When I was a student on Faber Academy’s online six-month Writing a Novel course I had a clear idea of the psychological thriller I wanted to write and also that I would include characters with disabilities and/or health issues in it. That’s because I was born with a rare physical disability, resulting in mobility difficulties, and as a child I didn’t see in fiction anyone like me who either wasn’t magically cured or didn’t die, Colin in The Secret Garden being an example of a character who managed the double act of both taking to his feet and then shuffling off his mortal coil.
As an adult, if disability was represented in the fiction and non-fiction I read, I found that it tended to fall into one of two camps: a portrayal of how awful it is to be disabled, or a character striving to overcome their disability to prove to themselves and the world that they’ve triumphed over tragedy. I wanted to change this.
I don’t believe that disability is tragic, negative or something to overcome. Like all the disabled people I know I’m living my life, challenges and all like we all do, as a member of the community, a partner, friend, colleague and neighbour. Yet in fiction, although it’s better in some genres such as sci-fi and fantasy, there’s generally an absence of disabled characters.
The publishing industry has recently made great strides into encouraging submissions from diverse authors and stories that include underrepresented communities such as LGBTQI and people of colour but with disability this representation is lagging behind.
Times though, they are a changing. In 2020 the Society of Authors set up an Authors with Disabilities and Chronic Illnesses (ADCI) group with monthly Zoom meetings and a Facebook forum for us to share our experiences, achievements, frustrations, concerns and ideas on how to educate and change the industry.
In 2021 the group successfully asked The Bookseller to have a disabilities issue, which was widely praised in the industry and allowed authors and agents to write about topics such as representation, tackling stigma, making meetings and events accessible and the efficacy of disability staff networks.
More and more DCI authors who previously felt they couldn’t talk about the subject are speaking up. Also, last year Penguin Random House included the disability pay gap for the first time in its employment statistics and more agents have indicating on their websites that they’re open to submissions from disabled authors.
Publishers are waking up to the fact that there’s an untapped readership market, and are realising that now’s the time to ditch out-of-date stereotypes such as that disability is depressing, niche or un-relatable.
– Penny Batchelor
The charity Scope states that up to 20% of people in the UK have a condition or impairment that’s covered under the legal definition of disability. That’s a huge audience out there for books that currently is under-served. I think that publishers are waking up to the fact that there’s an untapped readership market and are realising that now’s the time to ditch out-of-date stereotypes such as that disability is depressing, niche or un-relatable.
Of course disabled writers don’t have to write about disability, that’s the wonderful thing about being an author – you can write about what you want! – but when it comes to writing disabled characters we have an advantage in knowing our community and being able to portray it authentically, ditching tired old tropes (sorry Colin).
In non-fiction there’s also great scope for publishers to commission more nuanced books on the wider subject of disability such as nuanced discussions about ableism; the reality of being disabled in 21st-century Britain; and books aimed at non-disabled people explaining how to be a disability ally and why they should be.
I’m currently writing my third psychological thriller and have a non-fiction book out on submission. The ADCI group, of which I’m part, has great plans afoot to educate and encourage industry change. Nothing is going to dramatically differ overnight, but as more DCI authors come into the industry with brilliant work and readers buy their books the hope is that the present little snowball of representation will carry on rolling to become a huge boulder.