Corinne Duyvis: The Mystical Disability Trope

Corinne DuyvisA lifelong Amsterdammer, Corinne Duyvis spends her days writing speculative young adult and middle grade novels. She enjoys brutal martial arts and gets her geek on whenever possible. Find her on Twitter or Tumblr. Her YA fantasy debut Otherbound released from Amulet Books/ABRAMS in the summer of 2014. It has received four starred reviews and is a Junior Library Guild selection. Kirkus Reviews called it “original and compelling; a stunning debut,” while the Bulletin praised its “subtle, nuanced examinations of power dynamics and privilege.”

The trope of the mystical disabled person is varied, flexible, and very common.

At its core, it’s about a disabled character—frequently mentally ill, developmentally disabled, and/or blind—with some sort of unusual ability. While this trope is related to that of the “disability superpower” and often overlaps, I feel like it has a unique status of its own. Rather than just any superpower, these abilities are often unexplained and mysterious; the characters either hold or are the clue to saving the day, giving them a unique, mystical role in the plot.

A blind girl who’s the only one to see the ghosts haunting the main characters.

A little kid with Down’s syndrome who solves the riddle everyone is struggling with.

A schizophrenic person whose seemingly nonsensical ramblings hold the clue to the mystery.

An autistic boy with world-altering powers beyond anyone’s comprehension.

(And on and on.)

All of these characters are ridiculously easy to imagine because we see them so often. They’re most common in SFF settings, where either they’ll be the only person with a magical ability, or—in a world where these abilities are commonplace—theirs will be the rarest, strongest, or most important. They also appear in settings without any supernatural aspects, in which case the character often has savant-like abilities or unusual insight.

One of the typical things about this trope—although not essential—is that the characters usually aren’t well-rounded, realistic, grounded characters. They’re Othered. They’re ooh-ed and aah-ed over, feared or worshiped, set apart. They’re unusual. They’re mystical. They’re mysterious. They’re different. They’re unexplained.

They’re rarely just a regular person dealing with their own crap alongside the rest of the cast. Instead, their disability and their ability—and the seeming contradiction thereof—are defining aspects of their characters.

Dinah Bellman from The Langoliers.

Little Pete from Gone.

Kazan from The Cube.

Gabriel from FlashForward.

Kevin Blake from Eureka.

(And on and on.)

Writers are often intrigued by the unusual. We see something interesting and our mind starts working overtime, thinking of how to integrate this into a story. This results in seeing a disabled person and thinking of how differently that person must perceive the world, and how that could be used for plot purposes. Or we’ll need a character to perform a certain task, but putting that ability in the hands of a non-disabled character would ruin the plot. Instead, we hand that ability to a disabled character. That way we have a great excuse to only trot out the ability when it’s convenient to the plot. Or maybe we don’t want to explain the reason for the ability, so we just give it to a disabled person. They’re different as is! It’ll be all mysterious and creepy!

There are all kinds of reasons for writers to fall back on this trope, but that doesn’t make it OK. It’s based on existing prejudices and misinformation. Just give disabled characters roles like any other character in the book rather than setting us apart.

John Coffey from The Green Mile.

Jake Bohm from Touch.

Lil’ Bro from NYX.

Duddits from Dreamcatcher.

River Tam from Firefly.

(And on and on.)

I want to encourage writers to start recognizing these characters when they occur, and to steer clear from them in their own fiction. We don’t need some mystical ability to make up for our disabilities. We should not only exist to impart meaningful advice. And we’re not prophets or plot devices.

Otherbound Amara is never alone. Not when she’s protecting the cursed princess she unwillingly serves. Not when they’re fleeing across dunes and islands and seas to stay alive. Not when she’s punished, ordered around, or neglected.

She can’t be alone, because a boy from another world experiences all that alongside her, looking through her eyes.

Nolan longs for a life uninterrupted. Every time he blinks, he’s yanked from his Arizona town into Amara’s mind, a world away, which makes even simple things like hobbies and homework impossible. He’s spent years as a powerless observer of Amara’s life. Amara has no idea … until he learns to control her, and they communicate for the first time. Amara is terrified. Then, she’s furious.

All Amara and Nolan want is to be free of each other. But Nolan’s breakthrough has dangerous consequences. Now, they’ll have to work together to survive–and discover the truth about their connection.

Kody Keplinger: The Beautiful Tragedy

Kody KeplingerKody Keplinger is the author of three books for teens: The DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend), Shut Out, and A Midsummer’s Nightmare. Her first middle grade novel, The Swift Boys & Me, was released by Scholastic on May 27. Currently, Kody lives in New York City with her guide dog, a very upbeat German Shepherd named Corey. When she isn’t writing, Kody teaches writing workshops and spends a lot of time eating Thai food, marathoning Joss Whedon’s TV shows, and vlogging. You can find her on TwitterYouTube, and her website.

Recently I was talking to a guy online when I mentioned being legally blind. He replied in what he thought was kind – something along the lines of, “I’m just trying to wrap my head around the idea that someone with such beautiful eyes can’t see out of them. Seems like such a waste.”


To be fair to this gentleman, I think he thought he was being flirtatious or sweet or something. But, in reality, the “beautiful tragedy” is a complex and frustrating trope in disability culture. The guy’s comment is not the first I’ve heard, and I’m not the first person it’s been directed to.

So what’s so wrong with this trope? Why is it wrong to emphasize the supposed irony of a person with beautiful eyes who can’t see or a good-looking person “confined to a wheelchair” (another horrible, tragedy evoking phrase) or the like? First off, because it seriously implies that disabilities affecting those without beauty are a lesser issue.

The person I was corresponding with implied that it was a “waste” that I couldn’t see when I, according to him, have pretty eyes. So would blindness then be better suited to someone with less appealing eyes? Are unattractive people somehow more deserving of disabilities than attractive people?

I’ve also seen this applied to mental illness in fiction and film – someone who is incredibly smart or a brilliant artist struggles with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, manic depression – you name it – and we’re lead to believe this is somehow even more of a tragedy because the person is otherwise brilliant. As if it would be better if less intelligent or talented people had to deal with mental illness.

Obviously, this is a horrible thing to imply on many levels. A beautiful person’s disability is in no way better or worse than any other person’s disability.

However, that brings me to the second half of the trope – the tragedy.

In many ways, I am less bothered by the implications about beauty that this trope demonstrates and more frustrated with the implied tragedy of disability. By proposing that it is a “waste” for me to have pretty eyes and also be blind, it is suggesting that I am some tragic figure. That the beauty I have is diminished by this awful disability. That I am somehow broken. I don’t like the idea that any part of me is a “waste.”

By suggesting that it is a tragedy for a genius (either intellectual or creative) to have a mental illness, it lessens the work of that person. It turns them into this sad, ironic figure for society to marvel at. When, in reality, their mental illness is no different from that of the Average Joe who has a mental illness. Is Average Joe considered a tragedy on this scale?

