Characters and Diversity. Part 3 – PHYSICAL ABILITY

Hello SE friends, Gwen with you today, and together we will venture further into the theme of diversity. In June, I wrote about including racial diversity in your stories. Here’s a link to that post. In July, I focused on financial diversity and offered suggestions which you can read here. Today’s topic is PHYSICAL ABILITY. Just as in the prior two posts, I will write from personal experience and invite you to share your experiences as well.

The most common disability, affecting 1 in 7 adults, is mobility. We often associate physical limitations with the aged, but in the United States, military veterans make up 33% of those who have mobility limitations.

My story is about a disability resulting from a tragic accident. I was six years old at the time.

It was an ordinary Sunday. We kids piled into the car, and as always, mom handed the baby to me, so that she could drive us to church. When we returned home, a farmhand ran to the car. He explained that dad had been in a terrible accident and was taken to the hospital.

“Jim got his arm caught in the blades of the combine and had to cut it off,” he said to mom.

The man was shaking and barely coherent. I thought I must have misunderstood, but mom’s actions told me otherwise. She quickly turned the car around and sped back to town. Her expression spoke for her.  

Dad was in the hospital for a week or so. After multiple surgeries, he came home with barely a word for any of us. Gone were the cuddles and playfulness, gone were the songs he’d sing. Dad was a different man. Silent now, he spent the day staring out the window, far into the distance, his bandaged stump propped up with pillows. 

He only wore long sleeves after this accident, even during sweltering summer temperatures. Eventually, he was fitted with a prosthesis. It took a while for him to learn how to hold and move things, but dad was determined. I never heard him complain and he would not tolerate our complaints either.

This “hook”, as we called it, gave him freedom. Dad is on the right in the photo below.

A physical disability impacts families, friends, and work associates. Though it is a solitary experience, the consequences have a far-reaching impact. If your character has a mobility limitation, I’ve listed four possibilities to consider.

  • Help the reader experience the limitation through your character’s spouse or children or friends. In my father’s case, mom made sure dad’s food was bite-size when we sat down to eat. She’d cut up the meat and the vegetables so that he would not have to ask for help. Dad needed assistance with basic things, like holding the nail as he slammed a hammer down. I was that person more than once and it was a terrifying experience. But dad never missed. These are just two simple examples, and by sharing glimpses, a reader might have a better appreciation for the everyday challenges.
  • Consider accommodations. What does your character need to be more independent? In my dad’s case, he had a prosthesis for his stump that was strapped across his back. Mom helped him put it on every day. First the interior sock, then the mechanism. The hook opened and closed via the movements of dad’s shoulders. He also had a knob on his truck’s steering wheel, so he could turn the wheel with one hand. The list of mobility accommodations is long, so identify what your character needs and find a solution.
  • Hero? Maybe. A disability does not necessarily create a hero. A person’s response to the tragedy might indeed do so. Be aware of stereotypes that glorify or minimize and avoid them in your writing by digging deeper. A reader wants to know the character, so consider focusing on his or her motivation and determination. Help the reader walk in your character’s shoes.
  • Research the breadth of physical disabilities. If you’re unfamiliar with physical limitations, consider a visit to an assisted living site or a physical therapy clinic. Perhaps you could accompany one of the clinicians and interact with the people if permission is granted. Maybe a ride on public transportation would be helpful. If you do so, be attentive to those who need assistance and how or what assistance is offered – or not. Research the laws that are meant to protect and help those with disabilities.

Please understand that my suggestions are offered to spur ideas. I don’t have the answers, but through my father, I experienced the impact of tragedy and the accompanying emotional struggle. Perhaps because of this experience, my sister became a Special Education teacher, my brother founded a medical equipment facility that designs wheelchairs and other forms of accommodation, and another sister and I oversaw the Disabled Students Programs and the Veterans Programs at our respective colleges.

I would love to hear about your experience. I’d also appreciate any suggestions you might have about including persons with disabilities in your writing. Thank you in advance for sharing. And on a final note, the next post in this diversity series will be the most controversial. I will focus on the complicated topic of gender identity.

Have a wonderful week, my friends.

