Writing characters with disabilities

I’ve written about a boy with a terminal illness (Felix, in The Divide) and I’ve written characters with psychological disabilities. But only recently did I realise that I’d never written about anyone who was physically disabled.

This revelation came after an operation which meant I was unable to use my left foot for a while. It was a game-changer. I’ve been a faithful follower of Melanie Reid’s Spinal Column in The Times every Saturday, the diary of a someone rendered tetraplegic after a fall from a horse, and I try to be thoughtful and considerate to those I encounter with physical problems. But oh boy, is it different when it’s you! Writers know that personal experience is worth ten Wikipedias, and we hark back to painful episodes in our lives when we want to express the anguish that one of our characters may feel. But it’s the little things that really count. The little bits of information that you don’t get any other way, the things you see every day but don’t really register, the things you know must be true but haven’t really thought about until someone waves them under your nose. That’s our job, as writers. Waving small considerations under our readers’ noses.

Taking forever to go up or downstairs is infuriating. You can’t use crutches and carry something at the same time. Being stuck in the house is horrible, too. Fresh air and a change of scene are the things that jolt our minds into new plotlines, and we get stale in every way without it. I have an automatic car, so once I felt able to walk between Lidl’s carpark and shop floor with the aid of a trolley and their lift, I had my first solo outing. I was so excited that I spent ten times what I intended – but no one notices that you have a bandaged foot and are walking rather slowly, and manoeuvring your trolley to avoid theirs is a bit like driving a Dodgem. Not to mention being told to move out of the way when someone wants to get something.

My next bit of education was being pushed around the London Wetland Centre in a wheelchair. There’s no charge for one, and the paths are mainly wheelchair friendly. Unlike the barriers, which are all at exactly the wrong height so that you can’t see anything. But the real menaces are small children, who seem magnetically attracted to walking just in front of the chair for as long as possible so that you’re constantly worrying about running into them. Their parents simply don’t notice. Although some people leap forward to open the gates and let you through, there are others who just stand and watch, like kids on a motorway bridge, hoping for a car crash to liven up their day.

Showers and baths are a problem, and eventually clean hair becomes an obsession. So it’s a sit-down session in the shower with your foot sticking out of the door, covered with a plastic bag just in case. The clothes you can wear are limited, of course. Only trousers with wide legs will fit over the bandage, and the shoe you wear on your good foot has to have a sufficiently built-up heel to match the Velcro contraption you wear on your bad one.

That was three years ago. And now I’ve had a trapeziectomy on my wrist, due to arthritis, and it’s not trousers that are the problem but sleeves. I’m typing this one-handed, and it’s driving me nuts. As is suspending my arm above my shoulder every night, using my head instead of the other hand to tear off strips of toilet paper, and unscrewing an espresso coffee pot by putting it on the floor and holding it between my feet. You need two hands for zips and dental floss, and you can’t cut your nails on your good hand. If you’re going to write disabled characters, try putting one arm in a sling or wearing an eye-mask or ear plugs all day. Remember everything. And then feel thankful that your disability was only temporary.


Also published on Medium.

6 Comments

  1. Michelle Reece 25 January 2018 at 6:10 pm

    As a full time wheelchair user I can agree about barriers at displays. So ridiculously frustrating, but I’m told it’s a planning issue, the height is stipulated.
    The only thing I’d add is that you jaunt in a wheelchair would have been with the knowledge it was short term. As a long term user the frustrations either ebb into resignation or anger (as in my case). I shouldn’t have to ring a restaurant to check they’re wheelchair accessible. It’s 2017.
    I plead for able bodied people to PLEASE look at the access in your local shops, service providers and art galleries. I get horrendous neck ache trying to look at art in galleries, presuming the art isn’t on a pedestal so I can’t see at all!

    Reply
  2. Liz Newman 25 January 2018 at 6:57 pm

    Yes, the last thing I said was be thankful it’s only temporary. However, I do have one permanent issue – tinnitus – which is invisible, and reacts very badly to kids screaming in your ear or sudden loud music. Your point about art galleries is a very good one indeed.

    Reply
  3. Liz Cashdan 25 January 2018 at 10:24 pm

    Do you think you would write more and differently about physical disability now you have experienced it ? In a way, we ought to be able to write about things we haven’t experienced personally, otherwise how could we include a variety of characters and situations in what we write?

    Reply
  4. Jane Edmonds 26 January 2018 at 2:05 pm

    I think you will be so glad to have had the trapeziectomy – I have had both hands done. I’m left handed and when that hand was out of action i learnt to write right-handed. what I learnt was the greater thoughtfulness of writing so much slower. I got quite fast in the end. Both times I could type pretty soon, about 2-3 weeks, but it was like learning a new skill, both physical and intellectual to write with my non-dominant hand.

    Reply
    1. Liz Newman 30 January 2018 at 8:19 am

      Thank you for that lovely positive comment, Jane. Unfortunately I have developed complex regional pain syndrome, although I can still type. I’m left-handed too, but I had the right wrist done so that I knew what to expect. They won’t do my left one until the CRPS has gone, which may be some considerable time…

      Reply

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