Not Just Here for the Whump: Writing Fan Fic and Disability

This of course also applies to non-fan-fiction fiction but many frustrated and disappointing attempts at finding comfort reading later, I’m going to start with fan fiction because …

I got reeeaaallly frustrated with that one. And I know the disability was for whump but there was already traumatic injury and new, (seemingly) permanent disability there.

That includes recommending Dr Oz, yoga, wheatgrass, and also stuff like writing “What if Tony came back from Afghanistan with a life-changing disablity” fic for the Iron Man movie franchise. He already came back with a life-changing disability and until the end of Iron Man 3 had a very obvious assistive device embedded in his chest. (Chronic Illness Cat! <- source link for image)

Now, on that note – do not be the person whose fic has that type of underlying current to it. Writing like that erases the disability that already exists and also clearly indicates that you are only using the disability for another purpose and not to actually write about the experiences of a specific (fictional) disabled person.

Not that all such fics are poorly written, but there’s a bad taste that creeps in when even an otherwise well written fic turns out to be using one or more disabilities as a means to give a character a sad and/or spur on a romance (and/or sexual escapades) that they want to happen. And that may also be written from the perspective of the people ‘around’ the disabled person (especially when they are newly disabled) and not from the perspective of the person themselves.

This can also tie into uplifting other characters by showing how understanding and noble and suffering and dedicated and whatever other descriptors they are and … I am really not here for romantic partners who are great because they love someone with a disability (or stayed with someone who became disabled! or who helped them “overcome” their disability! for love!) or for characters who are great human beings because they voluntarily have a disabled kid.

Don’t position your disabled characters as burdens or as ways of proving worth and virtue. It is horrible being treated and viewed that way in real life and doesn’t help when you go to find something to read (or watch. or listen to) and the narrative is repeating that back at you too. Your disabled characters are people, not plot devices or shiny merit badges.

Now, if you want to write about the impact of being treated like that (or the lasting effects of having been treated like that), I do warn you should do some reading and thinking if it’s not something you’re personally familiar with, but go ahead and do it. With respect. And without trying to overly milk it for pathos and drama. But don’t turn your disabled characters into narrative burdens and narrative means of proof of goodness for your good characters.

And, backing up slightly, on a related note, your other characters can totally love your disabled characters. Your other characters can have a disabled kid. Or, also, your disabled characters could have disabled kids. But don’t try to make your disabled characters’ disabilities about your non-disabled characters and about how, oh my gosh, could you just imagine having to live with someone like that? Isn’t [character name] just so wonderful for taking care of [disabled character] like that?? Oh look, aren’t the other members of the group wonderful for learning sign language for [character who would be helped by sign language usage]??

Even when the other people who are doing these “wonderful” things are actually safe people (which I think they are a lot more in fan fic than in real life) and not unsafe caretakers or other people in power and authority (or other individuals in close contact with a person) … it’s really kind of psyche and morale destroying to keep getting the message that your existence is burdensome and that anything done to treat you the way you should be treated (basically, with respect and as a sentient being) and to do things that make it possible for you to exist in the world are extraordinary means that you are ever so lucky people will engage in.

That is really freaking toxic and even dangerous (it’s really hard to advocate for your own needs and to do right by yourself when basic decency is presented as doing you a huge favour and as a burden on other, ‘normal’ people). And, again, you can write characters dealing with it, but don’t frame your narrative so that it’s parroting it all back at both your disabled and non-disabled readers. Also, it’s fine if the Avengers or whoever else learn sign language to better communicate with someone but don’t frame it as an extraordinary favour. And don’t have them pick up what is its own full language, with its own grammar and conventions, in a matter of days or even weeks.

And, since this is a really big topic on which there is already a lot of material (especially if you want to write deaf or blind characters! the information is out there!) and I had a specific impetus for this other than the not-reading-movie-Tony-as-disabled problem … do not use any kind of non-verbal-ness just for the whump factor! Or for romantic impetus and/or sexy mute times.