I am no one’s tragedy. I can be smart or beautiful or talented and still deal with my disability, and it doesn’t compromise any of those things.

As writers, it’s important that we avoid the beautiful tragedy trope when creating disabled characters. While it might serve to heighten tension or add layers to a character, it ultimately sends really damaging messages about beauty or talent and disability. It implies that average people are more deserving of disabilities while attractive or talented people are forced to be seen as tragic figures. Neither of these things are true.

I never wrote back to that guy, but if I had, I would have told him thank you for saying my eyes are pretty, but I’m perfectly fine with how much (or little, really) I can see out of them. I am not broken. I am not tragic. And nothing about my situation is “a waste.”

The Swift Boys and Me, by Kody KeplingerNola Sutton has been best friends and neighbors with the Swift boys for practically her whole life. There’s the youngest, Kevin, who never stops talking; the oldest, Brian, who’s always kind and calm; and then there’s Canaan, the ringleader and Nola’s best-best friend. Nola can’t imagine her life without the Swift boys — they’ll always be like this, always be friends.

But then everything changes overnight.

When the Swifts’ daddy leaves without even saying good-bye, it completely destroys the boys, and all Nola can do is watch. Kevin stops talking and Brian is never around. Even Canaan is drifting away from Nola — hanging out with the neighborhood bullies instead of her.

Nola just wants things to go back to the way they were — the way they’ve always been. She tries to pull the boys back to her, only the harder she pulls, the further away they seem. But it’s not just the Swifts whose family is changing, so is Nola’s, and she needs her best friends now more than ever. Can Nola and the Swift boys survive this summer with their friendships intact, or has everything fallen apart for good?

Nola’s struggle to save her friends, her unwavering hope, and her belief in the power of friendship make Kody Keplinger’s middle-grade debut a poignant story of loss and redemption.

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.

s.e. smith: ‘Don’t Worry, It’s Fine When It Happens to Crazy People!’

s.e.smiths.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California, with a journalistic focus on social issues, particularly gender, prison reform, disability rights, environmental justice, queerness, class, and the intersections thereof, with a special interest in rural subjects. International publication credits include work for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, and AlterNet, among many other news outlets and magazines. smith’s writing on representations of disability in science fiction and fantasy was recently featured in The WisCon Chronicles, Volume 7. Assisted by cats Loki and Leila, smith lives in Fort Bragg, California. You can follow s.e. on Twitter, ou personal site, Goodreads, and lots of other exciting places online.

As a mentally ill reader, one of my most pressing frustrations when reading YA, or interacting with any pop culture, is the handling of mental illness. Mental illness is frequently dealt with in very troped, and often harmful, ways, illustrating that creators didn’t take the time to research, learn about the lived experiences of the communities they are writing about, or think about the responsibility involved in depicting mentally ill people, an already marginalised group within our larger culture.

To be crazy is to be dangerous, and not necessarily to yourself or others. Mental health diagnoses are used as a tool for power and control, to silence people, to take their children away, to deny employment and benefits, to abuse people, to threaten people. Mentally ill people, like others with disabilities, are highly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

Somewhat uniquely, though, this is a disability that hits adolescents and teens particularly hard, because mental illness often onsets around this age. Unlike other disabilities, which may be congenital or acquired at any age, and thus can play an emergent role in any stage of life, mental illness is often something people grapple with for the first time in their teen years (though younger people can and do have mental illnesses). The fiction they’re interacting with at the time can have a profound effect on how they deal with their diagnoses, and unfortunately, that fiction often sends very negative messages.

The onset of mental illness doesn’t happen like flipping a switch; you will not wake up one morning and suddenly be crazy. Instead, it happens by stages, often so subtly that you may not fully realise what is happening to you. You don’t understand why you’re getting increasingly tired, everything is hard to do, and you’re losing the will to get out of bed. You don’t see any reason to go on living. There’s a voice in your head compelling you to do something—and warning you not to listen to other people who tell you the voice in your head isn’t there. You’re bounding with abundant energy, you can take on the world, you don’t need to sleep or rest EVER AGAIN! Everything makes you cry and you feel like the entire world is fracturing around you. You trust no one, and everyone is obviously out to get you.

These are just some of the many symptoms youth can experience at the onset of mental illness. Often, they happen late in high school and early in college, when people are trying to live independently and may be afraid or unwilling to reach out. Thanks to tropes and stereotypes about mental illness, and the stigma associated with mental health conditions, people who think they might be sick could be reluctant to seek help, and they may not even recognise what they’re experiencing as mental illness.

After all, OCD is when you’re super particular about your kitchen, right? So compulsively washing your hands, needing to check and recheck and recheck your doors, or being constantly worried about leaving the stove on isn’t OCD. You’re not sure what it is, but you definitely don’t have a treatable mental health condition. And schizophrenia is when you have a split personality, right? So experiencing a break with reality, not being sure about what is real and what is not, that’s definitely not schizophrenia—besides, schizophrenia is scary and it only happens to crazy people, like that freaky homeless guy by the post office.

So we come to mental illness in YA, which is often depicted in very stereotyped and inaccurate ways; like TV OCD, as I affectionally (and bitterly) call depictions of OCD on television, the handling of mental health conditions in YA often leaves much to be desired. It reflects the fears and imaginations of the author, rather than the reality of the mental health condition, and it is perhaps not surprising that the best examples of mental illness in YA come from authors who have experienced it themselves.

One of the most troubling things about the way mental illness is handled in YA is that, as in society, it is framed as something inherently wrong and awful, rather than a simple fact of life. It’s estimated that around 20% of people will experience mental health conditions at some point during their lives, making them extremely common—and breaking down stereotypes about them would make it a lot easier for people to seek treatment.

There are two recurrent tropes around mental illness in YA that particularly trouble me, beyond falsities in the depictions of specific mental health conditions. One is the character who thinks she’s mentally ill who later realises she has superpowers. The underlying message here is actually a kind of interesting one: here’s a protagonist experiencing something totally unfamiliar, scary, and alien (which the onset of mental illness can feel like) who doesn’t know how to handle it…but then it usually gets twisted, and she is afraid she’s crazy, because being crazy is bad.

Maybe she has a mentally ill family member or friend who has exposed her to the ‘horrors’ of craziness. Maybe she’s institutionalised, either mistakenly or with malice by another character who wants to keep her from accessing her powers. In all cases, the takeaway is that being crazy is definitely not okay, but having superpowers, of course, is awesome.

What’s notable about this, other than the underlying assumption that being crazy is wrong, is that this is never actually challenged in the narrative. Never once does the protagonist ask herself what would be so wrong about having a mental health condition, and rarely do we see her exploring treatment and management options. Instead, she flails in terror until she finds out she has superpowers, at which point everything is usually fine again, except more awesome, because superpowers.

