If You Want An Extremely Inadequate Introduction To How Ableism Works In Fiction

Today’s question is from Joyousmenma93.

What are considered ableist portrayals of disabled people in media, like having all people hate them just for being there, making them into geniuses, etc. I’d love to see your thoughts on what portrayals of disabled people (autism or not) are considered ableist. I got some backlash similar to this and would love to see something like this covered.


If you want me to sit down in the length of one blog post and explain to you everything about how ableism in the media works in one sitting, it’s not gonna happen. Not because I don’t want to or don’t care, or because I’m one of those people who hates explaining 101-level stuff, but because it’s just too big a topic. I can’t put everything in one blog post, and frankly, I don’t even understand everything that could be put in one blog post.

The other reason I can’t explain all of ableism to you in one blog post is because writing a laundry list of Bad Things You Should Never, Ever Write is not actually the best way to explain how ableism works. On any such list, however carefully crafted, there will be some things with exceptions, and some things that get left out, and some things that disabled people are legitimately going to disagree on (even within the same disability). Some things are pretty crappy however you look at them, but some things will horribly offend some disabled people while others consider them true and important. And that’s just scratching the surface of the ways in which people can disagree.

When you’re talking about ableism, or any -ism, you’re talking about people’s lives. People’s lives are fucking complicated and full of nuance, and it’s hard to get that nuance across in a list of rules.

That’s why there’s really no substitute for learning to think about these things for yourself, to research them very carefully, and to form your own opinions.

But learning to do that is hard. It takes a lot of work. It’s ok to be confused while you are learning to do that.

Here’s one principle which might help you to think about things, and to make sense of what people have told you.

Ableism – any -ism, for that matter – is about narratives. Abled people treat disabled people poorly because they have a narrative in their head about how disabled people should be treated, or what disability means, or how valuable (or not valuable) disabled people are. And those narratives come from somewhere.

Fiction isn’t the only place where we get our narratives, but it’s an important one, especially for people who haven’t had informative personal experiences in reality. If you’ve never seen a person with X Condition, but you’ve read a book about a person with X Condition, then your thoughts about what X Condition is like will mostly come from that book, even if you know that the book is fiction and the person isn’t real.

That’s why it’s really important for fiction writers to ask ourselves some difficult questions about narratives. To be able to write disability responsibly, you have to be able to at least begin to think about the following questions:

1. What are the major narratives that are told about people with this disability today?

2. What are the effects of these narratives? Which ones cause harm and which ones are helpful?

3. Which of these narratives does my story reinforce, and why? Are these good narratives to reinforce, or harmful ones?

4. Which of these narratives does my story subvert, and why?

A narrative that encourages people to hurt disabled people is ableist. So a story that reinforces one of these narratives is also ableist.

In other words, it’s not about “you can never write a character who does X” or “you can never write a story where Y happens”. It’s about context, and the larger picture, and about what you expect your readers to come away thinking and feeling.

Let’s go through an example. In the real world, one of the narratives that causes a lot of problems for autistic people goes something like this:

“Autism is awful. It is super incredibly terrible to be autistic. Autistic people are always miserable and so are their families for having to take care of them and this awful misery is an inherent part of how autism works, so we have to get rid of autism as soon as possible – there is no other way to stop the awfulness.”

This is a narrative that real people believe in the real world. Autism Speaks is famous for throwing it around a lot, but not to single them out – there are a lot of people who believe this. It is also a narrative that has effects, usually negative effects, on autistic people in the real world.

People put autistic children into intensive and abusive therapies for many hours a week, or give them chelation and other physically harmful quack treatments, because Autism Is Awful and so it makes sense to try to get rid of it by any means necessary.

People hurt or kill their autistic children and everybody feels sorry for them because Autism Is So Awful, it’s no wonder they snapped.

Autism treatments focus on teaching autistic people to look normal, even if that’s the opposite of what they need in order to thrive and be happy and productive, because Autism Is Awful and the only way to treat something awful is to try to make it go away.

(Also people are dying of diseases that should have been eradicated through vaccination by now, because a scientist made up a fake story and pretended that vaccines sometimes caused autism, and Autism Is So Awful that a fake risk of getting autism is worse than a real risk of dying from a virulent infectious disease.)

Autistic people learn to hate themselves and be ashamed all the time because they have learned that Autism Is Awful and whenever someone around them reacts badly to them, it must be the autism’s fault.

Ironically, some of the people who are worst affected by this narrative are autistic people who are miserable and are having a terrible time. They are not miserable because misery is an inherent part of how autism works. They are miserable because things aren’t set up properly and no one around them is able to meet their needs. And believing the Autism Is Awful narrative makes it harder, not easier, for people to figure out how to do that.

So let’s say you are writing a story about an autistic person. You need to be aware that the Autism Is Awful narrative exists in the world and has these effects on people.

And you need to ask, “Is my story going to help people believe that Autism Is Awful? Or is it going to help them believe something else?”

If your story is full of autistic people being miserable burdens on their miserable families, then it’s very likely to be reinforcing the Autism Is Awful narrative.

But if your story shows autistic people and their families not being miserable, or if your story questions where the misery comes from and shows it coming from societal attitudes or some other outside source, then people can come away from your story being less likely to believe that Autism Is Awful.

People learn from what they read, and your story can teach them good lessons or bad ones.

Now, the hard part, of course, is that Autism Is Awful isn’t the only narrative out there. It’s not even the only bad narrative out there. Here are some other bad narratives about autism that you’ll frequently encounter:

  • “Autistic people have no empathy or feelings.”
  • “Autistic people can’t understand art, love, religion, etc.”
  • “People who say they’re autistic are just faking.”
  • “‘High-functioning’ people are completely different from ‘low-functioning’ ones, and if you can communicate at all in any way then you’re ‘high-functioning’, so if you are caring for a ‘low-functioning’ person you don’t have to listen to anything any autistic person says about it.”
  • “All autistic people are rude and annoying.”
  • “In order to have real, meaningful connections with others, you need to do specific social things in ways that are painful and upsetting to most autistic people.”
  • “If an autistic person is bullied, it’s because they lack social skills, not because the bullies are being mean and unreasonable.”

This is just a few and I am missing many. All of them are hurtful in different ways.

The only way to get a feel for these narratives and how they work, apart from being autistic yourself (and even an autistic person will likely miss a few on their own) is to do a lot of research. Look up the writing of autistic people, or people with whatever disability you are researching – not just the writing of doctors who study it. Read lots of it by lots of different people. Find commonalities in their experience and listen to their explanations of why these commonalities happen. If possible, read their reviews of other people’s stories; find out what makes them mad when they read it, and what makes many of them go “YES, THIS.” Read this stuff and think about it until you can understand the principles behind how it works.

All of this will take time, but if you can do it, you’ll have something much more valuable than a laundry list of What Not To Do. You’ll have a deep and nuanced understanding of the subject matter.

And then you’ll be able to form your own opinions about what’s ableist, and about what you want to do and not do in your stories.

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