I also wish I could find fic where the person does not sign (I don’t sign, for multiple complicated reasons) and uses other communication means instead (and I’d also like more fic with partially non-verbal characters and for it to be well done) but –

Please, please, for the love of DUM-E, selective mutism and mutism from physical trauma are not the only causes for full to partial non-verbal-ness out there. And there isn’t even always a specific, pinpoint cause. And it does not always work the same.

For a lot of people, it comes with the programming. Mutism (more people seem to know that as the terminology so I’ll flip around with mutism and non-verbal) is not always an after the fact or a temporary situation and it’s really tiring to have such a solid picture presented of selective mutes, who then get cured, and mutism as a result of physical trauma, which is also often angsted over and/or cured. Or is associated with villainy (out of a very paltry listing of mute superheroes, a lot of them were villains and a lot were also mute due to physical trauma, sometimes as a result of or even a cause for villainy).

That – sucks. It really, really does. I remember growing up with the little mute boys (and they were pretty consistently little boys, not little kids of other genders) on police procedurals and other shows who the protagonists would connect with and they’d solve the case and catch (and sometimes even kill) the bad guy and then, boom, we know the story is resolved and resolved happily because, miracle of miracles, the kid can talk again. It was always an abnormal, sorry state that needed to be fixed and was fixed as a narrative sign of okay-ness.

‘No-one’ should be getting that kind of message, regardless of the cause of muteness, and there is a special sting when it came as part of your factory-install hardware and software and so you learn that there is clearly clearly something wrong with you and the wrongness is ‘in you.’

Actually try looking and exploring and make sure you’re writing fleshed out people, not sources of whump and drama (or of sexiness, because I’ve seen that too, followed by some degree of cure so that there can be super-sexy quiet sex but mute character can also break through and verbally tell the other person they love them … because sentiments expressed any other way don’t count apparently). I love fan fic and I want more good fan fic out there, especially when I need the written version of a, You’re okay, disabled you, hug of support. I don’t need to go looking for a hug and get kicked and told every bad person and bad message in my life was right.

Also, as a final note, if you say in your author’s notes with chapter one of your fic that the (mostly) mute character won’t be cured, actually keep your word. It’s a very unpleasant shock to read chapter one, think someone seems to get what being mostly non-verbal is like (and how painful it is to try to force speech, like trying to intentionally bend an arm a way it’s not meant to bend. and how nice it is to be in a safe setting with safe people and be able to communicate in the best way for you), and then go to keep reading and find that the love interest is very invested in and trying to force the mostly mute character to use verbal communication outside of the on-the-job setting and in what was their safe environment … and that it ends with sexy mute sex (that has no kind of negotiation about sex acts and no consent checks because … sexy mute sex scene means everyone just knows?? and there’s just nooo way to do any of that. like writing. or typing. or hand signals. or questions and head shaking/nodding) and the mostly mute character pushing through and verbally saying I love you. Because doing the equivalent of intentionally dislocating your arm means love. Rigggghhht.

Also don’t tag your fic with “disabled [name of character who has that disability in canon]” and then write the fic like they are not disabled, and are oblivious to and/or jerky about disability issues, until you need to pull the disability out for a gag that also lets you hate on the realistic assistive device they had until recently had in canon. Not that someone with hearing aids might not forget to remove them and ruin them in a swimming pool, but if you give the character super awesome hearing aids that are invisible and make it totally like they’re not disabled at all … why aren’t they waterproof? Especially since that character is a super-spy who goes to a variety of places and in dangerous conditions. The answer of course being, the author needed a chance to (via the character) hate on the character’s over the ear hearing aids they had in canon and were drawn as having.

Not a lot of image credits for this one, but the read more break image belongs to the Chronic Illness Cat blog, which I highly recommend. Good resource info and lots and lots of meme images. Many of which I identify with.

Hysterical laughter is probably the appropriate soundtrack for this.

I don’t put my pants on one leg at a time – I realize I can’t put them on standing up, sit on the edge of the bed, get one leg partly on, and then have to fall partly backwards (getting my angry back and/or neck involved in the party because the bed isn’t wide enough), temporarily give up, and hope I can eventually sit upright again. And then try to finish leg one.

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