Books about disabled characters with nondisabled perspectives

I was about to blog about the unshoveled sidewalks in Pittsburgh when I received an email from a friend, a woman, also disabled, who has as much difficulty walking the unkempt byways as I do. She is one of four friends who visits me regularly. Two use walkers and this friend a cane, not from blindness, but from physical disability. The fourth is my son-in-law’s mom in a wheelchair who likes to negotiate the sidewalks, as well.
The failure to shovel, (partly, I guess, because the city doesn’t enforce its fines for this infraction), actually relates to the email in a tangential way—the lack of understanding about the needless challenges independent disabled people face.
In her email my friend referred to a children’s book, narrated by an oblivious, spoiled, affluent girl whose father sends her to work in a camp for disabled teens. My friend adds, “presumably to learn about gratitude and humility and all that stuff disabled people are so often proprs for.” My friend reports that the girl discovers, “with requisite incredulity, that disabled people have interests and sexuality” that they are human, too. Since we stopped sequestering disabled people in institutions many years ago, it’s hard to believe these lessons still have to be discovered.
And my friend points out, they are still being taught by able bodied people. In this book, disabled teens are interpreted to the reader by someone without any physical impairments, except maybe in the area of common sense.
This interpreter phenomenon was just on my mind, after listening to an interview with Ayelet Waldman, author of a new novel about the Holocaust. She revealed that she does not appreciate books written about the Holocaust from the point of view of the good German, i.e., Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief. (I confess to have loved that book). She said that her daughter really valued the book and loved the movie. But Ayelet likens the telling of the Holocaust story by the little blond non-Jewish girl to telling the story of slavery from a good White person. She thinks both are problematic.
Probably Ayelet would agree with my friend that telling the story of disability from the nondisabled observer would be problematic, as well. My friend subscribes to the philosophy that “nothing about us, without us,” something I’d never heard before, I confess. You can find similar other pearls from my friend who blogs at hand to mouth.
I do think there is an appalling lack of books with disabled characters’ perspectives. Disability isn’t the sexy minority. We aren’t body beautiful. And as unsequestered as we are, we’re still a small population and not visible enough in ordinary life.
So I do think we need more and more books about characters with disabilities,more and more movies, plays, TV shows–Because there’s so much misinformation and misunderstanding about disability. (People still consider guide dogs machines, for instance).
But my friend’s email raises conflicts in me, too. In my head, I think writers can tell any story they can learn about. That’s a tall order, doing the satisfactory, in depth research. So I guess I also believe there’s a legitimate perspective from the blond non Jew about the Holocaust, just as there could be a valuable perspective from the able bodied teen about the disabled campers. The writers and their characters just need to immerse themselves in the world they don’t inhabit and study like hell.

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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