D is for disability and its underrepresentation in novels

Author: Anne

Date Published: May 22nd 2017, 9:46pm

I would add to this republished blog JoJo Moyes book "Me Before You" - a book that annoyed me so much I had to skim read the second half. That is a book about a man with a disability in which every other character has a narrative voice except the man with the disability - and the story revolves around him. I rest my case ..


About one in four people in Britain have an impairment which amounts to a disability. This includes all manner of different conditions from deafness to eczema, from cystic fibrosis to learning difficulties, facial disfiguration to heart conditions, from mental health conditions to diabetes, and many more. This would seem to suggest that, therefore, one in four characters in the fiction I read should also have a disability.

I haven’t counted but I am absolutely positive that this is not the case – and I am even surer that it is not the case with main characters. In fact, the genre fiction I read tends to be inhabited with very healthy characters on the whole. Where there is an illness or disability it may be attached to a minor character, be temporary in nature, or where it is the main character who has the condition it is actually the focus of the story. Rare indeed are the novels where the main character or someone close to them has a disability and this is not the focus of the story but it affects their lives – rarer still are the books where more than one character has a condition which affects their life.

Obviously, fiction isn’t directly reflective of life but the need to inhabit our stories with healthy people carries an implication that these are the type of people with whom we feel comfortable and want to spend time. The habit of taking a condition, very often cancer, and making this and the character’s prognosis the focus of the book can often make me feel uncomfortable. The fact that if there is a disability in a book that only one person experiences this defies reality as I know it.

I accept that as you are reading this blog you can immediately think of exceptions to my rule and I acknowledge that they do exist. Jeffery Deaver has a protagonist with quadriplegia but his sidekick has arthritis in her knees which affects her but is not the focus of the book, JR Ward’s vampire books have a blind king, Tanya Huff wrote about a police detective with macular degeneration, Suzanne Brockmann wrote some romantic suspense novels with deaf characters, and there are many more examples. All of these are fine (although they rarely include more than one disabled character) but when I think of the romance and mystery novels which I have read recently I am searching to find many with one or more characters with a disability and it seems to be rarer in fantasy novels.

Among my friends and extended family I include people with diabetes, macular degeneration , chronic depression, asthma, arthritis, fibromyalgia, cancer, and many more. I don’t think that the people I know are unrepresentative of society as a whole and I certainly don’t look at them and define them by their disability. But with so many people having conditions which disable them to one degree or another and who still live full and active lives which don’t revolve around their disability I would like to see more people like the people I know and love reflected in the fiction I read.