Books with disabled characters

I am reading a book of short stories called, Owning It: Stories about Teens with Disabilities edited by Gallo. It’s a nice book, displaying the wares of such super Gods as Chris Crutcher, Deadline and Chinese Handcuffs and Ron Choertge of Stoner and Spaz fame. As far as I know, none of the writers of the stories are disabled which brings me to a bit of hypocrisy in my own thinking.
I’ve always claimed that writers not only should write about what they know, but what they can learn about. Then years ago I met a sighted author who had written 2 photo-essays, one about a girl from South Africa and one about a girl from an Asian country, possibly Japan. This author’s name escapes me, too, which proves that my meeting with her was decades ago. But she had received reviews, criticizing her as a White person, writing about someone Black and African and another person, Asian. I completely supported her right to do this. And then she said, “Sally, I’ve just finished a book about a blind boy.”
How dare she?
That drew me “up-short” pretty quickly.
Since then, I’ve found many able bodied authors who have created beautiful books with disabled protagonists, such as Joanne Greenberg’s Of such Small Differences, about a Deaf-blind man. T.C. Boyle has a real page-turning book, Talk, Talk featuring a young woman who became deaf at the age of four. Ron Koertge describes teenage Ben with cerebral palsy with his usual fabulous dialogue and humor. His wife works with people with disabilities and is a strong resource for him. (I’m not a good judge of his depiction of cerebral palsy).
I’ve also read terrible books about disabled subjects by prominent, able bodied authors. Two biographies of Louis Braille, for instance, are hack jobs. Russell Freedman, who has published some excellent biographies, Abraham Lincoln: A Photobiography, for instance, did not do his homework for the Braille book. Out of the Darkness is his first mistake—smack in the title. Had he interviewed any adventitiously blind person, he would have learned that total blindness is not darkness, but mist. David Adler also wrote a picture book of Louis Braille, and it’s as formulaic as all Adler’s biographies and very disappointing.
I am writing a biography of Thomas Greene Wiggins, Blind Tom, who was born blind, autistic, and enslaved. My window into Tom is, of course, his blindness. And I hope the research I’ve done into autism and Black history gives me the authority to write a strong study of him.
Nevertheless, when one of my thesis students referred to the short story collection, Owning It, my hackles went up. So Sally Alexander, you can write about an African-American blind musician, and the likes of the oft-published Chris Crutcher can’t touch disability? Sigh. Examining the self can be painful.


About Sally Hobart Alexander

Blinded at the age of twenty-six, I left California and elementary school teaching for life in Pittsburgh, Pa. There, I met my husband, got a Masters' degree in social work, had two kids, now 35 and 32, and became a writer. Surprisingly, the writing career led me full-circle to teaching, and I teach in Chatham University's M.F.A. program and lead two writing critique groups. Always, since the age of 26, I have traveled, not in the stereotypic darkness attributed to blindness, but a mist. My blog then, "traveling through the mist" will deal with issues in my culturally different life as a blind writer, teacher, speaker, and human being.
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