Marieke Nijkamp: The Trope of Curing Disability

Marieke NijkampMarieke Nijkamp is a dreamer, avid tweeter, and proud-to-be geek with degrees in philosophy, history, and medieval studies. In the midnight hours of the day she is a storyteller, represented by Jennifer Udden at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. Marieke is one of the founding YA Misfits and founder of DiversifYA, an inclusive community where people share experiences, in the hope that all of us who write will realize the world is much bigger than our little patch of earth. That we are diversity, and that one day our stories will reflect that.

Growing up, one of my favorite classic children’s book was Frances Hodgson Burnett’s THE SECRET GARDEN. One of my favorites, I think, for two reasons. One, an ancient house on the moors and a secret walled garden? WANT. Two, a bed-ridden, disabled boy.

As a mostly bed-ridden, disabled girl, I—surprisingly—identified with Colin more than with most able-bodied characters in most books (which, up until that point, formed about 99,99% of what I read, because frankly, it was and is surprisingly hard to find disabled characters). Sure, he was angry and unlikeable and pitiable, but at the very least he wasn’t the villain. Progress, right? Besides, I loved the idea of him going out and making friends and creating his only little piece of world.

That feeling of identification lasted right up until the point where he got out of his wheelchair and threw off his disability.

Now in Colin’s case, it might be argued that he was never disabled at all, just weakened and made ill, but to me, it felt like a betrayal. Again. He wasn’t the first character I met who overcame his hardships and was miraculously cured, and he wouldn’t be the last one either. In fact, for disabled characters, being cured is a common trope. What’s more, in most of these narratives, classics as well as recent kidlit, the characters are cured because they’re better than they were at the start of the book: kinder, gentler, braver. And finally, finally, they’re normal and whole.

And quite frankly, that trope needs to GTFO.

First of all, because obviously, we can’t always be cured. We can’t magically regrow limbs, or defy paralysis through sheer willpower. There are no wonder pills to get rid of an extra chromosome, and the magic world isn’t open to us Muggles.

But surely, I hear you say, if a cure were available (let’s pretend I’m talking about a panacea here), everyone wants it? Well, no. This is a very personal issue, and one of much debate within the disability community. We don’t always want to be cured.

Speaking from my own experience, I’ve seen the cure discussion from two sides. When it comes to my physical disability (a combination of several autoimmune disorders), I’m incredibly grateful that there are medicines out there that allow me to function and manage my chronic pain. Days that are completely pain-free are rare, but at least my current meds take the edge off, and with that in I can manage. Sure, some days I think a cure would be nice, but it’s not one of my priorities in life.

When it comes to my Asperger’s, I would categorically deny any form of cure. To put it bluntly: this is the way my brain works, and for all that there are challenges, there are enormous upsides too. This is the world I see and the world I’ve built for myself, and you don’t get to mess with that.

Does that mean no one wants to be cured? Of course it doesn’t. Plenty of people do, and that’s their good right. But I’d still feel confident in saying most of us don’t think about cures on a daily basis (or, in fact, about our disabilities). After all, this is our normal. This is who we are. And we can be perfectly happy just the way we are, thank you very much.

TV Tropes kindly points out that, “if the only happy ending the writers can imagine for the character is to magically lose their disability, this could be a little depressing for disabled people living in the real world.” And sometimes, it is. Not because we can’t be cured. Not because we won’t be cured. But because it means we aren’t recognized as people but only as labels, not as characters but only as characteristics.

And because, really? Is that really the only possible happy ending? How about a happy ending wherein we get the girl (or boy)? How about a happy ending that lets us save the world? How about a happy ending that involves us staying disabled? Is that so hard to imagine?

I don’t have to be cured to be happy. I don’t have to conform to the physical notion of perfection (whatever that is) to be a whole person. I don’t feel physically better when I’m kinder, gentler, braver. Nor am I evil because my legs don’t always work.

Most of the time, at least.

Because fair warning, I might go on a rampage the next time I see a miracle cure in my kidlit.