crippled body with useless legs like a civil child,” giving his disability a negative connotation. The more negative connotations that disability is ascribed to, the more that able-bodied people will see disabled people as negative descriptions rather than who they actually are, which are human beings who have different needs than they do.
- Matthew’s father doesn’t want Matthew to be a partner in a store he owns because he can’t believe that Matthew could be successful without using his legs, despite his son having an obviously brilliant mind.
Five Feet Apart by Rachael Lippincott (2018)
Genre: Young adult romance
Disability representation: Cystic fibrosis (CF)
Synopsis: Two cystic fibrosis patients fall in love but have to stay six feet apart from each other to avoid cross-infection that can make one another sicker.
Why it’s harmful: Falls within the “sick lit” genre in YA literature, where one or more of the main characters has a disability and/or life-threatening terminal illness with their narrative(s) centered around the prospect of dying. This plays with people’s emotions and often depicts disability that eventually ends in death. It also serves as “inspiration porn,” because it makes able-bodied people feel better about themselves and their lives by reading about those who have it “worse than them.”
- One of the book’s side characters, Poe, who is best friends with the main protagonist, Stella (who also has cystic fibrosis), ends up dying and contributes to playing into the reader’s emotions, painting his death as a tragic event that motivates the actions and feelings of the main character. It depicts someone with a disability as disposable and fragile.
- Stella acts cheerful in front of her friends so they won’t get upset over the issues that come with having cystic fibrosis. People with disabilities aren’t necessarily always positive or realistic. This rhetoric leads to able-bodied people assuming the worst when people with disabilities are negative.
Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland (2016)
Genre: Young adult romance
Disability representation: Cane user
Synopsis: A boy named Henry and a girl named Grace meet during their senior year of high school and fall into an unconventional tale of first love.
Why it’s harmful: People with disabilities, specifically Grace, are misrepresented and depicted in an unflattering light. There are implications that she has to be “fixed” and is shamed for appearing/acting outside of the norm.
- Grace was in an accident and injured her leg, which is why she uses a cane to walk. Whenever she is described by Henry, it can be read as seeming grossed-out or filled with pity: there are a lot of phrases that imply that she is broken and that she is no longer a whole being because she has a disability. Before the accident, she was perceived as attractive and sexually active, but is seen as ugly and less approachable after her accident.
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes (2012)
Genre: Adult romance
Disability representation: Wheelchair user with quadriplegia
Synopsis: A young woman, Louisa, becomes the caretaker to a man named Will, who was in an unfortunate accident years ago and is now paralyzed from the waist down due to a spinal cord injury.
Why it’s harmful: Negative language surrounds Will’s disability constantly, especially used by himself, through phrases like being “stuck in a wheelchair.” It shouldn’t be described in a negative light — it’s a way of getting around and a way to have freedom and independence. Will’s disability often brings up uncomfortable questions asked by able-bodied characters.
- Louisa asks Will if his disability prevents him from performing sexual acts. This encourages the idea that people with disabilities aren’t sexually active or not romantically inclined due to their disability.
- Will always needs hired caretakers and members of his family to take care of him, which influences the idea that people with disabilities and wheelchair users cannot take care of themselves without help. His lack of autonomy makes him seem helpless when many people with disabilities learn to adapt to a new lifestyle on their own.
At the end of the novel, Will commits assisted suicide, implying that it’s impossible to live a full and fulfilling life with a disability.
Have you ever read a book with stereotypical or harmful messages about disability? There are so many stories out there and we hope we inspire you to think deeper about disability representation in books.