Friday 12 October 2018

Encouraging More Diverse Books - A Guide to Writing a Character With a Learning Disability

Encouraging More Diverse Books - A  Guide to Writing a Character With a Learning Disability.


Writing a character who has a learning disability can be quite intimidating, especially since people in the book industry naturally feel a responsibility not to misrepresent any type of disability and want to feel confident about ensuring the authenticity of their characters.  I hope in this blog to give a few small pointers to help other writers avoid the difficulties and stumbling blocks when writing a diverse book, having written a novel through the voice of a girl with Down syndrome. We need to pave the way for more inclusive books that do not portray characters with a learning disability in a negative way that will impact our understanding of that disability; after all diversity is one of the things that we all have in common.

 Children's books need to highlight the enormous diversity within each disability because any child should not be compared within the spectrum of that disability. We are all individuals with different needs and experiences and that is the same for any child with Down's syndrome or Autism, for example.

Someone with Down's syndrome will have certain physical characteristics in common such as a slant to the eyes and a smaller jaw, which makes their tongues seem slightly too big for their mouth, but they will still have their individual family characteristics and a wide range of abilities within that syndrome. Many people with Down syndrome will go on to hold down responsible jobs, take further education and get married.

Similarly there are hundreds of nuances within the autistic spectrum, so try to avoid typecasting your character.  Mark Haddon's character, Christopher, in The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night, illustrates this well. Christopher, who has Asperger’s, is portrayed with subtlety and refinement. He is a gifted fifteen year old mathematician who, Haddon says ‘sees the world in a surprising and revealing way.’ He is not just a boy with Asperger’s syndrome but a boy with a complex character who is not defined by his disability. 

 Make sure your character is simply part of the landscape and focus on their ability and not disability because people with a learning disability are people first. Make it about who they are, what they like or dislike - or what their hobbies are. They are fully rounded individuals and not just a channel to display their disability. As authors we need to bear in mind that it is not the child with a learning disability who prevents themselves being fully included in society; it is the barriers in society that do that.

My character Rosie in Rosie Loves Jack is a typical teenager consumed by her love for Jack and she has the same hopes and aspirations as anyone else. Rose doesn't see her Down's syndrome as a shortcoming and wants to be treated as the equal she is. I avoided stereotyping Rosie by dismissing her Down's syndrome as my starting point, which then meant I avoided any restricting boundaries. 

It is important to avoid using language that creates negative images. The words you use can impact on how a person with disabilities is made to feel. We are people first and foremost, so it is crucial to erase derogatory language from your text.
 Many people would say that the word ‘disabled’ immediately suggests that that person is limited, even though this is often not the case at all, yet it is still an accepted term. 

To help with correct terminology, The Book Trust has printed a list of terms that are preferable. People need to feel included - language is always evolving and it is necessary to keep up with the appropriate terms so as not to alienate those who are different.
 It is very easy to try and rectify your character’s disability by giving them special powers, or making them unrealistically good or bad. In general, this does nothing to help the reader understand disability and can even be detrimental to it. Children are children, disability or not they can be just as naughty or nice!

Billy D in Dead Ends is a perfect example of how to include a character with disabilities without falling into this trap. Billy has Down syndrome, but he is by no means a victim. He is manipulative, irritating and at times, unlikeable, as well as being funny, kind and loveable. Children should be able to see such characters reflecting themselves and the normal ups and downs in their lives.

As an author do not make assumptions about your character. Research is the basis for writing confidently and for ensuring that you are not misrepresenting your character and their disabilities. Research, research, research, even if like me, you have first -hand experience of the disability you are writing about. Mark Haddon famously said that he didn't research at all, but I would strongly advise you not to do that. If you have a grasp of the problems you will free yourself to write with authenticity without your characters becoming typecast, or restricting them in what they can achieve. 

These are just some of the stumbling blocks to to be aware of when writing about disability in children’s books. We have come a long way in the past few years with many new children’s books featuring children with a variety of disabilities, who are simply a part of the story. We still have a long way to go. Hopefully this small guide will give confidence to those who hesitate.  I couldn't put it better than C.S. Lewis to emphasise the importance of why writers need to give a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves because,  'We read to know we are not alone.' 
Mel Darbon


Julie Day said...

Thank you for this post. I am an indie author with Asperger's (autism) and I write children's books about children with Asperger's based on memories of what I was like at school. I make them have interests that they can focus on to help them get on with life and have hope for the future. I also write for adults and my current wip has a female lead with Asperger's.

Unknown said...

It's fantastic that you are doing this. We need more books like this where children can see themselves in the pages of a book. Inclusion will engender compassion, understanding, kindness - and most of all acceptance. Thank you for posting this.

Unknown said...

I think this is really good, and I want to read your book and the other you mention. Thank you for the pointer to Book Trust's list too.

Mel Darbon said...

Thank you so much. That’s really good to hear. I hope you enjoy the book - it’s all through the voice of a teenage girl with Down’s syndrome.