What’s the difference between being crazy and having superpowers? Why is one good, while the other is not? Why do we consider one to be a condition that must be managed in a particular way, and the other something that people should be trained to use and then harness for good? Picking apart these distinctions is critical for authors who want to explore storylines like this, because while ‘woah, I think I am going crazy’ may be a legitimate response to seeing things others don’t, appearing to experience a break with reality, and appearing to alter the world around you, the followup response shouldn’t be ‘how terrible, now I am a crazy person! Oh no!’

Similar narrative structures take place within the framework of institutionalisation, where the asylum is framed as something horrifying and awful…for sane people. When we see institutions in YA, we usually see them crop up in one of two contexts: a sane person wrongly incarcerated in one, or a spooky (often old, sometimes abandoned but haunted by ghosts) asylum filled with crazy people. Asylums are scary because they are filled with crazy people, and our protagonists don’t belong in them because they are sane, healthy, ‘normal,’ not people who should be wrongfully trapped in among the dangerous, frightening, traumatic mentally ill people.

Never once is the concept of the asylum challenged, or is the larger discussion about institutionalisation and oppression incorporated into the narrative. Members of the mental health community might also argue that some asylums are bad and scary, but for a very different reason. The problem with mental health facilities isn’t that they are filled with people who need treatment, but with the fact that residential institutions have a long and horrific history of patient abuse, experimental ‘treatments’ amounting to little more than torture, and a host of other problems. Historically, asylums were used as a tool to suppress and confine people, and today, some are used for much the same purpose, right down to purposefully overmedicating people to keep them compliant. Victims of sexual assault, physical abuse, and other indignities in asylums are often prevented from reporting, or mocked when they try to report.

These are horror stories, but they aren’t the horror stories we usually see when it comes to talking about mental health facilities in YA. Instead, these facilities are cast in simple terms: they’re okay for crazy people, but not for ‘everyone else.’ This idea is common with the handling of mental illness and disability in general, that treatment as a second class is acceptable for ‘them’ because it’s simply part of how the system works and it always has been. Thus, YA rarely challenges the fundamental assumption that institutionalisation is an acceptable and productive way of dealing with mental illness and mentally ill people; it doesn’t explore the warehousing and torment of human beings that occurs in long-term facilities.

When we see positive, mental illness-centered depictions of institutions, it’s usually inpatient hospital wards in issue books where people are sent for ED or suicide attempt recovery. While both depictions are vitally needed, they need to be balanced with the fact that psychiatricisation and institutionalisation have been used as abusive tools against not just mentally ill people, but also women and people of colour, for centuries. When I see asylums promoted as a positive good (and authors failing to distinguish between, for example, a highly ethical inpatient ward in a modern hospital and a long-term residential care facility), I see yet another reminder that society believes mentally ill people are best when locked up, hidden away from public view, ‘in treatment,’ no matter what that ‘treatment’ might look like.

How can authors avoid these tropes, and others associated with mental illness? Obviously, research, research, research, and interacting directly with members of the mentally ill community, including those with the specific diagnoses being depicted, such as anxiety disorders. It’s critical to talk to more than one person, as well, because mental illnesses are highly variable, and diagnostic creep means two people with the same diagnosis may have radically different symptoms, just as two people with very similar symptoms might have totally different diagnoses. And remember that even someone with a well-managed mental illness has bad days, because sometimes, disability really sucks.

Want to avoid problems with characters who mistake the onset of supernatural powers for mental illness? Think carefully about what you’re saying, how you’re saying it, and how you’re interacting with the character. Talk to people about their onsets of mental illness and the emotions that swirled around them, so you can depict your character’s fear, uncertainty, and nerves accurately, but avoid falling into the trap of suggesting that developing a mental illness is a negative thing. Explore how people define ‘normality’ through the depiction of your character, and ask yourself: how awesome are superpowers, really?

Are there days when your character has trouble functioning because of her superpowers? When she’s frustrated because she feels like she can’t manage them? Instead of inadvertently turning superpowers into a bright, shiny alternative to disability, make them come at a cost; not only will you avoid some painful disability tropes, you’ll also make your book more engaging by raising the stakes and creating more tension for the character.

Planning to include a mental health facility in your book? Do. Your. Homework. Talk to people who have been institutionalised about the care they received, where they received it, and their experiences in the mental health system. Someone who was on suicide watch for two days in a hospital has a very different story from someone who was on an adolescent psychiatric ward for several weeks or months. Someone who stayed at a residential facility (or who lives in one) for an extended period of time has yet another experience to narrate.

Psychiatric facilities are as diverse as snowflakes, running the gamut from those that provide patients with maximum support for developing coping tools and techniques, managing their mental illnesses, and living independently, to abusive nightmares that are everything you imagined and worse. If you’re depicting one, don’t forget about the other, and don’t fall into the trap of thinking that all institutions are horrific dungeons of abuse or fairylands of supportive staff, and never forget the long and complex history of psychiatric facilities.

Above all, remember that being crazy is not a bad thing. Don’t attribute negative or undesirable behaviours to mental illness, or excuse a character’s unacceptable behaviours to mental health diagnoses. Like other disabilities, mental illness should be value-neutral: it’s a trait some people have and other people do not, and we all interact with it in very different ways.

S. Jae-Jones: I’m Not Your Manic Pixie Dream Creature–Debunking Bipolar Stereotypes

S. Jae-JonesS. Jae-Jones (called JJ)’s emotional growth was stunted at the age of 12, the age when adventures were imminent and romance just over the horizon. She lives in grits country, where she pretends to be an adult with a mortgage and a car. Other places to find JJ include Twitter, Tumblr, and her blog.

But you don’t seem bipolar.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say this to me. I also can’t tell you how many times people have been dismissive or incredulous about my mental illness, simply because I don’t fulfill many of their preconceived notions about bipolar individuals.

Here is a truth about me: I have a mood disorder. I was first diagnosed when I was 17 years old, and a senior in high school. I have been hospitalized, I have been medicated, and I have spent years in therapy. I am also—I would like to note—a happy and (mostly) productive member of society, with a full and fulfilling life. These things are not mutually exclusive.

Being “out” about my bipolar disorder is tricky, partially because society as a whole still demonizes mental illness, and partially because—unlike being female or a person of color—bipolar disorder is not a visible aspect of my existence. Do I wear the physical signs of a “crazy person” the way I am identifiably female and not white? No. Because of this, a lot of people tend to write off or trivialize my mental disorder as being invalid.

