Literary Representations of Disability

By Thomas Blown BA
Volunteer Content Writer
Image of Thomas Blown BA

As with cinematic representations of disabilities, literary forms of culture have also taken great steps in removing ignorance surrounding disabilities. Whereas the historical writings of (in)famous figures and cultures, such as the Protestant reformer Martin Luther and the Romans, have reported in ignorance and absurdity that those with disabilities were so as a result of their parents sinning, or because of dealings with the devil, kinder and more enlightened responses to disabilities since have arguably opened the door for the eradication of negative portrayals of disability. Behind us we have left more bigoted days; literature may have played some role in the process of altering perceptions of disability. However, to say this process has been seamless, or at any point perfected, would be false. Any progress is also only relatively recent. There are widespread effects of the mis- /underrepresentation of minorities. Social ‘norms’ are continually evolving as we become more and more enlightened, but for long periods societies and their cultural products, such as literature, have done disability a grave injustice by cultivating a common ignorance for it. In many cases we can see a certain misinformation continuing to saturate society to this day.


One way that literature continues to display a derogatory narrative towards characters with disabilities is through ridicule and casual cruelty. In Of Mice and Men, Lennie’s friend and caregiver George boasts of Lennie’s devotion to him by saying: “Why he’d do any damn thing I tol’ him to…one day a bunch of guys was standin’ around up on the Sacramento River I turns to Lennie and says ‘Jump in’. An’ he jumps in…couldn’t swim a stroke” (p.41). To demonstrate how this sort of language was so acceptable, we need look no further than the fact that George and Lennie’s relationship is one of remarkable kindness and companionship for a book which is a poignant take on loneliness in 1920s America. Yet, in this instance, George coerces and goads Lennie into dangerous stunts. If their friendship is indicative of the relationship and attitudes that people shared when they were friends then it does not hold much hope for those who were not. Elsewhere, disability is equated with a primitive and uncivilized animal nature; “[Lennie] flung himself down and drank […] with long gulps snorting into the water like a horse” (p.4).

On the one hand, the book has reached wide critical acclaim and is taught widely in schools. John Steibeck’s take on a number of serious social injustices of Depression-era America actually won him a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962 “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception”. However, the language used in literature and the attitudes it represents are delicate and Of Mice and Men has certainly managed to cause offense and stir up controversy. It appears on the American Library Association’s list of the Most Challenged Books of the 21st Century and has been banned in many schools for its use of profanity, violence, racist language, and euthanasia. The devices that are designed to provide children with some of their comprehension of the world, such as the teaching of literary works in school, hold such vast power to educate and inform. It is society’s first point of contact with human beings; the transmitter of society’s culture and values. It must accurately mirror the diversity of its readers and the diversity of the larger collective that it theoretically represents. So, evermore importance must be placed on how these novels are taught in schools. If misconstrued or ill-taught then students may miss the underlying messages and semantics altogether and instead absorb and accept a subjective and superficial ‘Othering’ as the norm.


We can tell a lot about a culture’s values by the language it uses and another way that literature can fall short on its duty of disability representation is through the association of disability with violence or perversion. This is so prevalent that people with disabilities are often portrayed with a sinister aura without really having to do anything.  For example, in To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s description of Boo Radley uses the voice of the child narrator Scout to spell out this common method of stereotyping:

“Inside the house lived a malevolent phantom […] people said he went out at night when the moon was high and peeped in windows. When people’s azaleas froze in a cold snap, it was because he had breathed on them” (p.9). To examine how this particular stereotype has come about, we should cast our literary scope back a few epochs.

Romans did not have a word equivalent to ‘disabled’ – they instead used ‘monstrum’ and ‘mutus’. Upon closer inspection, this matches the ‘Othering’ discourse seen in Of Mice and Men. In Roman times, ‘aliens’ – such as disabled people – were subject to cruel marginalisation. This was justified and made acceptable through the culture of the time. Latin literature was produced by the priviliged at the centre of society and contains numerous references to disabled slaves. While some slaves were thrown away as soon as they were deemed useless, others were regarded as a highly desirable status symbol. No fashionable household was complete without a few hunchbacks, dwarfs and mute people in its midst. There was even a special market in Rome for buying disabled slaves. According to the evidence, which suggests that disability was rife in Roman times, this market had good supply; five out of 12 Roman skeletons uncovered in a group burial site near Cambridge were found to have a spinal deformity. Although fewer disabled babies would have survived infancy than in the 21st century, the proportion of adults with a disability would no doubt have been considerably higher. The inability to combat a combination of factors including malnutrition, disease, inbreeding, physical exhaustion, accidents, brutal sports, warfare and child birth would have produced a large number of disabled people.

