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‘Facing’ Disability in Fiction

by Sharon Erby, Author of Parallel, a collection of linked stories

From a woman with prosthetic legs competing on Dancing with the Stars to a young model with Down Syndrome walking the runway during the recent New York Fashion Week—the movement to mainstream individuals with disabilities into the public sphere is encouraging. It hasn’t always been that way.

Back in the early 1970’s, when I was in high school in small town America, I couldn’t even get a stage part in the annual play. Only after complaints from both my classmates and me did the director rescind her decision; I was given a small role—one that required me to wear a long skirt—presumably to cover up my prosthetic leg. That reality has dogged me ever since. I suppose that’s why ‘facing’ disability has always been so important to me as a writer.

How does a writer ‘face’ disability? What does it look like? What does it feel like? For those of us with what society often views as ‘problem’ bodies, the experience of disability is uncanny: our perception of our self is that we’re a-okay, yet we must live with others’ eyes on us. We must live with others’ sympathy, insensitivity, and (sometimes) outright mockery.

One of the characters in Parallel is a Vietnam veteran who happens to be an amputee. Before his military service, young Martin runs across fields for fun and to clear his head, but after combat he finds himself wearing a prosthesis: a contraption that is both a literal and a figurative ball and chain. Women in bars feel sorry for him when other patrons ask, “So…how’d you lose that leg?” And the little boy of a woman Martin begins to date blurts out, “I don’t want him to go! He walks too slow!” after his mother invites Martin to join them on an Easter egg hunt. The other characters’ reactions leave Martin wondering about himself: inside, he is the still the same, so why does his different physical appearance change the way others see him?

Only by ‘facing’ disability as a fact of a character’s individuality—to be pooled with all other potential and pertinent facts, like hair color, favorite color, disposition, stature, etc., can we put disability in the perspective from which it should be viewed. Martin is a composite character; his disability is only one feature of his ‘biography’.

Yes, disability is a category of difference, but why should our society give it precedence—to the emotional detriment of an individual who is already bearing enough? It shouldn’t be “news” that amputees are a part of dance competitions or that a woman with Downs Syndrome is a model.

I’ve had people tell me, “You can’t save the world with writing.” Maybe so. But maybe, as a writer, I can change the way people perceive some of the folks who are a part of it.

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