Here are the facts about my life as a bipolar individual:

  1. I suffer from mood swings, or more properly, “states”. I have manic states and depressive states, and cycle through them a few times a year.
  2. I am no longer medicated for my disorder.
  3. My family has a history of mental illness: my maternal grandfather and my maternal uncle most likely suffered from bipolar disorder (although it was undiagnosed in both). My grandfather led a rich and artistic life until he passed away from lung cancer when I was two. My uncle was an alcoholic and committed suicide.
  4. The severity and intensity of my mood episodes have lessened as I’ve grown older. Or perhaps I’ve become more equipped to deal with them through therapy and with the support of my family and friends. It does not, however, mean I am “cured” or that I no longer suffer (and suffer in very real and tangible ways).
  5. It is a very private disorder. I keep my feelings to myself. This is in part because I don’t want to contribute to the very stereotypes that plague other individuals with the disorder, but also due to the fact that those who do not suffer from mental illness simply do not understand how my manic and depressive states differ from more moderate feelings of happiness and frustration. My friends and family can provide support, but otherwise, I prefer to be left alone.
  6. How do I tell the difference between a manic episode and happiness, a depressive episode and sadness? In between my moods, I have a “normal” state of being. I get annoyed by little things or excited by big ones. I get sad when my feelings are hurt or pleasantly surprised by small acts of kindness. In the 11 years I’ve lived with this disorder, I’ve come to recognize JJ vs. Manic/Depressive JJ. When I am manic, I am Too Much Me. When I am depressive, I am Not Enough Me. But this revelation comes after years and years of trial and error.

These are the facts about my life as a bipolar individual. But not all bipolar individuals exhibit symptoms of their disorder in the same way, just as my experience as a woman and my experience as a person of color is not identical to every other woman of color. I do not speak for everyone with mental illness, but I can tell you about the stereotypes about bipolar disorder that are harmful to those us who live with it:

  1. Bipolar people are a ticking time bomb.
    There is no enormous sign that says HANDLE WITH CARE. Bipolar states are not necessarily triggered by small, external factors like a work disappointment or a bad day. More often, these small external factors are like the straw that broke the camel’s back; chances are you were already approaching a state of mania or depression, and this small, external factor exacerbated a mood you were already in.

  2. Bipolar people are moody and sensitive.
    I suppose by definition bipolar individuals are moody, but not all of us are habitually so. When I am Me (as opposed when I am either Too Much or Not Enough Me), I’m generally sanguine and easygoing. A minor frustration or setback doesn’t usually make me irritable or put me in a funk; I tend to laugh it off and move on. There are plenty of moody individuals who are not bipolar; therefore, moodiness and bipolar disorder are not one and the same.

  3. Bipolar people are self-destructive and lack impulse control.
    I don’t deny that there is a high incidence of suicide and substance abuse comorbid with bipolar disorder. I also don’t deny that in the early stages of my disorder, I engaged in a lot of self-destructive and suicidal behavior, and felt as though I couldn’t control myself. Many undiagnosed and untreated cases of mental illness devolve into suicide and substance abuse, but correlation does not necessarily imply causation. A lot of times, people with mental illness turn to self-destructive behaviors as a way of coping with their disorder, either consciously or subconsciously, and in many of those instances, these self-destructive behaviors can be treated with medication and therapy.

    The thing about impulse control though—I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but as someone who considers herself a person with a large amount of willpower, Sitzfleisch*, and self-discipline, sometimes I feel as though certain behaviors are beyond my control. Sometimes, in either my manic or depressive states, I find myself doing things that I wouldn’t ordinarily do, and can’t for the love of God figure out why I can’t stop. Or why I can’t start. Most of these behaviors are small: I can’t make my bed (and my make my bed every day, thank you very much), I can’t respond to an email, I’m smoking cigarettes again, I can’t bear to face people I know and love, I can’t do anything but sit in front of my computer and obsessively read 70 million articles about the history of pantaloons. Sometimes I honestly can’t get up out of bed and face the prospect of eating. Or working. Or existing. I’ve learned to pick and choose my battles. With some things, I can wrest back control. With others, I can’t. But again, this is something I’ve learned to live with over time.

    I have to note too, that when I am Me, I know the difference between “I just don’t feel like it” and “I cannot”. Sometimes I feel like a lazy slob. But then I usually kick myself in the butt and get it done. Sometimes I feel like a gross person and eat an entire can of Salt ‘n’ Vinegar Pringles in one sitting. But then I shrug it off and go back to my normal routine. That’s “I don’t feel like it”, or the occasional indulgence. These things are normal, and even good from time to time. And then there is “I cannot”. I am not hungry, but I cannot stop eating. I am hungry but I cannot bring myself to eat. I am desperately lonely but I cannot bear human contact. These are the “I cannots”. They are very different from the “I don’t feel like its” and that’s where the issue of “impulse control” can become very fuzzy with people with mental illness.

  4. Bipolar people are artists, magical, tortured, misunderstood, etc.
    As with suicidal tendencies and substance abuse, there is also a strong correlation between bipolar disorder and creativity. There is a strong artistic streak in my own family; my grandfather was a painter, my uncle was a poet. I dabble in art and writing and music. But that in itself doesn’t indicate bipolar disorder; there are plenty of artists, musicians, and writers who do not have mental illness.

    But what I loathe in portrayals of bipolar people is this tendency to turn them into Manic Pixie Dream Creatures. Certainly manic episodes can come with increased creative output or productivity, as well as impulsive and reckless behaviors. In my own manic states, I have been described as being mercurial, tricksy, coy, a “free spirit”, eccentric, etc. As with some depressive states, in my manic ones, there are a lot of instances of “I cannot”, but sometimes, it comes with “I can and I WILL”. I can do this extreme thing because I can, so I WILL. It’s not to impress anyone, and it’s absolutely not to make anyone think I’m this otherworldly fairy put on this earth to change your life. In this case, it is compulsion rather than lack of impulse control that I feel is beyond me.  For me, a manic state feels like there’s an external force pulling at me, pushing me, and I’m just swept along in the current. Swimming upstream is hard.

  5. Bipolar people are “crazy”.

    This one is a little harder to unpack. “Crazy” is a loaded word, and it’s also a word that is so broad and vague as to be almost meaningless. But in everyday parlance, “crazy” is often a word lobbed at young women who act in ways that go against the grain of society. I hate that word. I hate how unspecific it is. I hate how dismissive it can be of the complex and varied existence of those living with mental illness. I also hate how it seems to be almost exclusively applied to young women, whereas young men are “troubled” or “tortured” or “misunderstood.”

    What is “crazy”? In nearly every context I’ve heard that word applied to someone, the person saying it usually means “she’s acting in ways that are contrary to my interests”. I don’t deny that manic or mixed states often cause me to act in ways that are irrational and unreasonable, and that I’m not exactly the easiest person to be around. And certainly many people who have mental illness can suffer delusions. (I have.) But “crazy” is thrown around so lightly these days that it’s become a dismissive slur.

