Thursday, March 3, 2016 | By: The Write Way Cafe

Writing Disabled Characters by Barbara Bates

Author B.L. BatesThe Write Way Café welcomes author of AsterIce, B. L. Bates, who discusses disabilities, diversity, and complexity in writing more interesting stories.

One of the things we've been told as writers is, "Write what you know." But what if you want to include a disabled character in one of your stories, and you're not disabled. And you don't know much about the disability you want to use.

Why would you want to include a disabled character in your story?

Why not? The disabled are people, too. We have wants, needs, hopes, and fears, just like the non-disabled. It's the same as asking why to include a person of a different ethnicity, religion, nationality, or with some other quality making her different from you.

Diversity. Complexity. More interesting story ideas. One or all of those mentioned can be used as a rationale.

But, if you're going to include a disabled character in your story, where and how will you research the disabilities and the people who have them? In order to make the character believable, you have to know something about disabilities and the people who live with them. Their lifestyles, the adaptations they use, Where they turn for help. The way they do daily living chores. How they get from place to place. And that's just scratching the surface.

This brings us to another writing lesson, "Research what you don't know."

So, where do you research disabilities and disabled characters?

That's a good question. While there are different ways to approach this question, let me suggest my favorite.

Over the past months, because I am a member of the physically challenged (I'm totally blind), I've written a course describing the adaptations used by the disabled, the procedures they use in day-to-day activities, and suggest places to garner more information about the disabled. And the course includes ways for you, the non-disabled writer, to take part in activities where, for a while at least, you can pretend to be disabled.

For a short course like the one being offered on the Savvy site, I can't possibly cover all the disabilities, so I've chosen three: Visual, hearing, and mobility challenges. (Or, if you're not politically correct, blindness, deafness, and paralysis requiring a wheelchair.) I'd suggest taking a selection from each.

Why would you want to experience being disabled? Because it allows you to feel the same emotions as your disabled character. You can get to know the aggravation and  frustration of not being able to do simple tasks without adaptations or someone to aid you. And it allows you to feel victory and success when you accomplish these simple tasks while pretending to be disabled.

My course is structured so you can investigate, and develop your own methods of researching other disabilities.

Why would you want to try being disabled, you may ask. Another good question. Let's go back to the "Write what you know" lesson. If you know how it feels to drop an object and not be able to see to find it, you can better show your character's frustrations of sweeping something across the floor searching for the darned thing. If you pretend to have a hearing challenge, you can better appreciate how it feels when your character's daughter asks why you didn't come outside when she fell off her bike and screamed for Mommy. And, if you act as if you're confined to a wheelchair, you'll be able to show the appreciation your character feels when someone holds a door open for her or helps her over a piece of damaged pavement. It's putting yourself into your character's shoes, or wheelchair.

Being blind for over thirty years has allowed me to develop characters that have emotional, physical and mental disabilities, both minor and major, that help and hinder their development. Sometimes, the disability is not known at first, or is hidden. It can be hidden by circumstances, or by the individual herself. For even in real life, people lie about the fact they're disabled because of the stigma they think is attached.

In my book, AsterIce, the first book of the Ice Trilogy, each of the four POV characters has a disability, but their disabilities are minimized in this first book. The disabilities play a bigger role in the second book (not yet published), and provide part of the explanation to the conclusion of the trilogy.

Do the disabilities form a major factor in the trilogy? Not really, but they're there to show people can overcome their limitations, and function as productive individuals; because or in spite of their challenges.

Disabled individuals can play an important role in any story, if you have the courage to use them. Those of us with disabilities are human, just like you non-disabled. We also have hopes, fears, joys and frustrations. Take a chance and use a disabled character in your next story.

My class -- 'Pardon, is my Disability Showing? Writing Believable Disabled Characters -- An Interactive Approach' starts on the Savvy site on March 14. Register at:
Why not join us?

AsterIce cover by B.L. Bates
An alien enemy too small to  see. Too vicious to fight. Too determined to stop. Is humanity doomed?

Four determined humans; two brothers and their wives form the core of the defense against an alien virus. Introduced as a nutritional drink as 'Water from the Gods', well before its true nature is known, it becomes  available worldwide. Then, its deadly effects are revealed.

But earth's entire population has been infected. Can our heroes find an answer to save humanity?  

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About the author: B. L. Bates' writing  falls into the speculative fiction field, though threads of romance, crime, and mystery often sneak in. Her  engineering degree taught her to use the physical world as a springboard, but after becoming blind due to a head injury, fantastical and magical aspects tend to creep in. Acceptance and separateness have become part of her stories, heightening the conflict.

She lives in Massachusetts with her husband. When not writing, she can be found reading, cooking, or enjoying the outdoors.

She can be found on the Internet at and


HiDee said...

This is a great article, Barbara. Thanks for sharing with us!

Shannon said...

If you are writing about a character who uses a wheelchair, remember that a lot of us do not like the expressions "confined to a wheelchair" and "wheelchair bound" (we are wheelchair users, we use them to get around, they are not prisons) and consider how we feel about help - mostly, we would like to be asked, rather than have it assumed we need help, and if we say no thanks, we want that answer to be respected. And never grab someone's wheelchair and start pushing. So if you are writing a character who uses a manual wheelchair, it would be quite realistic to have someone come along behind them and start pushing without asking, and for the wheelchair using character to get very annoyed. This happens to me a lot. Some of us are great at opening our our doors too and are perfectly capable of holding a door open for someone who walks (that confuses the walking person).