99 thoughts on “Characters and Diversity. Part 3 – PHYSICAL ABILITY

  1. Pingback: Gwen and John Talk about Different Than You Gender Characters – Part I | Story Empire

  2. Pingback: Character Development and Diversity | Story Empire

  3. Pingback: Characters and Diversity. Part 4 – Gender Identity | Story Empire

  4. Great post Gwen. I’m sorry for what happened to your dad, but it makes so much sense to learn from tragedy how to incorporate tragedy and it’s repercussions in everyday living into our writing. Hugs ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Excellent post, Gwen. The details about the adjustments and changes after your father’s accident were great examples of how a disability impacts a person and those around him. My current WIP has a physically disabled main character, and I thought about him as I read this post. I hope I did him justice. This has been an excellent series. 😀

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  6. Pingback: Finding the Inner Truth/Beauty in Yourself by Traci Kenworth – Where Genres Collide Traci Kenworth YA Author

  7. I’m happy your dad finally began to live again with his prosthesis. And you are so right that the disability doesn’t only affect the one who becomes disabled; it affects those who love and care for that person. Your father was lucky to have your mom as his wife. I have a friend who was honorably discharged from the Air Force because of her multiple sclerosis. Since diagnosed, she has been loud about the changes to her body and her refusal to allow it to limit her. She has the progressive MS and is now wheelchair bound, but that hasn’t stopped her from becoming a tourist to countries all over the world (sometimes by herself!), a travel agent focused on trips for the wheelchair-bound, Miss Wheelchair USA (or something like that), a writer on her own website and social media accounts where she shares tips for those who are in wheelchairs and blasts companies who do not follow ADA guidelines, an author of a travel book for people in wheelchairs, a voice over actor, and an expert commentator on new shows on drug cartel pieces (connected to her work in the Air Force). I have no doubt I’m missing several other roles she has, but you get the idea. It’s important for us as authors to realize that just because someone has a disability, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are not capable of living a full life. Great post, Gwen!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Yvette, for sharing your friend’s journey. What an impressive life! None of us really know our neighbor on this beautiful planet unless we’ve walked in his or her shoes. One of my friends in Branson is wheelchair bound. I asked her to lunch one day and that is when I started seeing my home differently — the two steps to the front door, the width of the doorways, the position of the furniture, the bathroom that lacked the assists she needed. Little things, but major to a person in a wheelchair. This one experience taught me a lot. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi,
    I like stories with flawed characters because they depict the reality of different kinds of people living in a world where people learn to overcome and accept others.
    I enjoyed your presentation.
    Shalom aleichem

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Pat. Your point is so true — we live in a very diverse world and including characters who reflect that diversity adds depth and reality. All the best to you.

      Like

  9. I like your father simply from reading this post. It takes a strong-willed person not to let a disability define their life. He found a way despite any limitations his accident presented.

    My wife has a significant health issue, yet we’ve been blessed with a very normal life. She deserves full credit for not letting it limit her.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Pete. I know you would have liked him. I’m sorry to hear about your wife’s health issue. She sounds like a brave and interiorly strong woman. How wonderful to have a normal life. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  10. What a beautiful post, Gwen! I could feel your father’s emotion after the accident. Yes, the accident changed your father’s life and the family life forever. It’s difficult to become disabled later in life because one has to retrain his brain to do every little thing. The initial adjustment could be so irritating, discouraging, and disappointing. The understanding of family members and other people is a vital part of the support for the disabled person to be comfortable. My dad had a stroke at 84 which paralyzed half of his body. He lost his speech. He had to write to communicate. He remained in the hospital unstill he passed away 8 months later. It was hard for me to see him suffer this way. A friend who got polio at three. He was adjusting it well until his good leg wears out. On top of it, he fell and broke his polio leg. Now he has to be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. I can see a lot of accommodation must be made for him.
    Thank you again for this sensitive aspect of our writing and for your suggestion in writing about physical disability.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Miriam, for sharing the experience of your loved ones. Life has a way of bringing us into our hearts, and often it is through challenges that personally affect our way of life. We’ve so much to be grateful for, and too often we forget that every moment is a gift. Thank you for the reminders. ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I know we’re supposed to be learning with these posts, but Gwen, your story about your father gave me chills. What a beautiful story and with wonderful outcomes for you and your siblings.
    Diversity can be such a difficult subject, but you’ve done a great job with your examples and suggestions. I guess I haven’t put much thought into how diversity is weaved into my own stories, but I’ll definitely be paying more attention. Thank you for sharing, Gwen!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Great post, Gwen. I think Marcia’s comment considers yet another component. Those characters with physical mobility issues are going to take longer to do things. I love the photo of your dad and his fishing buddy. What a priceless photo!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Priscilla. Your observation about time is right-on, and Marcia’s story of her brother is unforgetable. I’m smiling because you liked the photo of dad. It’s one of my favorites. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  13. My ex’s grandfather was an amputee. I knew him before and after the surgery and noticed marked changes in his personality in addition to his physical needs. Who would have thought a simple throw rug would pose such challenges? My brother’s stepson has muscular dystrophy. He’s already outlived his life expectancy and endures a plethora of challenges. I don’t know if I’d ever feel comfortable writing a character from those perspectives, but I love your suggestion about writing from a loved one’s point of view. It’s obviously no comparison, but it’s not easy to see someone you love suffer.

