Why We Need More Disabled Protagonists in Contemporary Literature

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July is Disability Pride Month and I wanted to take a minute to talk about disabled protagonists in literature and how little we really see of them. Before I get into that, though, I’d like to talk a little bit more about Disability Pride Month. Disability Pride Month is a term given to July to celebrate the creation of the Americans with Disabilities Act created in 1990. This act was (and still is) essential to determining the federal rights of people with disabilities. Before this act, there was no strict set of regulations preventing disability inequalities.

Like those who are LGBTQA+, the disabled community is a minority that struggles to procure equal human rights to those that fall into more “typical” social guidelines. Because the LGBTQA+ community and the Black Lives Matter community have had so many positive social changes in the past few years, I thought it was important to voice a few things the disabled community lacks, from the point of view of someone who is disabled.

While I won’t go on an entire rant of how terrible this country treats disabled individuals (because I could do an entirely post on that alone), I want to voice how little disabled protagonists are seen in pop culture. While disabled protagonists are on the rise on popular TV shows and in movies, representation in literature is still pretty few and far between. There are very few fiction books with disabled protagonists that I’ve come across, and I wonder why that is.

I’ve taken some time to think about it, and I’m not entirely sure if it’s because neurotypical/able-bodied authors feel they might not be able to appropriately portray a disabled protagonist, or maybe it’s because they are afraid of getting called out. After all, so many creators have failed in disability representation by creating able-ist protagonists that further the problem of a lack of appropriate (and realistic) main characters. Another thought I had is that perhaps authors feel that disabled protagonists are weak, or not well-received (which I whole heartedly disagree with, of course). That being said, the books that do have disabled protagonists seem to lean more towards the YA and Graphic Novel genres and I’ve often wondered why this is. I haven’t been able to figure it out, so if someone else does, please alert the crowd (i.e. me in the comments section).

Buzzfeed even recently released an article, in March, talking about some new and upcoming novels with disabled protagonists and I wasn’t particularly impressed with many of these stories. Many seem to follow the plotlines of protagonists with anxiety, depression, and autism. Which, while entirely valid disabilities, are more often diagnosed than disabilities like POTS, physical injuries, TBIs, and Autoimmune diseases, among others.

Representation of disabled characters in literature is important for a variety of reasons. Not only can those in real life find a character they relate to, but it also helps able-bodied individuals see and experience the things that disabled individuals deal with every day. SO many people don’t understand what it’s like to deal with chronic illness, or to have to map out your day because of anxiety triggers, or even to have to find a wheelchair accessible entryway every day. Disabled protagonists shed light to these difficult topics in a way that’s entertaining, educational, and very relevant.

Of the 29 books I’ve read this year, sadly only ONE had a disabled protagonist, and that was We Are All The Same In The Dark by Julia Haberlin. The main character, Odette, loses her leg and uses a prosthetic limb. Admittedly, I’ve never read a book about a character using a prosthetic limb before and I really enjoyed this story–it might be one of the best thrillers I’ve ever read, actually (you can read my full review of that book here). Odette is a police officer and her leg doesn’t stand in her way of her job. The book depicts symptoms of her injury, such as phantom pains, and while it’s a small part of the plotline, I really enjoyed the representation it gave to the disabled community.

Which, got me thinking–what books do I know that currently have disabled protagonists? While it’s clear we DEFINITELY need more representation for disabled protagonists in the book community, here are a few pics that I know are good reads and have a disabled main character.

So, if you’re looking for a new read with a disabled protagonist, here are a few options to look into.

Knot My Type by Evie Mitchell

While I haven’t had the opportunity to get my hands on this fun rom-com yet, I’ve heard amazing things and it’s on my TBR list. In this well-rated story, Frankie is a sexologist who talks about kinky subjects on her podcast. She explores new topics every week, at the request of her listeners. When one listener reaches out asking about accessible rope play, Frankie has to get hands on to find an answer. That’s when she meets Jay, a carpenter who has her literally tied up in knots. This spicy romance is fun, sexy, and super intriguing.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat by Oliver Sacks

Also on my TBR, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat follows the stories of individuals affected with perceptual and neurological disorders. This book has over 4,000 5 star reviews on Amazon, which is crazy good. While the protagonist is a doctor, the book insightfully tells about the patients he meets in his occupation and their struggles against incredible adversity.

The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang

I’ve written about Helen Hoang many times, and I’m not about to stop now. The Heart Principle is her newest novel, which follows the story of Anna Sun, a violinist that went viral for a video on Youtube. When Anna’s boyfriend tells her he wants an open relationship, Anna takes to the dating apps to try her first ever hook-up. Except, Anna is autistic and this is the first time she’s ever attempted anything like this. When she meets tattooed, motorcycle-riding, Quan everything she thinks she knows about dating will be tested. Helen Hoang is an author with Autism and her perspective brings a relatable quality to her characters that is just incredible and wonderful. 12/10 would recommend her books.

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Six of Crows is a fantasy novel that is actually the first in a six-book series. The book is actually so popular that it’s been adapted to the Shadow and Bone series on Netflix. The plot follows criminal prodigy Kaz, who is offered the chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But, he can’t pull it off alone and it will take six outcasts to complete the dangerous task. The main character is disabled, and uses a cane. If you’d like to read more about Kaz’s disability, you can check out this article by fellow blogger Erin Clements here.

The Sign For Home by Blair Fell

In this exciting romance, Arlo Dilly discovers that the girl he thought was lost forever might still be out there, so he goes on a journey to find her. Except, Arlo has a specific set of challenges: he is Deafblind, a Jehovah’s Witness, and he is under the guardianship of his strict uncle. With a small band of misfit friends, Arlo is ready to overcome any challenge set in his path to find his one true love.

While it’s clear we need more disability representation in literature, especially in adult fiction genres, I’m glad to see that some authors are taking the job seriously with fantastically written, well-developed, disabled protagonists. It is my hope that new authors will take their lead and follow suit with some well-written, creative stories that put disabled main characters at the forefront.

If you have a favorite contemporary fiction novel with a disabled protagonist, leave a comment with the name and author of the book below! What representation would you like to see more in the disabled book community?

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