My Experience Growing up Without Seeing Myself in Books

I first got in to reading when I was about ten. It grew from something people in my life were actively encouraging me to do in my free time, to something I enjoyed, to something I love spending time doing and talking about.

I love reading books. There’s something about being transported to another world, which is probably why science fiction particularly dystopias, fantasy and historical fiction, are amongst my favourite genres.

I also really love characters. I find it fascinating finding out details about them, trying to understand them and routing for them as they fight conflict. If the characterisation in a book is poor, it has to be very good in other aspects for me to really enjoy it. Conversely, if a book has good characterisation, I will find reading it considerably more pleasant even if it is lacking in other areas. I am definitely a character driven reader.

Yet despite having been blind since birth, the books I’ve read have rarely featured characters who are blind like me. This is not a choice, there are very few books with blind characters. Furthermore, the books that do exist aren’t well known or well advertised, even to a disabled audience.

I can remember a few occasions where people have told me about a book with a blind character and told me to read it and see what I think of it. But that’s mainly been from people who are avid readers at a book club I used to attend and more recently through writing groups.

I think that disabled children should be made aware of books featuring disabled children and books by disabled authors who are open about their disability and that libraries have a part to play in that, especially those who specifically cater to print disabled people.

It’s only through being more active in book and writing communities over the past few years, that I’ve heard about and became interested in disabled characters in books. I’ve taken the time to actively search for books and have found some great reads because of it. That said, they are few and far between, which is why publishers need to make an effort to publish disabled authors and when they publish non disabled authors to take steps to get the representation right.

Another barrier to accessing books is that I have found some disability inclusive books that I’ve wanted to read, but they’ve only been available as printed books, which is not accessible to me as a blind person. Publishers need to make an effort to offer books in a variety of formats, particularly e-books and audiobooks. But also, libraries that cater to the print disabled people need to make an effort to make disability inclusive books accessible as part of their collections.

I think growing up not seeing yourself in books has an impact in a variety of ways.

As well as being an avid reader, I also love to write. I remember making up stories and little plays when I was younger. I remember loving writing stories way back in primary school. But those stories were never about people like me, either. Again, it wasn’t until more recently that I started writing stories that featured disabled characters. Now, most of the fiction I write contains disabled characters, but again, part of that is me now being more conscious of inclusive literature.

There are a lot of things that we pick up unconsciously and I think unfortunately, I picked up when I was younger that protagonists and characters in general, were supposed to be non disabled. But of course, most of the characters I was reading about were. When you write, you transport with you many of the basic things you learn from reading. Obviously, you usually have to study the detail, but you know there will be characters, you’ve some basic ideas about the format of a story and things like that. And I’d apparently picked up a very wrong idea that disabled people didn’t generally belong in stories.

I think that the lack of representation, sends out a message to people that they don’t belong in stories. That does have an impact, even if it’s an unconscious one.

I’ve done a great deal of reading about characters outside my own experiences and learning to relate to them. While I think reading about experiences other than your own is important, I think a balance of both reading about characters like yourself and reading about characters not like yourself, is most ideal. Also, many of the narratives that are made available, feature the lives of privileged people, so unless you search for diverse fiction, you’ll probably keep reading about fairly similar groups of people.

I relate very well to characters from other backgrounds, especially those who experience similar issues to what I do. I think that it’s good that I can relate well to characters who have different experiences. However, I don’t think that disabled people should have to put up with reading about people from other minority groups as being a significant part of the reading that’s about people similar to them.

I also think growing up reading a few bad disability representations has made me very wary of reading new books with disabled characters. I have so consistently seen bad representation and don’t read some books because I’ve heard so much bad stuff about them, that I’m used to being slightly wary. Books with bad representation by non disabled authors who haven’t bothered to do their research or consult disabled people and hire them as sensitivity readers, are often the ones that get all the publicity, win all the awards and get turned in to movies.

And when disabled people speak out about what’s wrong with these books, they are met by swarms of non disabled people fiercely defending the ableist content of these books and trying to silence their complaints. I would go as far as to say I have come to find this literary landscape highly frustrated and it is a great effort not to become angry about it.

It’s not entertaining to read a book where the people like you are created in a way that is completely removed from reality. It’s like reading a book where the plot is not believable, the experience prevents you from being fully immersed in the story. Because of this, I’m often wary about what I’ll find, when I pick up a book with a disabled character.

But then there are the good books. The ones that capture the essence of the disabled experience and create characters whose stories contain all the nuances of life with whichever disability or disabilities they have. The ones that disabled readers love dearly and recommend to all their friends because of how amazing they are. Those are the books I want every child to grow up reading.

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