In the real world, the disabled have to fight for the right to safety, education, employment, freedom of assembly, and self-determination. So does the way disabled characters are portrayed in stories we tell really matter? I think of myself as a storyteller, so perhaps it is both unsurprising and self-aggrandizing for me to say I believe it matters most of all.
Human beings are a storytelling species – the ritual of storytelling occurs in every known culture and in every period of history. And if we take time to actually observe this ritual, we can get a sense of just how powerful it can be, and its great potential for shaping attitudes and prejudices.
First, the audience gathers. The gathering may be as small as one or two around the fireside or office water cooler, or as large as several million, in the case of commercially produced movies and television shows. Then, the social chatter ceases and is replaced by a sense of shared and focused anticipation, which sets the stage for the storyteller to begin. This dynamic (as far as I can tell), is unique to the human animal; lots of creatures gather in large groups for the shared activities of migration, mating, and the rearing of young, but the chatter and communication continues between small groups within that gathering: tweets and grunts, snorts, snuffles, and flashes of meaningful color. I've never seen a flock of birds, a school of fish, or herd of cows or horses become as still as a human audience. After the hush descends, the storyteller begins the tale. Then, if she or he is skilled enough, the magic (and that is really only thing I can call this) begins: the members of the audience fall into a trance-like state.
If you've been lucky enough to have ever been in the audience for a really wonderful story, you've felt this magic from the inside. You're no longer aware of the seat you're sitting in, or that scratchy tag in the neck of your sweater; the events of the story unfurl in your mind with such clarity it's as if you're there – inside the world the storyteller is creating for you. In a very real sense, members of the audience temporarily surrender their imaginations to the storyteller for the sake of a shared experience.
The fact that this ritual is both unique to, and universal within, human society is, I think, a sign that it is somehow vital to our survival as a species – and is probably connected to how we learn and how we understand our surroundings. My mother had a favorite saying: "When we read, we don't learn, we recognize;" she meant, I think, that everything we read is colored by the things we've experienced. But there's also a flipside to that observation: we tend not to notice, or give credence to, our own experiences until they are reflected back at us through stories. The Evangelist Christian who accosts me on the street with the promise to pray for me sees me not as I am, but as a character in the Gospel tales of Jesus. The "Santa's helper" in the elf uniform who thrusts a candy cane at me sees me, not as I am, but as a stand-in for Dickens' character Tiny Tim. And I could not easily contemplate writing disabled characters into my own fiction until after I joined in the disability community online – sharing my own stories, and perhaps more important, learning the stories of others; that's why events such as BADD are so powerful.
The question is, therefore: how should we judge the quality of the disabled characters in stories, either fiction or nonfiction? I think a good template to use as a starting point is the Bechdel Test, which has, in the last ten years, or so, been a useful framework for feminist critique of literature.
In 1985, Allison Bechdel introduced "The Rule" in her comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For," a litmus test for judging the role of women in movies (and later, other forms of media). The power of this test lies in its simplicity, and also its broadness:
1) there are at least two named women
2) who talk to each other
3) about something other than a man.
This test makes no demands that the women in the story defy stereotype or are admirable in any way, and yet the fact that so few movies, comic books, and other mass media pass this test demonstrates how strong the bias toward male-centered narrative actually is.
So – I've been wondering for a while now: Is it possible to come up with a test to expose the common biases against the disabled in narrative? Simply pasting "disabled character" into the Bechdel test in place of "women" wouldn't work very well. The Bechdel test addresses the primary bias that women exist as accessories to men's lives. And, frankly, that doesn't really reflect the social barriers the disabled face. We may be a substantial segment of society, but we are rarely 50% of the population – often, we are the only disabled people within our nuclear families. So requirement 1 is out. And it is often assumed (whether rightly or not) that we live together in some sort of institution or group home. So requirement 2 is superfluous. And while it would be nice to have a disabled character with any speaking lines, whether they speak about their disability or ability specifically wouldn't necessarily counter any stereotypical beliefs.
And yet, whenever I'd see a disabled character pop up on a TV show, I could feel my jaw start to clench in anticipation of the same, tired, overused plot devices. So I knew there was something basic, and repetitive, going on… If only I could put what was bothering me into words.
Finally, this past winter, after watching one too many cop shows where a disabled character only appeared on-screen as the mute, and nameless, motive for a family member's crime, my personal litmus test crystallized in my mind:
1) there is a disabled character
2) who wants something
3) (besides revenge, cure, or death)
4) and tries to get it.
In the Bechdel test, having two women engage in any conversation on subjects other than men represents both the ability of women to form their own social bonds, and also a wide range of intellectual interests they are able to hold, all within the universal narrative element of "dialogue."
In the real world, we disabled often have to fight three primary cultural biases, each of which, I've tried to address in this test.
The first is the bias that discredits our ability for personal autonomy. That's why I want the disabled characters in my fiction to want something for themselves – it doesn't even need to be a big, powerful, plot-driving thing: even showing someone in the background of the crowd scene buying a newspaper, or flying a kite, would satisfy me.
The second cultural bias defines the disabled only in terms of being less than the culturally-accepted "norm." This is why I believe the third item on my list is important. So often in fiction, the disabled character is so embittered by their "lack" that they lose touch with their own sense of self-worth and moral compass – filled with rage and shame – and this reaction is almost always seen as "perfectly natural," and is never even challenged by any of the other characters in the story. So that the only "happy ending" can either be the erasure of the disability itself via cure, or the erasure of the character via death ("at least they're free from suffering, now").
The third bias in our culture is that the disabled are dependent, and in constant need of charity. And that's why the final requirement on my list is that the character makes their own effort to get what they want, rather than being there for an able-bodied character to rescue. This does not mean, however, that the character should be some type of super-Crip, and do everything themselves, but only that they take some initiative in getting their goals met, even if that's "just" to speak out and ask for help.
So… That's the test that I've come up with for evaluating the stories I create and consume. But I don't expect this to be a perfect litmus test – I do hope, however, that it's a useful starting point for discussion.
What do you think?
[E.T.A: Blogging Against Disablism Day 2013 archive
... So many articles to read! I hope to post a review entry sometime soon...]