Why We Need More Disability in YA

Posted August 15, 2015 by Ely in Other / 12 Comments

This isn’t something I’ve really shared with the internet, but I was born with a mobility disability. This disability has changed over time and it doesn’t really have a name or clarification anymore as it’s been altered by an operation gone wrong. This all happened when I was young—about 7 or 8, and I’ve been dealing with it every day since then.

Like many of you, books are my escape, YA in particular. But disability is something that is rarely discussed, and today I want to talk about why that needs to change.

1. Representation and role models
I know a lot of people look up to Katniss, Hermione, Tris and so many others, which makes sense to me. The thing is, I personally feel a little disconnected from them for one main reason. Have you ever heard of Katniss Everdeen struggling to get up a flight of stairs? Or Tris Prior having to take a day off from the rebellion or whatever because she physically can’t get out of bed? No, you don’t. *

This is kind of sad story, but as a child, do you want to know who my fictional role model was? It was Nemo. Yes, Nemo as in the fish from Finding Nemo. Do you know why? Because he had a bad fin that made swimming hard for him, and that was the closest I got to a character who struggled through the same thing as I did on a daily basis.

It sucks because I think I, and all the other kids I spent months in hospital with, deserved more characters who we could sympathise will. As great as Nemo was, where was our kickass assassin/rebellion leader with the bad leg? Or bad arm? Or whatever illness we had.

* I know people might bring up Hazel Grace here, and while I agree that she represents a more realistic side of illness, I also have some issues there. I could talk for hours about why I think she is not an entirely true description of a cancer patient, but I just want to point out something. People are often more willing to talk about cancer. A lot of people have been affected by it, myself included, so I don’t think it’s not as important or whatever but it has featured in a lot of YA and other fiction lately. That’s great, but where are my diabetic characters?

2. Education
I’ve dealt with rude and ignorant comments and looks my entire life. They’re not fun, but what gets me the most is that people don’t see that it’s not alright to talk about these sorts of things. Walking can be very difficult for me, especially long distances and I get a limp. I’ve had some really lovely friends who can tell this and we’ll just go and sit down for a bit (shout out to Michelle and Dani who are especially brilliant at this). Then there are those other people who feel it’s necessary to point out this limp to me and then want to know what’s happened. I know people are curious, but sometimes this makes everything worse.

We need a character who can show this. A character who can educate people, both disabled and not on this fact—a person’s disability is their business. They might be comfortable with telling people about it or they might not be. Either way, it’s not your place to ask. I think the best way to make this known is through stories, especially ones that younger people are more likely to read.

3. Stereotypes
I’m not saying that there are no YA books that look at disability, but sometimes when disabilities are included, they aren’t dealt with well. You get your stereotypes, like anything else in the world. There’s generally two ways a disabled character will be written—either they are meant to be an inspirational story or they’re bitter about the world.

Just like anyone else, you get your good and bad days. There are times where I’ve felt like ‘Yeah, you know what? I want to help others who are going through a similar thing’ and then there are times where I’ve hated everyone and everything because of the issues my leg has caused. I’m not one or the other, and I don’t know anyone who is. You just have to get on with it.

Books help with breaking down stereotypes, right? There are books that look at race, religion, gender, sexuality, identity—whatever, that work on showing all those things in a different light. So why haven’t we seen more of disability in YA?

So in my opinion, these are just three reasons why we need more disability in YA fiction. If you have any others or any comments about what I’ve said, please comment them below just remember to be respectful, as I said these are just my opinions.

If you know of any YA that you think represents disability well please let me know, because I’ve yet to find anything.


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12 responses to “Why We Need More Disability in YA

  1. Cracked by Eliza Crewe has a badass sidekick with a bad leg, if I remember correctly. Or there was something up with her leg. But I completely agree that there should be more disability in YA, both physically as well as mentally. We need that representation and we need people to talk about it and raise awareness.

    • Ely

      I’ve never heard of this book, but I think I know of the author. Thanks for the recommendation, Inge, I’ll definitely check it out. We definitely need more books about mental illness, and that represent it correctly. Thanks for the comment 🙂

  2. Ugh the ONLY ONE BOOK I know of that has a kickass heroine and a disabled leg is from Eon, but then the disability, well I don’t want to ruin it for you because you haven’t read it yet. ANYWAYS. Yes there needs to be more. AND ELY YOU ARE A CUTE. When (not if) I visit you, I will be the bestest friend ever.

    • Ely

      I read the first 100 pages or so of Eon but I couldn’t get into it, even with the leg…it made me so sad 🙁 NO, YOU ARE A CUTE. You better get your ass over here soon missy.

  3. I agree that there needs to be more disability in fiction! I honestly can’t think of even one book with a disabled character, off the top of my head, and that says a lot. Everyone should be able to see characters like them portrayed in the books they read, movies they watch, etc. and I hope that someday that really is the case.

    You’re also soo right about books being a way to learn and to empathize! I feel like if we portrayed real, diverse people more in fiction, people would be more understanding when encountering people different from them in real life.

    • Ely

      I totally agree with this point. It’s really sad that this hasn’t happened already, but I think we’re slowly moving forward.

      I’ve learnt a lot from the books I’ve read, but a lot people don’t read anymore. I think this is part of the reason why some people can be discriminating—sometimes they’ve never encountered certain types of people or situations and they don’t know how to react. I think books teach you this. You’ve just got to convince people to read them.

  4. Fabulous post <3 And the first time I've commented over here – you've definitely grabbed me. I think it's super important to show heroines and heroes of ALL different abilities and disabilites, for all the reasons you've said here. Diversity FTW.

    • Ely

      We’re only very newly set up here, but thank you so much for visiting us! I’m glad we could grab you…in a nice way. Let’s hope for more diversity!

  5. I agree with this! I’d like to read about this topic too and in a way, Nemo is pretty inspiring (:

    Kaz from Six of Crows has a degenerative leg condition but that’s the only thing I can think of, unfortunately.

    • Ely

      Oh, I totally agree. Nemo took me far in life.

      That’s very exciting. It was already on my TBR, despite having not finished the Grisha trilogy, but now it’s being bumped up.

  6. I definitely agree we need more disability in YA! We need more diversity in general, but this aspect is especially lacking. And sadly, I can’t think of a title that represents disability (let alone well), which is really quite sad. This year has been a great year of diversity, so hopefully from now on, things start to improve and disability gets the attention its been sorely lacking. While I don’t have any book recommendations for you, I can recommend a site: http://disabilityinkidlit.com – they’re dedicated to discussing disability in lit and best of all, it’s written and run by people who know what they’re talking about! Definitely check them out, I’m sure you’ll find some great rec’s over there!

    • Ely

      I think we’re doing slightly better in the sexuality, gender and mental illness areas of diversity lately which is why I decide to focus on disability. Obviously we have a long way to go with every area, but I think disability in particular needs some more love. I’m already in love with this site, thank you SO much for sharing this. *happy squeal* Time to go research!