    People living with mental illness can be unreasonable, irrational, and delusional. They can also make poor or selfish decisions. But that is not exclusive to people with mental illness; everyone can be “crazy”. Bipolar people are not this way ALL THE TIME, nor are they always this way when not on meds.

The other day I was out with a new-ish friend of mine and I casually mentioned my bipolar disorder.

“You’re not bipolar,” he said.

“How would you know?” I asked.

“You don’t seem bipolar. You’re not nuts.”

“And I suppose you would know.”

The truth was, he didn’t know. He made assumptions based on the stereotypes that exist. He assumed that because I wasn’t a “constant emotional wreck” and that I didn’t have a mental illness.

“How do you function without meds?” he asked. “I know bipolar people, and when they’re off, they go off the deep end.”

“You’ve never seen me on meds,” I replied.

“That’s true,” he said. And he got thoughtful. “Funny. Would never have thought that about you. But you don’t always know everything about people.”

Medication is something of a tricky subject for me. Many people need medication. And when I was first diagnosed, I was placed on a pill regimen. (Diagnosis is tricky—I was initially diagnosed as clinically depressed, then they thought I also had an anxiety disorder, or perhaps OCD, and even potentially ADHD. It was only after two psychiatrists and four different therapists that I got a proper diagnosis.) I disliked it. Later I would describe it to my therapist as feeling like I was never myself. I felt like a robot or an automaton, or another thing that went about its business and routine with no passion or intensity. I disliked it. I would have hated it, if I could feel.

Fortunately for me, I had a therapist who worked with me. We worked on a lot of different exercises, including writing down what I felt in a journal, and then reading back to recognize the patterns in my manic, normal, and depressed states. Then I learned to recognize when I was in those states. And then I learned how to live with them.

This approach doesn’t work for everyone. It works for me. For me, there is power in naming something and recognizing it for what it is. And just like everything else in this complicated world we live in, there isn’t a unilateral treatment for mental illness. I was lucky; my parents were incredibly supportive and helped me find the treatment that worked for me. Each bipolar individual is different. I’m just one.

Here are some things to keep in mind if you include a bipolar character in your work: the disorder often manifests itself in late teenage years. I was 17 when I was diagnosed. This is possibly THE WORST TIME in life to be diagnosed—in addition to the trainwreck that is puberty (or maybe that’s just me) and hormones going wild, you have mental illness fucking up your shit.

BUT. It doesn’t define your life. Or at least it didn’t define mine. I had to learn how to modify my life to accommodate it. I had to miss 2 months of school, and I eventually had to drop physics. (Boo hoo.) This was a huge blow to my pride; I was always a good student, and moreover, I was always at the top of the academic pyramid. But I couldn’t continue living the way I had with my disorder, so I made compromises. In between manic and depressive episodes I was still me. I was still silly, fangirlish, serious, and thoughtful; I still participated in activities that were important to me: visual arts, creative writing, and piano. Sometimes I couldn’t manage the things I loved. Sometimes I could. Being bipolar didn’t overtake my life. And it shouldn’t be the only thing that defines your character either.

*Sitzfleisch: German, noun. The ability to sit through something boring. Lit. “sitting-flesh”. This is one of my favorite German compound nouns.

Kody Keplinger: The Trope of Faking It

Kody KeplingerKody Keplinger is the author of three books for teens: The DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend), Shut Out, and A Midsummer’s Nightmare. Her first middle grade novel will be released by Scholastic next year. Currently, Kody lives in New York City with her guide dog, a very upbeat German Shepherd named Corey. When she isn’t writing, Kody spends a lot of time eating Thai food, marathoning Joss Whedon’s TV shows, and studying improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade. You can find her on Twitter as well as her her website.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about service dogs – particularly, fake service dogs. Some of you may have seen the articles and news reports, awful stories of people who pretend to be disabled in order to take their dogs into stores and restaurants. If the media is right, it’s practically an epidemic.

With that said, I guess it’s not surprising that I get accused of “faking” my disability pretty often. I’ve been yelled at my strangers, I’ve had business owners question my need for a guide dog, I’ve been told over and over again that I “don’t look blind.” This happened even before I got a guide dog. People saw me with my cane and because I didn’t seem disabled by their standards, it was assumed that I must be lying, trying to cheat the system in order to get perks.

It’s not just me these accusations fall upon. I’ve seen it happen to others. I’ve heard people comment on how someone parked in a handicapped spot was “an awful person” because “they can clearly walk.” But never did those people consider the unseen – things that might cause pain or difficulty walking or other reasons a closer parking spot would be needed. I know people who need handicapped parking and regularly receive hateful notes on their car for using it. Then there are people who gossip to me about so-and-so who isn’t really disabled like I am, and don’t i just hate when people take advantage of the system like that?

I’ve been baffled by this for most of my life. Why would anyone fake a disability for a few small perks? And why would it be such a threat to abled people, who always seem so outraged by it? More outraged, sometimes, than actual disabled people.

I have some answers to both questions, but they’re just guesses, really. I can’t really imagine either side. I can’t imagine faking a disability just for the small benefits liking parking closer or taking a dog to restaurants, and I can’t imagine being so angry about it, either. I’m not angry about people getting those benefits. The only thing I’m angry about is how it indirectly affects me: more people assuming I’m faking my real disability.

But I’m getting off topic.

The notion of people faking disabilities is not at all new or novel. In fact, it’s been a trope in fiction for a while. In TV, movies, books, etc, it’s not at all uncommon to come across a villian who pretends to have a disability for one reason or another. And, like many, many disability tropes, it’s a harmful one.

I see the “fake disability” trope as potentially harmful. It can bring suspicion on people with real disabilities. If so many pieces of fiction present a world in which people faking disabilities is common, then why wouldn’t consumers of that fiction start to suspect this behavior in reality? Especially when those same pieces of fiction only portray the extreme versions of real disabilities (complete blindness vs. legal blindness, etc).

Obviously not everyone who consumes fiction assumes these realities. But when these stereotypes are portrayed so often, it’s hard for me to believe that it doesn’t have some impact.

I understand that faking disabilities isn’t just a fictional thing – it does happen in reality. But does it happen as often as fiction portrays? Or as often as the news portrays? I don’t know, but I like to think not. And I’d rather the attention be on people with real disabilities than people faking them.

But what about you? How do you feel about the “fake disability” narrative? Do you think it’s harmful? Do you think it’s as common in reality as the media portrays it to be? I’d really like your thoughts because this is an issue that i’ms still struggling with. So let’s discuss!

Kayla Whaley: Sister Act

Kayla WhaleyKayla Whaley has a BA in political science and is currently finishing her Master’s in Public Administration with an emphasis in nonprofit management. She interns for both the Atlanta Young Writer’s Institute and Entangled Publishing. Her bookshelves consist almost entirely of kidlit and she writes YA fantasy and contemporary.

