Talking About Disability in Fiction

This week I thought I would have a play around with a Video Blog idea, which I have since uploaded to YouTube.

What follows are my personal thoughts about my experiences as a Deaf/disabled person, and how I see disabled individuals portrayed in fiction. I talk specifically about science fiction and fantasy, as that’s the area which has been most prominent to me, but these thoughts could be about any genre of fiction.

Video is subtitled for the Deaf and Hearing Impaired


If you follow me on Twitter you will know that this week I have been particularly vocal about accessibility and disability issues, particularly in the science fiction and fantasy community. 

Now this is particularly important to me as a Deaf individual and someone with multiple hidden and chronic disabilities. And I’m always very, very passionate about getting this right. And one thing that I did this week was to tweet a little bit of my anger out there and I said, “Some science fiction and fantasy authors really don’t want to hear anything about disability that disagrees with their own —inaccurate — views. They especially don’t want to be educated by disabled people about how to write about disabled people sensitively, or if they should even write about disability.”

I think it’s very important for Own Voices stories to be heard. I can only talk from my experiences and my experience as a Deaf person, but one of the interesting things that came about from that Tweet was that somebody asked me “what is it like to be Deaf?” Again, I can only speak from my personal experience, but for me I have been Deaf since I was 8 years old and I have worn hearing aids since I was 11. I lost my hearing due to meningitis and over the years as I’ve gone into adulthood my hearing has gradually declined more and more.

Now, my hearing loss falls into the moderate-to-severe category which means with my hearing aids I can hear quite well, but they do come with their own problems. They’re not a “cure” — and I don’t use that word lightly — because I don’t actually feel like Deafness is something that I want to cure. I’m quite happy being Deaf, which might sound like a very strange thing to say, but for me it’s what I’ve always known and what I have always lived with, so being Deaf is just a part of me, it’s no different from me needing to wear glasses or anything like that.

Without my hearing aids, I cannot hear very much at all. Anything that is very, very high like smoke alarms I can hear. And anything that is very, very low — excuse me — like trucks rumbling by, or that kind of low tones I can hear, but anything in the middle — speech patterns — umm, not a sausage. So it makes life quite difficult, I would not really be able to join the workforce without my hearing aids. Obviously I could, if I wanted to, I could completely embrace my Deaf identity, I could learn to sign, I could get a job that supports me in that way, but for me, personally when I was working as a teacher and as a library manager, wearing my hearing aids was pretty essential. 

I’ve had a lot of people over the years tell me that they didn’t realise I was Deaf or I don’t seem Deaf, and I do understand what they mean by that. I don’t necessarily fit that description of what they think a Deaf person might look or sound like. That’s okay. I am aware that I “pass” quite well as a hearing person. My hearing aids are not necessarily super noticeable, I don’t sound Deaf, and in a one-to-one situation, where I can lipread clearly I don’t really have much of a problem following a conversation. When I’m out socialising in bars or just out on the street where there is traffic it’s a very different story, and I do struggle a lot with that. 

I’ve never really felt like being Deaf has held me back in any way although it definitely has made things much harder. Ironically, when I was in my teens, I thought I might join the army and it was incredibly disappointing when the careers advisor said “you’ve got no chance” and I thought that was quite unfair at the time because clearly I was managing quite well. Obviously now I understand that would not have been very suitable for me at all. But again my experience as a Deaf individual is going to be very, very different from anybody else’s experience, even with the same hearing loss — or better or worse at any level — and I think it’s important to acknowledge that your experience is your experience and I would never presume to speak for all Deaf people.

However, I have sensitivity read for some writers and been able to advise them on how it might feel or how that character might react in certain situations and that’s a very fun thing for me to do.  As well as knowing that I’m helping somebody with their creative project it’s actually quite interesting to me to think about all the things that I do naturally that other people don’t have to do. For instance with lipreading I do come across as quite intense sometimes because I’m focusing on people’s lips all the time. I’m aware… I don’t sign, I don’t use Sign Language but I talk with my hands at lot so people just assume that I probably do sign.

When I was younger I never really embraced my deafness. I think, it was never really presented as an option to me, that I could do that. I was in a mainstream school with other hearing children and being Deaf was not necessarily a positive thing then. Children can be cruel, unfortunately. But I have never felt that it was something I wanted to “cure” in any way, because I don’t. I’m actually quite happy being Deaf it’s just a part of me, and I do actually really enjoy being able to take my hearing aids out and have complete silence and I don’t think anybody who is hearing or doesn’t have any kind of hearing impairment, I don’t think they really understand how wonderful that can be. Maybe they do, I don’t know. It’s very different from just putting ear plugs in and blocking everything out it’s… it feels like I can connect with myself better. It helps me focus, it helps me ground myself. And it’s one the reasons why I absolutely love swimming in the ocean because I can take my hearing aids out and go out to the sea and I just feel completely at peace. And that’s an amazing, beautiful experience which I can’t fully put into words at times. 

