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.