She’s previously written about her disability at DiversifYA.

The “disabled sibling” trope is arguably one of the most common disability tropes and definitely one of my least favorites (not that I have any favorites). You could certainly write a respectful, awesome story where the main character’s sibling has a disability, but this trope isn’t that.

The trope tends to involve a healthy dose of inspiration porn mixed with an even healthier dose of dehumanization. In my experience, the disabled sibling exists purely to make the main character’s life more “difficult,” more “sympathetic.” Oh, that poor dear, the writers want you to think, having to deal with such a horrible thing. It must be so hard.

The sibling with the disability is a source of frustration, anger, sadness, and general tragedy for their able-bodied sibling. It is not their story. They are not characters – they are props.

None of this is to say that having a sibling with a disability can’t be difficult or sad or whatever for the rest of the family. But it’s certainly not ONLY that, and in my case, it was RARELY that.

Growing up, I didn’t have very many doctors’ appointments (about one check-up a year), we didn’t have any medical bills thanks to our excellent insurance, my little sister was never expected to help take care of me, I wasn’t hospitalized but once for six days after my one surgery in fourth grade. As a family, we sacrificed little because of my disability. Sure, my parents acted as my primary caregivers until I went to college, and I’d occasionally feel badly if I needed to call for one of them more times than usual in the night to roll over or go to the bathroom. Vacations were a little trickier than they would’ve been otherwise, but not much.

I obviously can’t speak to how my family felt, but I very rarely felt like a burden on anyone, and certainly not to the extent I saw on TV and in books.

Of course, my sister and I had our difficulties, but they rarely had anything to do with my chair. I was always jealous of her artistic abilities; she was jealous of my grades. I was really religious; she was really not. I liked following rules, meeting expectations; she liked “rebelling”, finding her own path. I thought she got the most attention from our parents because she was the baby; she thought I got more because I was the “good kid”. In reality, I think we both knew we were equally loved.

And see how none of that was because of my disability? It wasn’t an issue. (Of course, maybe my sister felt differently as I can’t speak for her, but we’ve spoken about it before, so I feel pretty confident.)

So I couldn’t help feeling frustrated seeing those “disabled siblings”. It reflected nothing of my experience or of my family’s experience. Of course it offended me to see characters with disabilities relegated to those roles, but it also upset me to think that’s how people assumed my sister felt about me. That people assumed we weren’t close, that we didn’t love each other and learn from each other and admire each other. That we didn’t fight (boy, did we fight). That we didn’t do things like spend all afternoon lathering ourselves in Bath and Body Works glittery lotions.

That we weren’t sisters first, above all.

According to so many shows, books, and movies, my sister must have resented me. She must have fought to see the good in me and ultimately have learned to love me despite how horrible my disability made her life. Nay, learned to be inspired by all that I’ve overcome.

Fuck that noise.

I love my sister and she loves me and we always have and always will. Do we fight? God, yes. Do we get mad and jealous and spiteful? Absolutely. Do we dance and laugh and tease? Yup. Does she steal my stuff? Mmhmm. Do I think her boyfriends aren’t good enough for her? Sometimes. Is there anything, anything, I wouldn’t do for her? Not a thing. Am I sure she would say the same? Yes.

In short, we’re sisters.

And I think it’s a shame when stories ignore all the incredible, complex facets of any sibling relationship. It dehumanizes ALL your characters, both the disabled and able-bodied siblings. It’s disgusting and a waste and lazy.

Be better than that, writers. Be better for your characters, for yourself, and for all the disabled and able-bodied siblings who deserve to see themselves and their relationships in the stories they read.

s.e. smith: Crazy Creative

s.e.smiths.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California, with a journalistic focus on social issues, particularly gender, prison reform, disability rights, environmental justice, queerness, class, and the intersections thereof, with a special interest in rural subjects. International publication credits include work for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, and AlterNet, among many other news outlets and magazines. smith’s writing on representations of disability in science fiction and fantasy was recently featured in The WisCon Chronicles, Volume 7. Assisted by cats Loki and Leila, smith lives in Fort Bragg, California. You can follow s.e. on Twitter, ou personal site, Goodreads, and lots of other exciting places online.

Mental illness as inspiration is one of the oldest tropes in the book. According to pop culture, mentally ill people are magically more creative than everyone else, filled with a manic drive to create art that pushes them to the brink until they finally explode—but what fantastic art they produce in the process. And what tragic heroes they become as a result of sacrificing everything for their art.

The myth of the ‘crazy artist’ is one that looms large in the popular mind, and it’s reinforced by books, film, and television where we see mentally ill characters who are also deeply creative, intelligent, and driven. According to this common disability trope, mental illness begets creativity—or perhaps vice versa. Either you start out with mental illness that makes you creative because it forces your brain to see differently, or you’re creative and it drives you into mental illness because you become consumed by your work. The two traits become inextricably linked in this metric, impossible to separate out.

I get this a lot as a mentally ill writer, perhaps most especially when I am manic and writing a lot. People attribute my writing to my mental illness rather than to who I am or any innate part of my nature, and along with that attribution comes an uncomfortable implication that my creativity must be the result of poorly controlled mental illness, because everyone knows that medications slow people down, blunt thinking, destroy creativity. Even my own medications manager seems to push at that idea when we meet to discuss how I’m feeling.

To be viewed as a creative success because I’m crazy, and to be told that I can only be creative if I don’t manage my mental illness effectively, is troubling. It’s especially troubling to see it reinforced in the pop culture around me.

One reason I loved Hilary T. Smith’s WILD AWAKE was because she captured, perfectly, the problems with the crazy creative trope. Kiri is a very talented and amazing musician who also has mental illness—and when she experiences a Thing, she doesn’t get more creative. Her work doesn’t flower into an explosion of amazing, inspiring, wonderful creation. It gets violent and ugly and all-consuming.

When I’m manic, I write upwards of 20,000 words a day. That is not healthy. When my mental illness was untreated, I didn’t sleep, I rarely ate, I just worked endlessly, sharklike; I felt like if I stopped for a single minute, I would die. Everything was so ferociously bright and glittering around me that it was like being on a concert stage and I felt like I had to perform at every minute—but that wasn’t healthy.

When I found a treatment regimen that worked for me, and when I started managing my mental illness effectively, I didn’t become less creative. Did I change on medication? Yes, I did. I had fewer mood swings. I was a lot more comfortable. I didn’t fly off into the stratosphere at the drop of a hat. I wrote, a lot, but not in that out of control, desperate, fevered kind of way that left me feeling dizzy and slightly sick. That writing was good—some of my best, actually.