    Your reminder to avoid stereotypes is also great advice. Wonderful post, Gwen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Staci, for sharing your wisdom. I think writing from a loved one’s point of view is best for most of us. Unless we’ve experienced the debilitating situation personally, we may not be able to capture the intensity. I’m glad you liked the post. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much, Beem. The series has underscored for me how multilayered and complex we all are. Creating characters, as you have done so well, who share that complexity can only enrich our stories.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Hi Gwen, I remember your father’s accident from your memoir. Not an easy thing to come to terms with, especially in his occupation. He found a way to work around it though, which is admirable. I have never actually though about including a disabled person in any of my books. It just hadn’t occurred to me. This post is food for thought.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. What a powerful post, Gwen. Your added insights through your father not only showed his and your family’s strength but how it is a multilayered situation with many sides to it. I have not written a character with a disability other than mental challenges but you offer great ideas on how to do so on the physical end.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. My aunt caught diphtheria when she was in her teens and the fever burned through her nerves and made her deaf. She went to a deaf college and learned to read lips and sign, but peoples’ reaction to her varied a lot. Some made fun of her, some were kind. She married a deaf man and had my cousin, who has cerebral palsy. It affected the right side of her body and brain, so she can’t use her right arm or hand and walks with a limp. Whoever sat next to her at family get-togethers always cut the food on her plate before giving it to her. My aunt grew a little bitter, but my cousin grew more and more positive over time, very different personalities. I think it was harder for my aunt. I’ve read articles that when people can’t hear and see people talking together, they assume they’re making fun of them. And that happened enough, my aunt would be sensitive to it. I went to school with a boy who reached for a handle of a pot and spilled scalding liquid on half of his face and shoulders. His skin was red and puckered on the right side of his face, neck, and shoulder, and he was never the same. When he first me someone, he’d look down so that he wouldn’t see their reaction to him. But he was a wonderful person.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh Judi, it’s so painful to see the suffering of others, but to see the pain inflicted by the insensitivity of people is truly heartbreaking. When I was in high school, I was thrown from a horse. It was a bad accident, but related to your last story, I landed face-down on the gravel. At the hospital, they wouldn’t allow a mirror in my room. One day, two friends came to see me. They walked in, recoiled, and diverted their eyes. They couldn’t look at me when they talked, and they left quickly. This brief experience taught me a lot and since then, I always look into the eyes of an injured person no matter how hurt they may be and always I speak from the heart. Thank you for sharing so deeply. ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Thank you for sharing, Gwen. I feel it’s when we are faced with a situation that we realise what is involved. It would probably be extremely difficult to write about something like this, not having experienced it as you have. I’m glad your father did not let it define him!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. This series has been very helpful, Gwen. Your personal story illustrates another aspect – time. Accommodations and reactions to disabilities have changed over time. I imagine your father had a much more difficult time than he would have if that terrible accident had happened today. On the other hand, I imagine the mental and emotional aspects are probably the same. You’ve given us many ideas for including characters who represent a greater cross section of the population.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you very much, Dan. If this series helps anyone with their character or story development, I’m pleased. As for my dad, I think you are right about time. Things might be a little easier for him today. All the best to you.

      Liked by 1 person

  19. Wow. Definitely something to think about. There are so many difficulties and disabilities that exist today and Harmony makes a great point. Not all with disabilities can adjust. They experience something we can never understand. As the caretaker we learn to adapt for them, but it is not the same.

    My brother’s step son is wheelchair bound and uses a breathing machine. Mobility is a definite issue as are many daily tasks. My previous house was a ranch with a small step up into our living room. We had them over for a family get together and the fear he had of falling off the ramps to get into my house made me think.

