Not Your Crippled Girl: #OwnVoices Disabled Characters in YA Fiction

I’m disabled. In a lot of ways. More than what most people realize. I was born with cerebral palsy, and while it’s mild and only affects my right leg, it took many surgeries and years of pain to correct my crooked legs into a shape fit for a semi-“normal” life. I remember having to learn to walk again, and even now, at 26, it’s hard for me to find shoes I can easily fit over my crooked foot.

I also have dyscalculia–think dyslexia but with math–probably as a result of CP. And a stutter, also due to CP. In addition to CP, I am also completely deaf in my right ear because of a cyst that had to be extracted from it back in 2009. This cyst was a result of Von Hippel Lindau, a rare genetic disorder I inherited from my father.

I haven’t listed my many disabilities here to garner sympathy or pity. I’ve listed them because, even though I’ve lived with all of these things my entire life, I only just started writing disabled characters in my own fiction. It’s taken me YEARS to accept the fact that disabled characters could exist in YA fiction–my preferred age-range of choice. Years and a lot of battling through internalized ableism.

The fact is that disabled characters practically nonexistent in fiction, in YA fiction, and especially in YA genre fiction such as fantasy and sci-fi. If they do exist, they’re almost always white boys/men whose disabilities only make them more appealing to other characters and readers as a whole. They are almost never men, and certainly not people of color. Disability reaches far and wide and does not discriminate against one’s gender identity or race. Disabled people are everywhere and yet we are nowhere in our fiction.

It’s frustrating, to say the least.

When I first started taking writing seriously, I never wrote disabled main characters. I never wanted my MCs to hit too close to home, to have too much in common with me. My disabilities have defined my entire life and I didn’t want them to define me in fiction as well. I also thought, as many of us did and probably still do, that disabled main characters couldn’t possibly carry a narrative on their own, especially a fantasy or sci-fi one. I was convinced no one would find them likable enough or relatable enough or attractive enough. It’s a stigma I see reflected in my own life on a daily basis.

And yet, one day, I had an idea for a fantasy novel featuring a character with a prosthetic leg. I wrote that novel and realized that there was a place for people like me in fiction. But it took so much time and self-reflection to get to that point.

Now, with every subsequent novel I write, I have vowed to myself that my main characters will be disabled in some way.

Selene, the main character in the novel I submitted for Pitch Wars, has a disability very similar to cerebral palsy. She is my favorite main character to date.

We have a long way to go. Publishing #OwnVoices novels with disabled protagonists is the first step. We must also acknowledge that publishing is still extremely white and extremely male and that intersectionality must be at the forefront of our minds when examining publishing as a whole.  Let’s lift each other up. Let’s believe in our craft and our work. And maybe get a few books published while we’re at it.

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