Did I also tend to sleep more because of the sedating effect of my medications? Well, yeah. And that was a good thing, given my lack of sleep before. Did I sometimes feel foggy in the brain? Certainly. Was that my new permanent state of being? No. And I worked with my medications manager to find the dosage that worked most effectively for me, allowing me to be myself—my true self, not the snarled, manic, jittery self that I had been before—without disappearing.

And yet, I, like many mentally ill people involved in creative fields, had felt hesitant about seeking treatment, fearing that treatment would destroy my creativity. I had bought into the myth that the two were linked, and that with treatment my creativity would wither away and die, leaving me just another drooling overmedicated mannequin. I envisioned the abusive use of psychiatric medications and didn’t understand that there was actually a middle ground; I didn’t have to have uncontrolled mental illness, and I didn’t need to be a zombie, either.

Yet, this reality is so rarely depicted in pop culture, or in young adult fiction. All too often, people are presented with the choice of unchecked mental illness devouring someone and remaining creative, or turning into a passive ghost of who you were before. It stigmatises the use of medication and other treatments, and it creates a difficult bind for people who actually are mentally ill and creative (including, I note, a lot of young adult writers!).

Talking openly about mental illness in young adult fiction is so important; not just because I want to see more positive and accurate portrayals of mental illness in general, but because the age of onset for many severe mental illnesses is often in the teens. If your framework for mental illness is built on incorrect tropes, that’s a recipe for disaster. If it’s built instead on depictions that capture the diversity of mental illness and mentally ill people, that’s going to radically change the way you relate to the onset of your own mental illness. It also radically changes the way people including parents, peers, and loved ones interact with mentally ill teens.

Instead of being something you should feel ashamed of, or something you should resist treatment for, mental illness becomes simply a part of you. Not your sole defining characteristic, and certainly not the thing that makes you creative. Just something about you that makes up a part of your life.

And creativity is part of you too, not something caused by (or likely to cause) mental illness.

Cristina Hartmann: Tropes About People With Hearing Loss

Cristina HartmannCristina Hartmann is a writer (also publishes sci-fi works under the pen name Victoria Halley) who likes to jump out of planes and read books (not at the same time). Cristina has a weakness for YA books featuring female protagonists who can wield a sword like nobody’s business. When she’s not writing, jumping out of planes, or reading, Cristina loves cooking, eating, and playing with fuzzy creatures. (Alas, she’s not a fish person.)

Predictably, many of the tropes relating to D/deaf and hard of hearing characters deal with communication methods and degree of hearing loss. Most, if not all, of these tropes have to do with people’s assumptions and wishful thinking about hearing loss.

All D/deaf and hard of hearing people are flawless lip-readers.

Ah, that would be nice, wouldn’t it?

Studies have shown that even the best lip-readers can only understand approximately 33% of a spoken conversation by lip-reading alone. Lip-reading isn’t a magical solution for people with hearing loss. At best, it’s a slightly helpful technique.

I’ve read and seen this trope all too often in books, movies, and television. When I was eleven, I read this YA mystery about a deaf girl detective who could lip-read perfectly from 100 yards away. In fact, her lip-reading skills helped her crack a murder mystery she read the criminals’ lips. I admit it, I rolled my eyes a little.

This trope is a lazy workaround for a character’s hearing loss. If a character is an expert lip-reader, then the writer doesn’t need to deal with the realities of communication briers. This result doesn’t just give people the wrong impression about D/deaf and hard of hearing characters, but it causes writers to miss some potentially great storytelling opportunities.

All D/deaf people use sign language.

This trope may seem to contradict the previous one, but it doesn’t. I suspect that there is an assumption that one is an amazing lip-reader and a fluent signer.

Not all deaf and hard of hearing people know American Sign Language (ASL), let alone are fluent. There is a large array of communication methods used by people with hearing loss: ASL, Signed Exact English (SEE), Simultaneous Communication (SimCom), speech, cued speech, et cetera. The person’s choice of communication method is a very individual and personal one.

It’s not fair for anyone to assume that they  know what a person’s communication method is just because they have a hearing loss. Maybe they sign, maybe they don’t. This trope prevents people from thinking more critically andasking the person what communication method they prefer. These assumptions can lead to disastrous results in real life. (One of my friends had a sign language interpreter provided for her, but she didn’t know ASL.)

On a related note, not all deaf people (or all signers) are active members of the Deaf Community. Many are, but many aren’t as well. Once again, it’s a highly individual decision.

All D/deaf people are mute.

This trope is slowly disappearing, but it rears its ugly head occasionally.

One of the most famous deaf-mute characters of modern literature is Nick Andros from Stephen King’s The Stand. (Psst. He also fits the first trope. He’s a master lip-reader.) There are many more examples, particularly in older literature.

The problem? Pathological deaf-mutism is extremely rare. Some D/deaf and hard of hearing people choose not to speak vocally, but their silence doesn’t mean that they’re mute.

All D/deaf people are completely deaf.

Again, “stone deafness” isn’t common. It’s quite rare for someone to be completely deaf. Even people who are diagnosed as profoundly deaf have some hearing. (Funnily enough, I’m one of the extremely rare individuals who iscompletely deaf, but I’m the exception, not the rule.)

The importance of tropes and why we should care.

Even though movies, books, and television shows are…well, fictional, they shape people’s perceptions.

Tropes affect people’s assumptions about D/deaf and hard of hearing people. People expect them to be world-class lip-readers, stone deaf, and fluent signers. When people meet someone who doesn’t meet all these criteria, they’ll be confused and frustrated. “But I thought you’d be able to lip-read me!” they think. “They’re just not trying hard enough.” This can lead to unnecessary misunderstandings and friction.

These tropes don’t just affect the perceptions of people without a hearing loss. The pressure to be expert lip-readers can frustrate D/deaf and hard of hearing people. Even today, I feel a little guilty when I tell people, “No, I can’t lip-read everything you say,” and seeing the disappointment in their eyes.

D/deaf and hard of hearing people are amazingly diverse in their backgrounds, communication methodologies, and degree of hearing loss. If the media showed the diversity of the D/deaf and hard of hearing people, maybe a little bell would go off in someone’s head and they would realize, “They’re not all the same!”

The world’s a better place when we see all different ways of living life in fiction and real life.

Cover for THE SECRET VALUE OF ZEROIn The Secret Value of Zero, a YA sci-fi dystopia, people are ranked at age 1 according to intelligence and ability. Because of her deafness, Meke is relegated to the lowest rank of the so-called “defectives”: Zero. Prosperon, a nation led by scientists and doctors, only consider Zeroes useful as scientific experiments. When an experiment bestows Meke with unexpected powers, she gets swept up in an underground revolution. When she discovers that the revolutionaries only want to exploit her genetic secrets, Meke must decide if she will fight back or be a good girl. She decides to fight back, armed with a poleaxe.

