Media and Disability

The #Disability Film Challenge and Team Meridian Rain

Whew! What a weekend! I had a fantastic time with a great group of talented people who I have to give a shoutout to: N.R. Brown, Jay Chandlier, Ryan Easterly, Catherine Hefferan, Lauren Karas, Julia Myers, Matt Winterhalter, and Keri Williams. We are “Meridian Rain.” 🙂

We spent this last weekend writing, rehearsing, finding/setting up locations, shooting, editing, and submitting a short 5-minute film for the Disability Film Challenge (DFC). The DFC is a 48 Hour short film competition whose purpose is “to motivate disabled and non-disabled film makers to be proactive in the film industry and to supply them with a means of exposure for themselves and their projects.” I included their promotional video below.

Disability Film Challenge from Matt Bauer

And because I cannot hold back the awesome, just a few photos from the set of “Barking Brothers”:














































































PS And as a fun little fact, Team Meridian Rain consisted of far more cast and crew with disabilities, than without.

Cripping the Con and American Horror Story – Me & Pepper

I’m at Cripping the Con this week in New York and very excited to present on the crafting of a disability Bechdel Test with Katherine Deibel (I hope to post more about that at some point).  But for right now, I wanted to take a moment for a bit of fan squee. I got the opportunity to meet Naomi Grossman who plays Pepper on American Horror Story.  She performed her one-woman show, “Carnival Knowledge.”  And she rocks!




#Disability in Children’s Literature – my “outside” posts brought home

Woman in Wheelchair with "Disability" labels on her - tragic, burden, invalid

Woman in wheelchair with “Disability” labels being placed on her by an able-bodied man. They read: tragic, burden, invalid.


I’m not as regular a poster here on my own blog as I should be.  Why?  Because I never quite feel like I have interesting things to say.  However, it seems odd that I always have PLENTY to say on other people’s blogs.  :)  So, I thought it mightn’t be such a bad thing to re-post some of those blogs here.  I love the issues and am proud to contribute to some of the ongoing discussions that take place.  One campaign that I think is downright awesome is Disability in KidLit.  You can find it in blog format, on Tumblr, and on Twitter.  Some great folks really pushing to see more disability and diversity in Young Adult and Middle Grade books.  Below is the blog post that I contributed to their effort published June 30th.

The Why - Why is having disability included in children’s fiction so important?


So, recently Corinne Duyvis and Kody Keplinger  put together an idea: Disability in Kidlit. I was fascinated by the idea but wanted to know more.  I began by perusing their website which states that the goal is “to serve as a resource for readers and writers hoping to learn more about the realities of disability, which are often quite different from what you read in books or see on TV.”

You’re visiting this site because you obviously are looking for information relating to MG and YA writing and characters with disabilities but I wanted to take a moment to highlight why this is so critical and to encourage you to take advantage of the amazing writers and authors who are sharing their expertise and information.  It is the first step to not only writing a fantastic (and accurate) character for your fiction but also perhaps having a greater impact than even you imagined.  Let me tell you a little about a key part of your audience.

According to the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO), almost *ten percent of the world’s population lives with a disability.  That figure is the same for the *United States, ten percent.  People with disabilities are the world’s largest minority.  These disabilities run the gamut including physical, sensory, mental, neurological/cognitive, and developmental, and impact young people regardless of race, ethnicity, age, gender, or sexual orientation.

And these are youth who are part of a new generation.  They are youth who have not grown up in institutions and special schools.  They have been integrated into mainstream schools – some more successfully than others.  So the question for them is: “What’s next?” For many, the answer is: “I don’t know.”  Perhaps more than ever before these youth need role models. They need to see themselves out there in the world.  While having real live people to emulate is great, the next best thing is fictional characters.

Books have a key role in shaping our culture and environment.  Regardless of one’s opinion as to the quality of the writing or content, what is indisputable is the impact on the culture, style, opinions, and actions of young people.  Fiction also has the ability to teach young readers what to expect from the world and what the world expects from them.  It shows them what can be versus what is.  Jane Fleming at the Erikson Institute in Chicago states, “Kids do have a different kind of connection when they see a character that looks like them or they experience a plot or a theme that relates to something they’ve experienced in their lives.”  This is reiterated in an article in the journal of “Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities” that highlights that “kids look to books to find characters they can identify with.”

