Disabling Characters: Representations of Disability in Young Adult Literature by Patricia A Dunn

Patricia Dunn selected several Young Adult literature texts for discussion in Disabling Characters: Representations of Disability in Young Adult Literature, which focuses on teaching disability via literature to improve inclusion in the classroom and in society. Disabilities in the narratives include deafness, vision impairment, acquired spinal injury and wheelchair users’ impairments. Dunn groups two or three texts about similar issues – not necessarily the same disability – in each chapter to compare and contrast the narratives, teaching practices and online discussion of said texts. In addition to analysis, Dunn offers suggestions for more comprehensive discussion of disability issues with a goal of improving knowledge and acceptance of people with differences.

Texts selected for discussion vary in dates of publication: for example, Dunn compares two texts written about a disability camp in the same era (the early 1970s) but one was published in 1976 (The Acorn People, Ron Jones, 1976) and the other in 2006 (Accidents of Nature, Johnshon, 2006). Both are ‘awakening’ experiences:  The Acorn People was written by Ron Jones’s experience as a camp counsellor while Accidents of Nature was written by wheelchair user Harriet McBryde Johnson who became a renown disability advocate. Dunn discusses the influence on readers’ perceptions when texts assign agency to nondisabled or disabled characters and how teaching materials and web discussions alike appear oblivious to this dynamic. This appears as a (minor) recurring theme throughout the book. I am impressed because nondisabled critics often omit discussion of the negative influence ‘benevolent’ representations of disability have on public perceptions of disability.

Peeling the Onion by Wendy Orr (1997) is a significant feature of Dunn’s Guide, with discussion focused around Peeling the Onion in one chapter but also drawing The Onion into other chapters for various reasons. I refer to this text specifically because Orr’s book is somewhat controversial. Orr’s personal experience of being injured in a similar way to her protagonist and in similar circumstances gives her protagonist authenticity. Orr’s editor recommended toning down the disabled character’s anger but Orr felt she had already done so and to tone down the anger further would be unrealistic. (I interviewed Wendy Orr.) Dunn looks at reactions to the book including from nondisabled people who seem averse to the pain, anger and mixed emotions, saying the character should stop whining and just get over it. Many readers want a triumphant story arc where the character is healed at the end or triumphs over her disability, two very common tropes that disadvantage disabled people. Orr is true to life, though, often receiving criticism as a result. Dunn reviews Orr’s book pairing discussion of the book with online reception of the book then commenting through a disability studies lens. Therefore, I read Dunn’s comments as more of a critique of the book’s reception than of the book itself (very insightful!), with the most criticism levelled at teaching resources for Peeling the Onion.

In contrast, Dunn criticised The Acorn People, including with very brief but pointed criticism about the intimate kiss between the author, who was a camp counsellor, and one of the minors in his care.

I’d like to add that any discussion of that kiss should include a focus for nondisabled and disabled audiences alike. That is, nondisabled reader discussion should include the inappropriateness of the adult/carer and child/teen kiss in that situation and in any situation junior readers might encounter. Discussion should also centre around the unhealthy and inappropriate power dynamic with an adult/carer and disabled teenager sharing an intimate kiss, because the power dynamic there is even more disparate. Child Sexual Abuse Statistics says 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of sexual abuse. In contrast, Bustle says ‘According to unpublished Justice Department data obtained by NPR, people with intellectual disabilities are sexually assaulted at a rate more than seven times higher than people with no disabilities.’ These discussions may be uncomfortable but they are essential if there is to be change.

Dunn has clearly absorbed essential research by disabled academics on disability studies, referencing the work of scholars like Sharon Snyder, David Mitchell and Harriet McBryde Johnson. Dunn refers to what Ato Quayson calls ‘aesthetic nervousness’: the tendency for nondisabled to fear becoming disabled so much that they fear people with disabilities. Calling out The Scarlet Ibis for its use of disability as a ‘narrative prosthetic’ (Snyder & Mitchell, 2000) also draws attention to what Paul Darke (1998) referred to as ‘normality drama’: the tendency for stories with disabled characters to use conflict caused by disability then resolve that conflict by either integrating the disabled individual into society with the onus on the individual to change or to resolve conflict with the death of the person with a disability. Thus, after using disability to motivate a nondisabled character’s story arc, the disabled person is then disposed of.

Normality drama = me stabby.

Repeatedly I found myself amazed that, as a nondisabled author not immersed in the disability community, Dunn wrote with such clarity and insight bringing real issues to the fore. Although I’d like to see her reference list expanded to include works that appear to have influenced her writing, I was simply stunned that she could be so thorough in her discussion and so respectful of people with disabilities. Perhaps Shildrick’s Dangerous Discourses of Disability, Subjectivity and Sexuality (2009) left too bitter a taste in my mouth: she commented that her work is better than that of disabled Disability Studies academics because she’s not disabled but occasionally works with a woman who is. Dunn’s book is a palate cleanse.