    Thank you for sharing your story, and the others who shared theirs. Not all with disabilities can be a super hero, and not all should be portrayed as a villain.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for sharing your experience and insights. So valuable. This topic is dear to many of us — either personally or through a loved one. Thank you again. ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

  20. Beautiful and heartfelt post, Gwen. Thanks for sharing your story. I cannot imagine losing a limb or watching a loved one go through it. Your mom and dad sound like amazing people. I gave my main character in my Grafton County Series my mobility issues (RA, psoriatic arthritis, plantar fasciitis, and my new enemy, osteoporosis). With each new book, her conditions worsen (as mine do). It’s cathartic writing her, but it’s also unnerving to expose deep, personal issues through a character.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Sue, for your support and for sharing your character with us. I’m now even more intrigued by your series, which I’ll definitely pursue. I can well imagine how cathartic it must be to write personally through fiction. ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

  21. Rushing like crazy this morning, Gwen, but I had to read this post and take a moment to let you know how beautifully written it was, and how true. My younger brother suffered a severe stroke at age 47 and passed away at 49, but he lived with Mark and I for a while after he was released from the rehab center. He could only speak a few words, but learned to make his point known in various ways. Some of them were hilarious and he knew that, too, like pointing at something and making a sound effect to indicate what he wanted it for. He’d laugh and shake his head at his own efforts. And I will never forget him pulling himself out of his wheelchair with his one good arm and plopping down on our bottom stairstep, then using his good leg to hoist himself up one step at a time to reach his bedroom upstairs. I’d follow with his walker, and help him stand so he could then use the walker to shuffle the short distance to his bed. He absolutely refused to let us move the bed downstairs to make things easier for him.

    Over the course of the first year, he DID manage to learn to be independent enough to dress and feed himself, and he moved into a small trailer at a park fairly near to us. I worried, but it was important to him that he learn to take care of himself. He was doing okay on his own, with his youngest son bringing him groceries, etc, and stopping by frequently to check on him. But then he had a second stroke a year or so later and didn’t survive that one.

    I completely understand the points you made, and think your suggested approaches are excellent. From the perspective of family or friends of the person who suddenly has limited physical ability, there are many, many things which go through our minds as we try to adjust to what has happened to our loved one. And to this day, I wonder why I’m still here and doing reasonably well, while my brother who was three years younger than I has been gone 26 years.

    Thank you for an excellent post in an excellent series. 🤗❤️

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh my, Marcia, the story of your brother brought me to tears. Life challenges us in ways we don’t understand, and we never know how our personal journey impacts others. The image of your brother climbing those steps will forever be in my heart — as are you. Thank you for sharing so deeply. ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

      • Aw, I didn’t mean to make you cry, Gwen, but it truly was a sad situation, especially for one so young. He was pretty brave about it all, and I’ll never forget his determination to do as much for himself as he could.

        Like your father, he found ways to work around his problems, and his sound effects were remarkably easy to interpret. For instance, if we were going somewhere in the car, he’d suddenly point out the window and make the sound of screeching brakes. It was instantly clear he wanted me to pull into whatever establishment he was pointing at. Things like that were always a surprise, and 99% of the time, very effective. He could only say about 4 phrases. “Right there!” was one he mastered. (He used that often to point at pictures on a menu to indicate what he wanted). But once when I had an Oldies station on the car radio (remember those?), the Big Bopper came on singing Chantilly Lace, and Alan suddenly started singing along with him perfectly and didn’t miss a single word of the song, right down to “Aw, baby you KNOW what I like!” . We discovered then that he could sing along with any song he knew, but couldn’t simply speak the words. Stroke damage can be very strange.

        Thanks again for this thoughtful and helpful post!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh my, how incredible. Most of us go through life not seeing the miracles around us, but your brother is helping us all recognize the gift. Thank you, dear Marcia. ❤️

        Liked by 2 people

  22. A powerful post, Gwen. My first thought was that your dad did not define himself with his accident. He went on despite it. The second thought was you should be telling these family stories more often in your books. The final thought was a sensitivity to those who have suffered physical losses. Thanks for this.

    Liked by 2 people

  23. An excellent post, Gwen. When Rick had to have his leg amputated, it changed our lives completely. The big macho man who did everything for himself and others suddenly had to rely on others, and it changed him. It changed me. When writing Vann Noble’s character in Jagged Feathers, I drew on the personal experience with Rick to instill the same determination and yet vulnerabilities in him. Unless you’ve experienced the loss of a limb in some personal way, I don’t see how you could have true insight. Another thing that happened with Rick immediately following the surgery, he went into a total fasting state. All he took in was liquids. The hospital staff grew concerned and offered to get him anything he wanted to eat. But he refused. He didn’t eat a bite of any kind of food for fourteen days straight. He said he just couldn’t. That might be an odd reaction to losing a limb, but it was real. Thank you for touching on this in such depth. Hugs!

