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10 Quick Tips To Write Better Disabled Characters

1) The character’s disability does NOT have to drive the plot

Almost in every film with a disabled character, disability drives their story as a ‘problem’. In order to express the concept of “disability as a burden” visually, there is at least one scene where the disabled character struggles to do some mundane activity such as opening the fridge, brushing teeth or getting dressed. Physically disabled characters are often depicted as hating their body.

If you do not know any disabled people, you should consult with some. You will probably find out their internal conflicts have nothing to do with disability and self-loathing, and that you can draw from the full array of potential internal conflicts.

TOP TIP: Having a non dramatic character who is ok with their body would be quite revolutionary in current representation! MORE: No, Diverse Characters DON’T Have To Drive The Plot. Here’s Why

2) Beware of your own prejudice

NEWSFLASH: we are all prejudiced to some degree. If you are not familiar with disability justice, you may have some ableist prejudice. This is understandable, as society and the media are full of toxic narratives about disabled people … Or they’re erased altogether. Otherisation and objectification are normalised. Some screenwriters even worry about “political correctness”, so might make non-disabled characters say nasty and ruthless things to the disabled one.

TOP TIP: Please hire a sensitivity reader who is disabled for authenticity.

3) We need more rounded disabled characters 

Can we please create some multi-faceted disabled characters with more psychological complexity?  Many exhibit difficult, inappropriate behaviour. They are often bitter, rude, even violent, or extremely passive and inept. They often lash out against other people. (All due to the frustration caused by their disability, of course).

Also, disabled characters’ clothing are often quite revealing, too. They either wear shabby, matted, unfitting clothes, or something “quirky” in order to visualise the supposed “transgressive”. Sometimes filmmakers emphasise this so much, they even achieve impossible things, such as making James McAvoy ugly!

TOP TIP: Discard the ‘usual’ tropes.

4) Refrain from dramatic music where it doesn’t fit

This one is for filmmakers … Many disability-themed films are characterised by a sad soundtrack out of context. Say, a wheelchair user strolls around the city minding their own business … Then, WHAMMO here comes the tragic music that would make you cry even in an ad for Cheerios.

TOP TIP: Pick the soundtrack according to the meaning of the scene, not your “disability = sadness” misconception.

5) Find a goal beyond sex and death

Many disabled characters in films want to have sex for the first time or want to die. Or both. The abled gaze in thinking that these are the aspirations of disabled people is really noticeable. This should go without saying, but writers can literally write ANYTHING!

TOP TIP: Mix it up and avoided the ‘usual’ stories. MORE: 4 Easy Tips To Write An Awesome Disabled Character

6) Include (steamy) sex scenes

Aside from films that are about the aforementioned ‘sex quest’, disabled characters in sex scenes are very rare (shockingly, even in films with a huge focus on a love story). If there is sex, it has somehow a rehabilitative function and/or it’s awkward.

We are used to the “standard”, perfect, condom-less sex scenes with romantic violins in the background … But there’s a terrible lack of characters with a disability in them. Let’s get to work!

TOP TIP: Don’t erase this part of life.

7) Use the camera as you would with other kinds of bodies

Another pointer for filmmakers … We frequently see the camera linger on skinny knees or bent hands in a way that it just wouldn’t with non-disabled body parts. When you apply this double standard, you are ‘othering’ the character.

Use the camera the regular way, according to the plot and your intended aesthetics, without making clear you are seeing a disabled body for the first time.

TOP TIP: Don’t ‘other’ disability like this.

8) Hire disabled actors, for f***’s sake!

Disabled characters are most often played by non disabled actors. Statistically, playing a disabled character as an able-bodied actor is an Oscar-worthy task. Disability is a social identity, not something to be mimicked.

TOP TIP: Don’t forget disabled actors just want the same chances as able-bodied actors.

9) Disability: not your teaching moment

The disabled character too has to enrich and change non-disabled people for the better. They teach them they should not take things for granted and to live fully because life is beautiful (the life of non-disabled people is more beautiful though!). This is so-called ‘inspiration porn’.

TOP TIP: Don’t make disabled characters an object for able-bodied characters’ gain.

10) Talk about ableism!

The oppression marginalised communities face is a very concrete part of their life and ignoring it is often an erasure. Consult with the community to make sure you are talking about ableism well. The film I am Sam is perfect in almost all the aspects of this list and I recommend it as a fantastic film and as an example of good practice.

TOP TIP: Find amenable disabled people to talk to online. Start by following disability activists on Twitter and instagram. MORE: It’s Time To Face Facts: Diversity Makes Stories Better

Good Luck!

BIO: I am Elena Paolini, a disability rights educator and activist with a huge passion for screenwriting. I juggle film-making and disability justice, often combining the two. My dream movie to write is a remake of “Guess who’s coming to dinner”, not themed on racial segregation in the pre-Loving v. Virginia US but – you guessed it – on ableism in contemporary society. You can find me on Instagram!

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1 thought on “10 Quick Tips To Write Better Disabled Characters”

  1. Dennis Loenard Doyle

    Hi Elena. Very interesting points and very informative. I am not a wheelchair user but am looking to write a script for a stop motion animation about 2 wheelchair users. Both are looking at an online dating site but reluctant to reveal that they use a wheelchair most of the time and arrange to meet one another, without knowing the others circumstances.

    I am mindful of some of the pitfalls and certainly dont want to offend anyone but would be interested in learning your thoughts regarding any pitfalls that you can see that aren’t covered in your excellent articales.


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