Now, I like also to bring my deafness into my stories because for me Deaf characters exist because Deaf people exist, and I don’t feel like this has to be a huge issue or driving force, it’s just that that character happens to be Deaf. So in my book ‘Dark Winds Over Wellington’ I made sure there was quite a lot of stories with Deaf characters. Honestly, they just kind of snuck in there without me realising in a way. Reading back when I was editing and I was looking at this character going “oh, of course yes, she’s Deaf. Yes, that makes more sense.” And I… I find that quite interesting. I’m sure everybody likes to write things like that into their own stories.

One thing I do get frustrated about is that I don’t manage to find many other representations, particularly in the genres I like to read which is: science fiction, fantasy and horror, so another thing I did on Twitter was I asked people to give me some recommendations of those kind of books. And, disappointingly, I got a list that I could count on both hands. And I would love to know more. So if you know more, please do drop me a message and tell me and recommend me books, or movies or anything that you think has a really good, strong Deaf protagonist or just supporting character is good too. 

So my list so far was: The Stand by Stephen King, Silent Dances by AC Crispin, Shrine by James Herbert, Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant — which is wonderful and I highly recommend that — Deep how Light by Frances Hardinge, Dark Pines by Will Dean, The Silence by Tim Lebbon — which was also made into a very good movie — and This Savage Song by VE Schwab. now I’d love to know more, so as I said, if you’d like to drop me a message or twitter and give me more recommendations that would be brilliant. 

So I started this all talking about how writers have a responsibility to write disabled characters sensitively and well and I think if they’re not writing from their own voices they need to use a sensitivity reader. And they… those people are not there to tell you that you are wrong they are there to guide you. They are there to help you to further your character and your story and make it realistic. And I think you owe it to your readers to make sure that that is correct. You can’t just assume for example that if somebody is Deaf that they can’t hear anything at all, because that might not be true. You can’t assume that Deaf people can’t talk, they can. You can’t assume that Deaf people can’t have a good social life or well paid jobs. They do! So I wrote a handy checklist on my Twitter thread and… and here it is:

• Don’t use disabilities like they are problems to be solved or illnesses to be cured. They’re not. 

• Don’t use disabilities to imply lack of intellect. This is a very common, irritating trope and again it speaks volumes about the writer, about what they think about what it’s like to be disabled. 

• Don’t use disabilities to invoke sympathy or sorrow (either in the disabled character or from others) and similarly, don’t use suicide as a plot point in disabled characters. This one really gets my goat. The whole idea of “I’d rather be dead than disabled” is a gross, ableist idea and stop that! It’s awful. Because a lot of disabled people are quite happy being disabled, okay. Not everybody I’m sure, but for me personally I’m Deaf, I am disabled, I have never once thought “oh no, my life is worthless because I’m Deaf.” Never.  Never thought that. So don’t write that kind of thing. 

Equally, disabled characters are so much more than their disability. Write the person first. Their disability is something that is a part of them, yes, but it should not be what defines them. My deafness does not define me. And it never will. And when people don’t realise that I’m Deaf and I don’t particularly feel like telling them, I don’t tell them. It’s just a part of how I am and how I interact with the world. 

So, a final point I think is don’t talk about disabilities in the same language as you would a wound. A wound can incapacitate but ultimately… ultimately, eventually  heals. A disability does neither. Now there’s ranges, obviously and there are disabilities that people get after they have been in an accident or something… an event has happened to them. And there are disabilities that people are born with, but these are not necessarily acts of violence on the body upon the body in the way a wound is. I can speak, personally, from my experience, as a Deaf person, this is not something I want to cure — I’ve said that before — it’s not something that has been inflicted upon me and it’s not something that occurred from an accident or assault or anything like that, it’s just something that is part of me. The nerves between my ear and my brain don’t work very well, and that’s all there is to it.

So it is very important to make sure that you are talking about disabilities in a sensitive, thoughtful, accurate way however you portray them, even if that character only has a really, really tiny part in your story it is still your responsibility to make sure it’s done well. 

Thank you. And if you would like to follow my blog and sign up to my newsletter please check out my website which is and you can read stories, you can read my blog posts and you can interact with me through messages on there. Thank you.