The other day, I posted my thoughts on the newly-released Korean film 블라인드 (Blind). I thought I’d follow up with some thoughts on the depiction of physically handicapped people, for anyone who’d like to be reminded of the lessons of which I was reminded by the films missteps.
A lot of this is not just applicable to depicting people with physical disabilities, but also to depicting people of any group about which one does not know intimately, or which experiences the world in a way different from oneself (through the lens of another gender or sexual orientation, a different race or religion or culture or philosophy, and so on):
- Expect to be blindsided by the holes in your own knowledge and understanding. Even when you do a lot of research, you’re going to get some things wrong, because your preconceptions will fool you: there are the things you know, the things you don’t know, the things you think you know but have wrong, and the things you don’t realize that you don’t know… and telling these apart is simply really, really hard. you can wait to be blindsided by an editor who knows more than you, or a reader who points out how badly you botched it, should the work see print; or you could go ahead and pre-empt that by getting your narrative vetted. Show it to someone who will know and be honest with you about it. And when they tell you, listen; be open-minded. Be flexible. Realize that some things you think you know are in fact wrong. And even when you’re depicting someone who is different in some imaginary way, it might be useful to ask people whose experiences might trip up questions you might not think to ask.
- Remember, people of every group are human. They’re complex, and imperfect, and especially in the aggregate, some of them are bound to be jerks. Simplifying them, forcing them to abide by a ridiculous standard of behaviour, in order to secure sympathy is wrongheaded and amounts to another form of dehumanization; it will take away from the story’s believability, and/or dilute sympathy felt for the character. Don’t slot people into the role of mere victims or exaggerated saints, or especially pure victim-saints.
- Think carefully about how your character’s condition will shape the way the story works. A film is a very hard medium for telling the story of a blind person. (Not impossible, but difficult. I suspect Derek Jarman’s Blue is a more successful project in some ways than Blind, because it forces the viewer to be blind; but it is also less successful, because it alienates the viewer in ways that Blind doesn’t.) A feral child would make a terrible narrator. A character who cannot hear will present specific challenges for a storyteller. These limitations can be great, but you have to take them seriously.
- Consider the fact that, however strange, difficult, painful, or unimaginable the state of your character might appear to you, it is his or her normal reality. He or she does not live life implicitly comparing his or her limitations to your much less painful, difficult, or limited experience: while having no hands is hard for you to imagine, for your character, it is — to whatever degree he or she is used to it — just normal, everyday reality. Sensitivity exercises (like being blindfolded for a day) can be misleading: a real blind person is far less ungainly in his or her home than you are when blindfolded, because he or she is used to it… mind, this is true as long as the furniture doesn’t get moved around in his or her absence. Remember, you also have shortcomings that others might find stunning or shocking — an inability to swim, relative innumeracy, partial visual impairment in one eye, a fear of heights, and so on. (Three of these four are examples from my own personal experience, but I wouldn’t say I “suffer” from any of them.) For you, that’s just normal. For your character, his or her condition is normal too. Grok it…
Oh, and remember that this condition is probably also part of the lives of millions of people out there. Or dozens. Or hundreds. Or at least some. Don’t do them the disservice of propagating myths about their condition; grok it.
- Ask yourself what the victory condition for the narrative is, and ask yourself whether you’re including the character’s condition for a good reason. Why are you telling this particular story? How would you know if the story is successful? People who are marginalized aren’t exploited only by bad employers or unsympathetic fellow citizens: they can also be exploited by storytellers who choose to include them in stories simply as a gimmick. (I’m not saying this was necessarily what happened in Blind, though I do think the guide dog part of the story involved a lot of manipulative gimmickry and reinforced popular ignorance/misconceptions about guide dogs.) Remember that there are real people out there with the handicap or other marginalized status you’re writing about, or something analogous to the imaginary condition or state you’re discussing, and for them the condition or state is more than just a flashy gimmick: it’s their daily reality. You don’t need to become a crusader for them, or make your fiction didactic — indeed, doing so might well make your work less effective or even detrimental to their cause — but this reality deserves some respect, awareness, and consideration.
While I’d bet nothing here is a shocking revelation, I think all of these points are worth reminding yourself about when you’re setting out to write a story about someone with a disability.