Guest post by Cady Bailey, a student in Dr. Marion Quirici’s Writing 101 course Neurodiversity, Narrative, and Activism.
It’s Disability Pride Week at Duke! Two years ago, the name of this week changed from Disability Awareness Week to its current name. This represents an important shift from simply taking a week to say, “Hey, people with disabilities are here,” to sending a message of acceptance and celebration. We certainly know that a significant portion of the people that surround us have a disability, whether visible or not, but there is strikingly little representation of disability in literature, and even less in the way of positive representation. It is vital that conversations about diversity in literature and other forms of media include disability. Seeing positive representations of disability is a major way to encourage disability pride and acceptance just as Duke is doing this week.
Below is a list of recommended books with positive representations of disability. There are a wide range of genres to choose from: personal narratives, fiction, scholarship and history, poetry, and anthologies. While it is impossible for one work to encompass the experience of disability as a whole, these books are notable examples of positive representations of disability.
Many of the books below are available here in the Duke University Libraries. Any titles not available at Duke or currently checked out can be requested through Interlibrary Requests.
* Denotes author with a disability
Personal narratives, including memoir and autobiography, are one of the most powerful forms of disability representation. While it is not impossible for non-disabled authors to write well-done characters with disabilities, personal narratives come from a place of experience. They are real, raw stories that tell truths about life with disability and the societal constructs surrounding them. There are a wealth of personal narratives out there written by people with disabilities, so this is certainly not a comprehensive list, but here are some suggestions to get started.
- Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure by Eli Clare*:
Drawing on the variety of experiences at the intersection of disability, race, and gender, Eli Clare explores his relationship with the societal need to cure bodies and minds that are labeled as other. A combination of personal narrative, history, and theory, there is much to be learned about the intersectional nature of disability and the impacts of societal views from this book.
- If you are interested in other personal narratives like this, check out Moving Violations by John Hockenberry* and Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha*
While fiction isn’t always the best place to look for deep societal messages about disability, it is vital that people with disabilities are represented in fiction. On one end, disabled readers can find inspiration and comfort in reading stories with characters they identify with. On another end, representing disability in fiction can help to dismantle stigma surrounding disability by showing non-disabled readers that disability doesn’t define a person.
The problem with fiction that it often follows negative stereotypes and tropes about people with disabilities. These include but are not limited to: using disabled characters purely as inspiration for the growth of a non-disabled character, villainizing disabled and mentally ill characters, and implying the only two possible ends for the story arc of a disabled character are death or cure. While there is no perfect fictional representation, avoiding the aforementioned tropes can help readers to identify the better ones. Here are a few of the standout fictional novels featuring characters with disabilities:
- Dregs Duology by Leigh Bardugo*: Consisting of the novels Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, this young-adult fantasy series has been described as Game of Thrones meets Oceans 11. The diverse casts of this series is lead by a morally-grey crime boss with a cane, characters with PTSD, and one who is implied to have dyslexia. This is not a story is not about disability or mental illness, but author Leigh Bardugo weaves it into aspects of the stories so that it is never erased or ignored.
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon: The Curious Incident follows Christopher Boone, a fifteen-year-old with autism spectrum disorder, as he embarks on a mission to solve the mystery of the death of his neighbor’s dog. Despite adhering to some stereotypes of autism, this book presents an interesting first-person portrayal of autism. This book has also been adapted into a widely acclaimed stage production.
- Carry the Ocean by Heidi Cullinan, Handbook for Dragon Slayers by Merrie Haskell, El Deafo by Cece Bell*, and Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling by Lucy Frank. Additional recommendations and reviews in the young adult genre can be found at Disability in Kidlit.
Disability Studies Scholarship/History
The field of disability studies has made important strides in understanding the societal constructs surrounding disability over the past several years. If you are interested in learning more about the scholarly field of disability studies, check out some of these books on the history of disability and theory surrounding disability.
- The Disabilities Studies Reader, edited by Lennard J. Davis: A collection of the most important articles from the field of disability studies. For anyone looking to get started in the field, this collection serves as an excellent introduction.
- Claiming Disability by Simi Linton: Linton examines the field of disability studies and critiques the stance that academic fields tend to take on disability: that it is a tragedy that must be avoided or fixed. Linton points out how the perspectives of people with disabilities often go ignored, and the only voices heard on the topic of disability are non disabled people. Through her analysis of the field, Linton sends a strong message of taking pride in disability.
- For other titles like these, check out What Have We Done by Fred Pelka and Defining Deviance by Michael Rembis.
Poetry and Anthologies
The books in this category are all personal narratives, but they take the forms of poetry, short essays, and short fiction. Each of the works listed below also represent intersectional accounts of disability. It is extremely important to remember that a disability doesn’t define a person or their identity. Other aspects of identity, including race, gender, sexuality, class, and religion, can also affect a person’s experience in society.
- All the Weight of Our Dreams by multiple authors (Autism Women’s Network)*: This collection features stories by people of color with autism. In a world where most disabled characters in the media are white males, the works in this anthology send important messages about what it is like to live at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities.
- QDA: A Queer Disability Anthology by Raymond Luczak and others*: Much like All the Weight of Our Dreams, QDA features stories focused around identifying as both queer and disabled. These stories are all the more important given that a study from 2015 found that none of the top 100 movies featured disabled LGBT characters.
- When the Chant Comes by Kay Ulanday Barrett*: In this collection, Barrett uses poetry to explore political and social constructs surrounding disability, race, and gender.
By choosing to read literature that positively represents disability, one can learn about the perspectives of people with different experiences and about social and political constructs that exist in the world that one might not otherwise know about. Additionally, choosing to support books featuring disabled characters and/or books written by disabled authors works to show the disabled community that their voices are heard and their voices matter. The next time you are looking for a read, consider choosing one from this list and support disability pride.