The Secret Value of Zero focuses on Meke’s understanding of her self-worth in a society that considers her worthless. Along the way, she must face resistance from well-meaning adults, and fighting with people who are more “talented” than she is. There’s also some fun swordplay and romance thrown in!

You can find The Secret Value of Zero on Amazon:

Discussion #4: Disability tropes

For our final discussion post, we asked our contributors the following question:

Which are your least favorite disability tropes?

Here were their insightful answers:

Kayla Whaley:
My least favorite disability tropes may also be the most common (at least in my experience), which is precisely why they’re my least favorite. These tropes are some of the only representations of disability people see, which is very dangerous. After all, the media we consume greatly impacts how we view the world, so seeing these tropes only reinforces ableism and ignorance.

The first (though these aren’t ranked in any particular order) is that of the disabled saint. The pure, innocent, good little cripple. These characters serve largely as inspiration porn for both the audience and the other characters. Think Tiny Tim. It shows the ablebodied that those of us with disabilities are perfect despite (or perhaps because of) our tragic disability. So if we do anything outside those ideas of “goodness”, it’s quite a shock for the ablebodied around us. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cursed or talked about drinking with friends and have gotten actual gasps and nervous giggling, because if I’m in a wheelchair, I must be a saint, right? I must fit into their tiny, preconceived box of “good”.

The second is the disabled villain. Interesting how the two most common tropes dealing with disability are polar opposites and neither come even close to reality, huh? There are so many examples of the disabled, disfigured, disgusting villain: Darth Vader, Captain Hook, innumerable weekly baddies on shows, etc. The (typically visible) disability serves as a cue to the audience that this character is one deserving of your revulsion and fear. Yeah. That’s definitely a message I want sent to the world.

Marieke Nijkamp:
Apart from the whole disabled character as inspiration (see inspiration porn), one of the tropes I hate most is the magically healed disabled character. The one where, at the end of the quest or story, the crippled character finds himself able to walk again because he’s learned to be nicer, or the blind character finds herself able to see because she was willing to sacrifice herself for her friends. After all in real life, everyone wants to be healed/disability makes you incomplete/if you only try hard enough…?

Because that’s the implication of such story lines. That disability equals something incomplete at best and more often something that’s morally reprehensible. It implies that only if you learn how to overcome that, only if you learn you’re too be generous, you’ll be healed and happy and be able to reach your full potential. (And secretly, that’s what we all must want.) Heavens forbid you’re happy just the way you are.

s.e. smith:
Obviously, magical cures are a big frustration for me–the disability that is magically fixed to further the plot, the disabled person stripped of her identity as a disabled person by a cure (and usually so appreciative of being saved from the eternal suffering and torment that is disability). This narrative positions disability as something tragic and terrible that needs to be fixed, and sometimes as something a character should be ashamed of–only after the disability is cured does the character become whole.

I also really loathe one-note depictions of disabled characters, where the character becomes consumed by the disability and doesn’t have any other qualities or characteristics. This is often compounded by another trope, such as the super crip or bitter cripple, two other depictions of disability that also make me gnash my teeth in frustration. These one-dimensional depictions aren’t authentic to real experiences and they also contribute to ableist attitudes in society.

Disability-as-educational-tool is another trope that should have been taken out back and shot long ago. Disabled people are human beings, not object lessons or props for character advancement. If a disabled character is being used to educate other characters, give them some kind of motivation, or teach a Very Special Lesson to other characters and/or readers, that character is being abused. Every time this kind of depiction of disability comes up, it reinforces the idea that this is the role of disabled people in society, to teach and educate the people around them, rather than to live as just another person navigating a sometimes complex and always diverse environment.

Maggie Desmond-O’Brien:
In my opinion, one of the most damaging disability tropes is the idea that a disability can be “healed” through sheer force of will, without treatment. That instead of the infinitely more difficult task of living with the disability, you can simply eliminate it in one fell swoop by being “tougher” or not buying into the “system.” My experience with this has been mostly in the mental illness arena, which is tricky–some acute mental illnesses really do pass with time. But others, such as certain types of depression, bipolar disorder (my own disability), and schizophrenia, tend to be lifelong battles. You’ll have good days and you’ll have bad days, you’ll have days where you accept it and days where you don’t, but the truth is that it’s never going away and you just have to deal with it–no matter what pop culture tells you.

Corinne Duyvis:
My first pet peeve is the disabled relative–sibling, parent or child–who only exists to further the main character. The disabled character rarely has an actual personality or plot line of their own, and does not get to have a normal, complex familial relationship with the abled character; instead, they exist to provide angst or obstacles, or to make the abled character look sympathetic and heroic for taking care of them. Sometimes both! Remember: disabled people are fully-rounded people, with lives and passions of our own, not merely bit parts in abled people’s lives.

My second pet peeve is the ~magical~ disabled person, who often holds–or is–the clue to saving the day. They’ll be the only person with a magic ability, or, in a world where these are commonplace, their ability will be the most special or powerful. Examples include Dinah Bellman from Stephen King’s The Langoliers or Little Pete from the Gone series. This trope can also be used without any supernatural aspects, in which case the disabled person will have savant-like abilities such as Kazan in the film The Cube or Kevin Blake from the TV series Eureka. This trope bugs me because it’s so Othering; the disabled character is something to be ooh-ed and aah-ed over, feared or worshipped, set apart, instead of just being a regular person dealing with their own crap alongside the rest of the cast.

Kalen O’Donnell:
My least favorite disability trope? Yeah, that’d have to be ‘character has a deep dark secret – turns out he/she is bipolar, or else someone close to them is’. Sure, usually this one is trotted out with the best of intentions, as our heroes learn or express by the end of the story that its nothing to be ashamed of or they love and accept them in spite of it, etc, etc. But a book is more than just its climax or last three chapters. If a story makes an impression on a reader, its the whole book that’s going to stick with them, not just the shiny red bow that wrapped everything up all nice and neat at the end. And so while the author may have hoped their story would impart the idea that a bipolar disorder is nothing to be ashamed of, to any reader who can actually relate to that, they might actually just be confirming that ‘yup, people are ignorant about this sort of thing and there is a reason to keep it a deep, dark secret….at least unless and until you meet that special enlightened person who loves and accepts you anyway.’

So how about we see more bipolar characters who are living with it with grace and dignity, neither hiding it nor flaunting it. Who don’t shy away from discussing it with the romantic interest if and when it ever becomes relevant, and is comfortable enough with it to refuse to be belittled or patronized by people who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about? That’s a trope I could get behind.

Kody Keplinger:
I’m forever frustrated by the “damaged disabled person” trope – wherein the disabled character is a brooding, broken character, scarred both physically and mentally, etc etc. I see this way too often, and it makes me so angry. Where are all the happy disabled people, yo?

What about you, dearest readers? Any thoughts on the above tropes, or do you particularly loathe a trope that hasn’t been mentioned?