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Jan, for sharing your personal story with us. Rick’s fasting state definitely underscores the horror of his traumatic loss. Thank goodness he had you to love him through this life-changing loss. ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

  24. I read this post and the ensuing comments with a great deal of interest, as I am writing about characters with dementia and developmental disabilities in my current work-in-progress. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

    Liked by 3 people

  25. Fantastic post.

    An important thing to note if including a character with a disability or mobility issue in your story is that even two people with the same problem may have different capabilities and experiences because of it; remember that things aren’t always the same for everyone, even if they have the same disability, mobility issue, health issue, etc.

    And, for the record, if you – or anyone else who reads this – ever plans on including a character with a visual impairment in their story, I’m available to answer questions as best I can to help with the accuracy of doing so. I can only speak from my own experiences, with some additional points taken from those of other visually impaired people I know, but am happy to help as much as I can.

    Liked by 5 people

    • You are so right, Victoria. Each person with a disability has unique capabilities. Thank you for pointing this out and for offering to help writers who include visual impairment in their stories. ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

  26. I’m so sorry to hear about that traumatic accident and it must have created reverberations for the whole family. Your shared experience here is really valuable to those of us who might be writing about someone with a physical (or mental) disabilty. I worked for a while in a school for children with special needs and usually worked with the fourteen to sixteen-year-olds. One of the boys had cerebral palsy but was bright as a button – it must have been horrific to be treated as patronisingly as he was. This series has done what you intended, Gwen – it’s made me think! Many thanks. ❤

    Liked by 5 people

    • What a powerful and poignant story, Trish. Thank you for sharing and adding to this discussion. I can only imagine what this young boy must have felt. ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

  27. Excellent post, Gwen, which touches on so many important points.

    When I first lost my leg, way too many people expected me to suddenly turn into a para-Olympian … erm … I’ve never been athletic in my life! And I ain’t suddenly super woman! Lols 😂.

    On the surgical ward, I saw so many different emotional and psychological reactions to the loss of a limb. Many people reacted as though they had lost a part of their being as well as the physical flesh and bone, and this affected their overall ability to cope and adapt.

    These days, when putting disability into my books, I find many readers want a positive slant on it and are intolerant of what they see as a ‘weak’ character if I draw that person as anything but well adjusted, which is both unrealistic and a shame. Some of the comments I’ve seen in book reviews about characters with mental or physical struggles across a range of genres, both indie and trad pub, are horrifying. I can only hope this isn’t a reflection of society as a whole.

    All of this makes me wary of how I write about disability. The trouble is, I don’t think it’s fair to always make the affected character a hero or somehow ‘larger than life’. I believe we, as writers, also have a duty to portray the struggle and reality. A tough one for sure.

    I love your tips about using supporting characters to portray many of these aspects.

    Thanks so much for exploring this important subject, Gwen. Hugs 💕🙂

    Liked by 7 people

    • Thank you, Harmony, for sharing so deeply and adding to this conversation about diversity in our stories. Your comment about some readers wanting a positive slant revealed a heartbreaking truth. Most of us are limited in some way. Often, we mask this limitation. Personally, I like characters who are not perfect. I often think of the Marines I worked with. Many suffered life-changing injuries in the field. Only some of those injuries were visible. Several times they voiced how strange it was for them to be on a campus where other students protested the coffee varieties at the drink stand. Two contrasting worlds for sure. ❤️

      Liked by 3 people

  28. This is a fantastic post, Gwen. My father-in-law lost his entire arm in an industrial accident. There wasn’t even enough for a prosthesis. He never let it get him down. Although he was forced to retire, he still worked around his farm and grew a large vegetable garden each year. He would also chop and split wood, he had a modified ax handle that made it easier to maneuver.

    I love how your mom would cut up your dad’s food. Pretty sure my mother-in-law did that as well – something I had forgotten – and definitely something I take for granted.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Beautiful reflection about your father-in-law, Joan. Thank you for sharing as you have. Most of us don’t think about the accommodation another might need, unless it’s personal. Knowing of his modified ax handle, brings us right into our heart. ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

  29. Thanks for sharing another great posting about using diversity in stories, and how to get readers captured by it. What a sad expierience you ‘d by your own. Farmers have a very dangerous life. It is rarely appreciated that they provide us with food. Best wishes, Michael

    Liked by 5 people

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