How do I Write a Character with a Disability?I want to write a disabled character without being tokenizing or condescending. What do I do?
Simple answer: By making the disability not the central part of the character. You write a character who is disabled, not a disabled character.
What does that mean?
It means you show a character who does the things that character does—who is active, capable, who is just like any of your other characters…and who also happens to have some disability. But you don’t make that disability the main thing about the character.
For example, in our post-cyberpunk novel immechanica, Eunice and I created a character who is the head of information security for a criminal underboss. She is smart, knowledgable about computer security, and in charge of the IT for part of his underground virtual prostitution empire.
She is also confined to a wheelchair.
“Jake. Jake, my old friend, I don’t care. I don’t care why this is happening. I don’t care if you’re in bed with a Chinese ecoterrorist, figuratively or literally. I don’t care what your angle is. I don’t care about your politics. I’m a businessman. Commerce is my interest. I don’t want to seem ungrateful, because you are in fact offering me quite an extravagant amount of money—almost an embarrassing amount of money, if truth be told—but I’m really starting to wonder if it’s worth it. Or if I want to be anywhere near you when this all goes down. You and your Chinese terrorist piece of ass here. I’m a little surprised at you, Jake. You’re not thinking with the small head, are you?”The fact that she’s in a wheelchair doesn’t make her any less of a dynamic character. In any matter not directly related to her mobility, it doesn’t matter; she’s still capable, cunning, ruthless, and one of the most dangerous characters in the book. The fact that she can’t walk isn’t the most significant or even the most interesting thing about her.
Nadine balled her hands into fists. “Now look here—”
“No. You look here. You’re radioactive. So. I told you a story, now you tell me a story. Make it a good one.”
“Why?” Nadine said bitterly. “You’ve already decided not to help us.”
Safan’s eyes narrowed. “The day is young. Change my mind.” He turned to a small microphone on a gooseneck stand bolted to the desk. “Elizabeth, will you come in here, please?”
A moment later, the door opened to let a bulky, powered wheelchair through, humming an electric whir to itself. The chair bore…Nadine frowned. An ancient woman, hair gone totally white, holding a tabby cat on her lap, as ancient in its way as she. Something about those gray eyes, bright and alert from a face wreathed in wrinkles… “Liz?” Nadine said.
A broad smile crossed her aged face. “In the flesh. Not what you were expecting, hon?”
“I just, I…” Nadine shook her head. When she looked closely, she could see the resemblance between this woman in the chair and the avatar in that other place, the curve of her smile, the lines of her neck.
“Why is she here?” Jake growled.
“I thought I could take advantage of her expertise,” Safan said.
“The expertise of a whore?”
“Language,” Liz snapped, steel in her voice. “I’m Safan’s top earner, but I’m also his head of electronic security. Who do you think found you in that silly restaurant and told you to call?”
“How old are you?” Nadine said.
“That’s a distinctly indelicate question, young lady,” Liz said. “Though if you must know, I’m old enough to remember why some people set command line displays to green letters on black. Now, shall we get down to it? Explain why you’re here.”
In her interactions with other characters, the wheelchair largely isn’t relevant.
A week went by in nonstop activity that somehow didn’t seem to go anywhere. Jake and Safan pored over street maps and structural diagrams—blueprints, Nadine gathered, of the lab or facility or data center or whatever it was where the key to her redemption could, they said, be found. Liz usually made herself scarce, off exploring Terracone’s network like an archeologist mapping out some lost city.Oh, right, the character Jake is also missing an arm. He is a disabled character too, I suppose? I’d literally forgotten that when I was pasting this section of the story into this answer.
No, not like an archeologist, Nadine thought. More like a looter. She and Safan spoke every evening about what she’d found, sometimes with Jake, sometimes without.
On one of the days Jake made himself absent from the conversation, she found him stripping his handgun on a makeshift table made of a blue plastic shipping tray across two derelict server racks in what had once been an office, tucked away in the small building south of Houston. Nadine hadn’t set foot outside in days. She’d watched him re-assemble the gun, every move rehearsed as a ballet dancer’s routine, not hampered in the slightest by his mechanical claw. “Thumb safety,” he said, showing her a lever. “Only reason you didn’t kill Safan’s goon.” She shivered, remembering the nameless man stripping his gun outside Mayor Tony’s office, what had happened after…
“Nervous?” Liz said the next day.
“What would you say if I told you no?” Nadine said.
“I’d say you were a liar, or a crazy woman.” The chair whirred, wheels coming together as the old woman rose to Nadine’s eye level. “Shit gets real pretty soon.”
Nadine probed her feelings and found a generalized sort of tension, but a curious lack of fear. “One foot in front of the other,” she said. “I want this to be over.”
“The boys are polishing up the last details now. I’m so far inside Terracone they couldn’t get me out with a crowbar even if they found me, which they haven’t yet, but I don’t have access to the network at Data Storage Systems and Services. Different system. Doubt there’s more than a dozen people at Terracone who even know DS3 exists. Highly secret, need to know, very little communication in or out. Skunkworks.”
“Skunkworks? What’s that mean?”
“Means we have to get a lot of information indirectly.” Her chair whirred as it resumed its normal height. “We’re gonna have to go in dark, of course. No implants. Jake’s none too happy about it. The gunsight on that artillery piece of his is paired to his implant. Not that that’s any use if someone can make him see things that aren’t there.” Liz’s eyes, wired and alert in her weathered face, studied Nadine. “But that’s not what I came here to talk about.”
“I came here to see how you're doing.”
“How I’m doing.” Nadine turned the words over in her head, like some ancient mantra whose purpose she did not understand. “How I’m doing. I’m not sure there’s any ‘I’ to be doing, any more. You know, I always thought I’d be special, that I’d be a movie star. Even as a kid.” She laughed bitterly. “Though I suppose to you, I’m still a kid, aren’t I?” She sat on an empty crate that looked like it had once held something heavy and pulled her knees to her chest. Half the building housed racks of servers, their blue and green lights winking like fireflies. The rest was mostly empty, littered with trash. Jake and Nadine slept in sleeping bags on slabs of memory foam on the floor in another old office, and showered in an abandoned executive washroom. She still hadn’t bought any new clothes, and the clothes she wore were starting to chafe.
Liz looked at her with a thoughtful expression until Nadine dropped her eyes. “So now here I am,” she went on, “at the unfriendly end of a vast and dangerous machine trying its damndest to crush me, because I fell in love with a woman at a dance party. Wrong place, wrong time. How am I doing? I don’t know how to answer that.”
“I imagine you already have,” Liz said. “Anyway, it’ll have to do. Need you to be part of the meetings now. Like I said, shit’s about to get real.”
Anyway, that’s what you do. You make characters who are characters first and have a disability second.