So, proportionately, with advances in dealing with these various factors as we evolve such as through medicine and enlightened thinking, we see those with disabilities represented more accurately now than during Roman times. In Roman times, there were almost 50% living with a disability and certainly a mis/underrepresentation of this in the cultural forms emanating from privileged spheres – the ‘fashionable households’ – such as literature. Most plebeians could not write. This serves and reaffirms the psychological function of distancing the disabled figure from the reader in casting them as the “other”. It’s important to remember that most people with disabilities in the Roman world would really have existed on the margins of society, condemned to lives of poverty and isolation, resulting in a real cultural segregation. The general public who did not have disabilities would have readily accepted those with disabilities as ‘alien’ and placed little value on their place in society. This goes to show that we quite rightly admire Roman art, literature, architecture and philosophy for the influence they exert on us to this day, it is important to remind ourselves of the darker side of Roman culture.

Now, we have around 20% of the population living with a disability, and there is recognition of the good work going into “ensuring the continued advancement of positive educational and life outcomes” for those with disabilities. Proportionately, we are doing well. However, should we not be more ashamed of this? Have we done too little since the Romans in ridding ourselves of ignorant and hurtful stereotypes? Has this language been passed down through the ages in the form of literature?

The simple answer is yes. While there may well be references to disabilities in past and current cultures, some of them even placing disabilities at the centre of a privileged life, disability is often only included as a subject of fascination; a fashion. Those characters with disabilities have been ready to serve the onlookers fascination or ego, and never expected to go beyond the pale of the purely superficial. They are a visual spectacle, a ‘freak-show’, the ‘Other’.


There are, of course, inherent difficulties in creating a convincing internal voice for a character whose life and experiences the author cannot share. Arguably, the less the author shares with the character the greater the creative challenge will be.  However, creating characters who are different from themselves and inhabiting their worlds is precisely what authors of fiction do. Even characters who are of the same race, gender, age and ability as the author must have their internal voices imagined and created, otherwise the work is autobiography. There are only more recent examples of ethical representations of disabled characters that represent reality for people with disabilities. Steinbeck achieved this. This issue of the ethical representation of disabilities has been discussed recently by many scholars. Far from advocating stories of people with disability “overcoming” impairments as the only way to gain respect, they suggest reasonable precautions that may be exercised in describing them. For example, consultations with individuals where possible – “nothing about us without us” – to ensure that they are “depicted as different but not alien, to avoid symbolisms that generates set stereotyped images and to avoid moral attributions to what can be seen as part medical (impairment), part social (disability) condition”.


Fictional images significantly influence how people with disabilities are viewed by society. Therefore, knowledge of fictional images enhances the audience’s understanding of individual lives. Easier said than done – whole careers can be discredited – but to avoid a tarnished reputation is merely to be reporting on and teaching disability in an appropriate manner.

There are also discrepancies along lines of race and gender, as highlighted by some recent studies in America. Only five out of sixty-two disability stories featured an African-American. Asian and Hispanic characters were not represented at all in the States. Statistics have disclosed that African Americans have the highest disability rates for those ages 15-54 and for those older than 65. Hispanics have the highest rates of disability among those ages 55-64. Similarly, twenty-five narratives featured a male disabled character, compared to eighteen depicting a female disabled character. Nineteen were either mixed or non-gender specific. Disability demographics in literature are clearly a distortion of the true identities and personalities of disabled people.

The combination of exclusion and distortion regarding characters with disabilities means that disabled children are denied the opportunity to find literary characters with whom they can form an emotional connection. The lack of diversity in children’s books prevents children who are able-bodied from learning about and respecting the cultures and behaviours of people different from themselves. They develop an elitist sense and learn to disregard those who do not look and act like themselves.


Voice and visibility is not given to people with disabilities and as a result stereotypes are still prevalent today. In regions of the world where knowledge and understanding of disability has not fully taken hold, you see similar archaic and pre-dated views as Luther and the Romans that have long been accepted. For example, there are areas within Africa where albinism is met with a curious blend of medieval outrage and pseudo-scientific wonder. Would the answer be to have more enlightened responses to disability in African culture?


A fundamental tool for education, it is obviously very important for authors and curators of ballads, biographies and everything in between to ensure their texts and publications are met with appraisal from all areas of the audience.


No one benefits from a continued mis- /underrepresentation of disability, gender, or race.






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