There is a growing body of literature that highlights youth of different genders and races. However, what is missing is seeing young characters with disabilities that are independent, capable, and fully realized. Debra Robertson in Portraying Persons with Disabilities: An Annotated Bibliography of Fiction for Children and Teenagers (1992) pointed out that not every disability has to be a “metaphor for a protagonist’s development,” and also pointed out the tendency of writers to romanticize or stigmatize disabilities as a persistent problem in MG and YA writing.

I bring this up because of the history of characters with disabilities in fiction as, among other things, an example of courage and fortitude: inspiration porn (and yes, I’ve definitely blogged on this hot button issue before).  These “brave-and-courageous-battle-against-tragedy” narratives are hardly representative to the lives of actual youth with disabilities. In fact, it can even be dangerous.

That last statement may seem like hyperbole, but kids with disabilities are just that…kids.  They play, have relationships, fight, sulk, etc.  They may require accommodations, a bit of help, or just some creativity to do the same things as their peers but to be honest, most kids’ lives with disabilities are not fraught with “disability angst” every moment of every day. They may love Science and hate parsing sentences in English; they may have a BFF they go to the mall with, or a secret crush on the guy in Homeroom.

When characters with disabilities are portrayed as inspirational or overcoming obstacles just for living their daily lives, it sends a message that a life with a disability is a burden, on the individual and on the family, and just surviving is an accomplishment. What message does that send to young people? Don’t we want to hold them to the same standards as their peers?  Studies have shown that one of the greatest indicators of success for young people is expectations.  If fiction is setting up the expectation that just getting out of bed is an accomplishment then we are doing these youth a disservice.

Adults are just as impressionable.  I recently had a conversation with an individual who had read a book about a young blind girl who dressed in mismatched clothing.  She asked me, a blind woman, “It is wonderful how you look so nice.  Who dresses you in the morning?”  She thought I was an inspiration for being out in the real world.  She was less than pleased with my flippant response, “Whoever stayed the night before.” :)   But she read and believed that blind people were slobs; that they required assistance to even dress. Now imagine if she ever had a blind daughter, or taught blind children… Disability can be a pain in the rear, like discovering a local restaurant isn’t wheelchair accessible and having to go somewhere else, but hardly a tragedy.

Only a few years ago an analysis of winners of the Newbery Medal and Honor – perhaps the most well-known award for children’s literature – showed that over 35 years, out of 131 books, fewer than 31 books included a main or supporting character with a disability and of those that did, many provided inaccurate views of life with a disability.  But there is something we can do.

Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Díaz has stated on numerous occasions that he wrote “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” to give Hispanic youth in the U.S. a character they could relate to. He has talked about how he never had that “reflection” growing up — no representations of people like him.

You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist? And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.

― Junot Díaz

His example is just as relevant when applied to disability as a way to emphasize the impact that writers can have (and I think this particularly pertinent to MG/YA authors). You are building those mirrors.

This July 26th is the 23rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the month is often used as a celebration of that freedom.  The ADA was and continues to be groundbreaking legislation that demands nothing less than equal access for people with disabilities. It presumes that people with disabilities can and should be a part of daily American life.

But law is a cold, inflexible thing and it doesn’t have the ability to inspire people.  It doesn’t drive them to be more open minded, more tolerant, and to expect more from young people with disabilities.  It doesn’t teach them about all the adventures they can have, the futures they can dream, or all the possibilities available to them to make those things happen.  YOU…you, writers, have that power.  Let’s build diverse worlds and diverse characters. Let’s build those mirrors Junot was talking about.  Books change lives.  We believe that.  That is why we’re authors, isn’t it?


*Update/Correction: Regarding statistics for the disability population, the numbers I listed are incorrect.  According to the WHO, disability is listed as 15% in the world, and in the United States disability is at almost 20%.  Even higher than my estimates.  That only serves to provide greater emphasis on the need for good disability representation in fiction. 

