Discussing Disabilities – The Responsibility of Authors and Academics

I was recently reading the article in The Guardian Ken Ross: ‘I want to see a disabled person who’s as famous as Brad Pitt on screen‘ and it got me thinking again about the responsibility of authors and academics to include disabled characters or to discuss issues relating to disabilities in books and lectures.

This is isn’t the first time I’ve paused to think about this. When writing my second novel, Tokyo 20/20 Vision, I realised that there was a good opportunity to include a disabled character. I wanted to do it, not as a tick-box exercise, but because it seemed natural to do so and provided an opportunity to discuss certain issues and, I hope, get the readers to think more about those issues too. Many years ago I attended a wonderful talk by Maurizio Ascari in which he pointed out that ‘it is in novels where society and people are analysed’. This sentence and the talk made an impact on me and really helped me in not only thinking about the role of novels in relation to my research on the JL123 crash and the novels Climber’s High and Shizumanu Taiyo, but also what my responsibility would be as a novelist.

Part of the issue here can be terms. I don’t like the terms ‘disabled’ and ‘disabilities’ as it implies, in my view, in an almost complete incapability to do what ‘normal’ people can do. I don’t know what would be a better term, but perhaps rather than labelling we just need to accept people as people rather than trying to pigeon-hole. In the Guardian article, Ken Ross points out his issues with the term ‘Downs’. I get that – but I’m not convinced the alternative term, ‘trisomy 21’, is an improvement.

There are so many disabilities that trying to keep on top of the terms is not straight forward. And that is even assuming that people will openly admit to having a particular disability (not all disabilities can be seen, after all). I can understand that there are issues when there are, or have been, prejudices against people with particular disabilities and the association created by the term. Changing terms can help. But only if it is done alongside a change in attitudes. And the latter can happen without the former.

I pride myself in trying to treat all people equally, but I am sure that there are corners of my mind that don’t always achieve this – whether this is caused by misinformation or not receiving sufficient education about issues. In Summer 2020 I was in the Netherlands and went to Brownies & Downies in Katwijk. It was only during the meal that it became apparent what the ‘Downies’ referred to. It was a marvellous meal (a photograph of the desert accompanies this post) and it was great to see how those with Downs were working as staff. It will be even better if more and more establishments take this lead without the need to label the staff or establishment (although, as I said, the labelling had passed me by initially).

As I noted above, not all disabilities are visible. One that has become even more discussed in recent years is mental health and depression. This is one that is much closer to my heart and I have previously run a half-marathon to try to raise money for Mind and will be doing so again in 2021 (assuming that COVID-19 postponed event eventually goes ahead as it was meant to be in October 2020, then March 2020). It was obvious, therefore, for me to address some of the issues of mental health in my latest novel, FOUR. A couple of things that I would like to point out from that book. First, terminology – I always try to use ‘take their life’ (or an equivalent) rather than ‘commit suicide’ – the latter has a nuance in English which I don’t think is appropriate. Second, even ‘take their life’ isn’t perfect for, as is discussed in the book itself, rather than being an action that someone takes, it may be more that there was a force that the person was unable to stop to prevent their life from being taken.

As authors we need to be doing more to address these issues. Not doing it as a tick-box exercise, but thinking how we can use the characters to develop the story and to get readers to think about society and their behaviour in it. The question should not be a matter of ‘have I included a disabled character?’ but rather ‘why haven’t I?’ if there is none in there. Start from the basis that there should be such a character in the book and think about how that could help enhance the story. With my next novel being set partly on a cruise ship, there is no end of things that I can write about in relation to people with certain disabilities face in such places – but equally it could be just a matter of having someone with dyslexia not being able to read a sign correctly and not dwelling on the issues.

Although I take Ken Ross’s point that we shouldn’t have white actors ‘blacking up’ to play Nelson Mandela, I think there are characteristics that actors can portray without that being part of their own self. Similarly, authors can write about people with disabilities without necessarily having those disabilities. A lot of research goes into writing novels and into playing parts in dramatizations, so it can be done. But there is no doubt that more needs to be done to encourage and help those with disabilities to write and get involved in the entertainment industry – but let’s not pigeon-hole them into only playing certain roles or supporting them just because they have a certain disability.

More can also be done by academia to address the situation too. While there is no shortage of academics who specialise in researching about disabilities or what society is like for people with those disabilities, more could almost certainly be done by the rest of us in our research to consider those with disabilities. I noted in my article related to disaster movies and particularly Japanese disaster movies, how rare it was to find obvious examples of someone with a disability and that in the main Japanese example, 252 Seizonsha Ari, the person was apparently cured of their disability by the end of the movie. As I posted recently, I am now starting work on the second edition of my book Japan: The Basics. The first edition contained a little discussion on disabilities , but I realise now that even in such a relatively short book (compared to my other academic books) there is a responsibility to do more.

There is a responsibility for all of us to do more.

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