I have a few criticisms of Dunn’s disability analysis, most of which require insider knowledge or feedback from the disability community.

Firstly, Dunn discusses deafness and issues of people covering their mouths and turning away as if these are the only problems when lipreading. In the conclusion of the chapter discussing Deaf characters she acknowledges that she may not be aware of the problems with lip reading; this should have been a caveat in the beginning and reinforced throughout her discussion. I am part of the disability community, I have spent time with Deaf people and I have read articles about the Deaf. According to Marian Corker (1998), the correct term is ‘Deaf’ for a people group. Although the Deaf community may not be unanimous, Corker reported that they wish to distance themselves from disability, which is consistent with the current practice in Australia of referring to ‘the Deaf and disabled’. Also, according to the people with whom I’ve interacted, lip reading is not a preferred form of communication even when people face the Deaf without covering their mouths. Furthermore, Australians are terrible speakers: we tend to mumble and slur words so the hard-of-hearing find it even harder to understand us than other English-speaking nationalities and the Deaf can hardly see our mouths move. Dunn mentions that, in one of the stories a character has a moustache; that would make it even harder if not impossible to lip read, not to mention the difficulty in lip reading from a distance. Lipreading is not the miraculous panacea the hearing seem to believe.

The second issue I had with Dunn’s omissions was regarding blindness/vision impairment. In her discussion she omits to mention that total blindness is very rare, most people who are ‘blind’ have some degree of eyesight even if it’s at varying degrees of usefulness.

Nondisabled people writing blindness and vision impairment.

A very simplistic explanation of blindness that does not include all factors: to be ‘legally blind’ is to have 6/60 vision (metric) or 20/200 vision (imperial) or worse. This means that what the ‘normal’ person can read at 60 metres or 200 feet, the legally blind person can read at 6 metres or 20 feet; people with less vision may not be able to even read at that distance. This is why eye charts have letters that start so big and gradually get smaller and smaller.

In From Charlie’s Point of View (Scrimger, 2005), the titular character is blind. Apparently, the book periodically includes a double-page spread showing an expanse of grey without words to ‘illustrate’ what Charlie sees. It is most likely that Charlie would have some degree of vision. If not, it’s most likely that Charlie wouldn’t ‘see’ anything, not even grey. Furthermore, Charlie may be the titular character but he has no agency, he’s totally dependent on a peer – this is extremely unrealistic, he’d be trained to be independent or have an adult carer – and Charlie has no character arc. The other characters have agency and change.

From Dunn’s description of the disability access provided to Charlie in the story, the technology used for disability access to print was out of date in 2005 and doesn’t seem to mention problems with Charlie’s limited disability access. In fact, Dunn’s description of Charlie’s disability access reminds me of an episode of Little House on the Prairie that I watched when I was in high school! Dunn should have commented that technology is rapidly advancing so Charlie’s disability access was out of date in 2005 and is rapidly becoming more out of date; this should be a point of discussion in the classroom too. And then there are the issues with Braille, the books being so expensive and cumbersome as well as learning to read Braille being a skill that is rarely taught. However, now there are Braille tablets (I kid you not! Imagine an iPad but with bits that poke out to provide an ever-changing array of the raised dots that form Braille letters) so Braille may make a comeback, depending on whether people prefer reading to audio access.

Dunn’s reference list is woefully incomplete. If you are looking to use her reference list to find her reference texts, you’ll have to leapfrog. For example, Dunn cites Longmore (2003) from within another text but does not include Longmore in her reference list. If you’re using this book to gather pertinent reference materials, the reference list is insufficient. A careful read of the book noting references as you go, or going to the references then checking their reference lists will be essential.

Longmore: ‘Why I burned my book and other essays on disability’.

Disabling Characters is a concise, easy to read book intended to impart considerable information in a short space of time to teachers of young adult readers and teachers of teachers. I highly recommend this book for people interested in young adult literature and disability issues. However, if you’re planning to teach young adult literature, or teach those who will, Disabling Characters is essential reading.

Be like Belle: read all the books.

Corker, M. (1998). ‘Disability Discourse in a Post-Modern World’. In T. Shakespeare (Ed.), he disability reader: Social science perspectives. London: A&C Black.

Darke, P. (1998). ‘Understanding cinematic representations of disability’. In T. Shakespeare (Ed.), The disability reader: Social science perspectives (pp. 181–197). A&C Black.

Johnshon, H. M. (2006). Accidents of Nature. New York: Henry Holt and Co.

Jones, R. (1976). The Acorn People. New York: Laurel Leaf.

Longmore, P. K. (2003). Why I burned my book and other essays on disability. Temple University Press.

Orr, W. (1997). Peeling the Onion. New York: Holiday House Publishing.

Scrimger, R. (2005). From Charlie’s Point of View. New York: Dutton.

Shildrick, M. (2009). Dangerous discourses of disability, subjectivity and sexuality.  Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

By Nalini Haynes