Image is by Crippen and can be found at Disability Arts Online.

Every Day – A Belated Post for the Beauty of a Woman Blogfest

“The beauty of a woman is not in the clothes she wears, the figure that she carries, or the way she combs her hair. The beauty of a woman is seen in her eyes, because that is the doorway to her heart, the place where love resides.” — Sam Levinson (quoted by Audrey Hepburn)

The Beauty of a Woman Blogfest was on February 22nd.  Fifty-one bloggers joined August McLaughlin in an event that focused on sharing words, thoughts, ideas, and inspirations about beauty.  Inspired by Sam Levinson’s poem, August shared the story of her experience with an eating disorder that almost ended her life, and then took that struggle and thought about how to use that experience to change things for the better.  In her own words:

“When I was enduring the darkest time of my life, the eating disorder…this poem struck me like a dart between the eyes, pinning me to a wall of “What if?” What if its words hold true—not just rationally or solely for other people, but in my heart, soul and beliefs? What if we’re all beautiful and the truest, deepest beauty has little to do with shape or size? What if the “something more” so many of us long for exists inside of us, waiting to be unlocked and cherished? What if I wasn’t afraid of being large, but living large? And in doing so, missing out on the most remarkable beauty of all?”

I had signed up to participate but unfortunately my own busy life interfered and I did not post on February 22nd.  However, I made a commitment and would like to honor that.  Not only because of my own promise but becaus of the premise – the critical idea at the heart of the blogfest – that women are beautiful in all their forms and features.  Perhaps fortunately, my tardiness only reinforced my own theme for my blog post.

Today is March 4 and today I say women are still beautiful.  We are beautiful.  All of us.  On March 4, 2013; on Feburary 22, 2013…the date doesn’t matter.  We’re beautiful every day.  Every. Single. Day.  Beautiful on dressed-up-in-formal-gowns evenings, beautiful in sharp-business-suit-mornings, beautiful in sweaty shorts and faded sweatshirts, and yes, even beautiful in  swimsuits.

There is already so much stacked against young women and girls. Everywhere we turn, magazines, books, television, art, even other people telling us what we should look like, what we should wear, how we should behave, and we can’t help but bow to he pressure.  And this doesn’t end in adolescence.  You can’t be a strong woman in the workplace and be beautiful.  You can’t be a beautiful “older” woman.  And you certainly can’t be a blind woman and be beautiful.  I hate that.

The beauty of a woman isn’t in looks, but in spirit.  The beauty of a woman doesn’t conform to some specific color or shape.  The beauty of a woman doesn’t age.  It may grow and mature, but it doesn’t age.  Nor does it die.  But it can be hidden.  Hidden by the lies we’re told, the rules we’re given, and the expectations imposed on us by others.  They’re like a shroud, urging us to be something we’re not, assuring us that this artifice is what will make us wealthy, successful, and happy.  And that is battle that we must face every day.  How do you ignore the world around you constantly demanding you be something other than what you are?  Skin color, hair color, height, weight, body shape, disability…all things that “disqualify” one from being beautiful. How do you shut down all those influences that say “You’re wrong.”?

I want more for my life.  I want more for the lives of my sisters and daughters; my friends and neighbors.  I want things to change.   To recognize beauty is to wake up, but those precious moments of clarity are difficult and hard won.  The beauty of a woman, every woman, is something not just for February 22nd but for every day and we need to try to remember that we ARE beautiful. Every. Single. Day.

  • Every day, we need to look in the mirror and declare ourselves beautiful.
  • Every day, we need to choose to ignore those little voices both internal and external that tell us we aren’t good enough, pretty enough, smart enough.
  • Every day, we need to build each other up and recognize that beauty is reflected in those around us.
  • Every day, we can work and grow and achieve and succeed and know that this is what makes us beautiful.
  • Every day, we can try and fail and get up again and our beauty will still be there.
  • And every day we need to take that piece of ourselves, that fragile, vulnerable part, and hold it up as the diamond it is, and let it shine in the sunlight.


Beauty of a Woman Blogfest 2013


Please check out August and the other blogger’s stories at the Beauty of a Woman Blogfest 2013.