Disabling Characters

Representations of Disability in Young Adult Literature

by Patricia A. Dunn (Author)
©2015 Monographs X, 162 Pages
Series: Disability Studies in Education, Volume 18


Disabling Characters provides detailed analyses of selected young adult (YA) novels and short stories. It looks at the relative agency of the disabled character, the behavior of the other characters, the environment in which the character must live, the assumptions that seem to be underlying certain scenes, and the extent to which the book challenges or perpetuates an unsatisfactory status quo. Class discussions about disability-themed literature, however well intentioned, have the potential to reinforce harmful myths or stereotypes about disability. In contrast, discussions informed by a critical disability studies perspective can help readers develop more sophisticated views of disability and contribute to a more just and inclusive society. The book examines discussion questions, lesson plans, study guides, and other supplemental materials aimed at students studying these texts, and it suggests more critical questions to pose about these texts and the positive and/or negative work they do, perhaps subliminally, in our culture. This book is a much-needed addition to college classes in YA literature, literary analysis, methods of teaching literature, disability studies, cultural studies, contemporary criticism, special education, and adolescent literacy.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Advance praise for Disabling Characters
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • The Purpose of This Book
  • Disability Studies in the Schools
  • What Literary Texts Can Do
  • Terminology and Disability Status
  • The Chapters
  • Chapter 1: Agency, Rebellion, and Challenging the Status Quo
  • Chapter 2: Respect, Etiquette, and the Drama of Rude Behavior
  • Chapter 3: Awakening Stories: “The Scarlet Ibis” and The Cay
  • Chapter 4: Carving Out an Identity
  • Chapter 5: “Normal” Talents, Rudolph Stories, and “Supercrips”
  • Some Caveats
  • Theoretical Approaches
  • Spoilers
  • Samplings
  • Judgments
  • Notes
  • Chapter 1. Agency, Rebellion, and Challenging the Status Quo: Accidents of Nature and The Acorn People
  • Accidents of Nature
  • The Acorn People
  • Handling Discussions of These Books
  • Reception Documents for The Acorn People
  • Notes
  • Chapter 2. Respect, Etiquette, and the Drama of Rude Behavior
  • Dark Days
  • Five Flavors
  • The Cardturner
  • Discussing These Novels
  • Chapter 3. Awakening Stories: “The Scarlet Ibis” and The Cay
  • Reinforcing Disability Myths
  • Reception Documents for “The Scarlet Ibis”
  • Reception Documents for The Cay
  • Critical Questions We Might Pose
  • “Enlightenment Narratives”
  • “Narrative Prosthesis”
  • “Awakening Stories”
  • Notes
  • Chapter 4. Carving Out an Identity: Peeling the Onion, Stoner and Spaz, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
  • The Three Novels
  • Authors’ Disability Status
  • “Trying Harder”: Cultural Myths in Peeling the Onion and Stoner and Spaz
  • Changing Assumptions about Others
  • Reception Documents on Peeling the Onion
  • Adding True Diary to the Mix
  • Notes
  • Chapter 5. “Normal” Talents, Rudolph Stories, and “Supercrips”
  • The London Eye Mystery
  • Marcelo in the Real World
  • From Charlie’s Point of View
  • The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin
  • So Are They ‘Rudolph’ Stories?
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Index
  • Series Index


Why write a book examining representations of disability in young adult (YA) literature? To answer that question, I start with the premise that the status quo is not acceptable. All sorts of barriers prevent people from living their lives to the fullest, including how forces in society make them feel about themselves. Many of these forces are hidden from the very people (including myself) who participate, perhaps obliviously, in maintaining these forces: harmful assumptions about race, class, gender, age, income level, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and disability. While assumptions about all these groups should be named and challenged, the last one listed—disability—is perhaps the one least likely to be examined from a critical perspective, at least regarding YA literature. Many barriers contributing to disability are material or attitudinal; either way, they are built. They are constructed. And whatever is constructed can be named, mitigated, or removed.

Fiction can affect the way real people are treated. It can open readers’ minds to entrenched discriminatory attitudes, or it can be complicit with those attitudes, making them worse. The “disabling characters” in the title of this book has a double meaning. It refers to two types of characters who have the power to affect beliefs: one for good and one for ill: ← 1 | 2 →

1) Some characters are “disabling” in a good way because they challenge or “disable” myths about disability, and what happens to those characters can help draw attention to constructed barriers to real people with disabilities. Fictional characters can provide direct verbal challenges to myths and stereotypes expressed by other characters. Or, characters with impairments might display a refreshing agency in the plot structure: they make decisions and act in ways that determine their own fate, thus countering pervasive narratives that depict them as pitiable, helpless, sad, etc.

2) Some characters are “disabling” in a bad way: they can make discrimination and exclusion worse for real people with disabilities. This “disabling” may happen in several ways: the stereotypical way in which disabled characters are portrayed; a tired plot structure in which they die or get cured at the end, suggesting there’s no place for disability in mainstream society; and unchallenged discriminatory remarks reflecting assumptions of an ableist society, that is, a society that privileges so called “able-bodied” people.

I believe that reading high-quality disability-themed fiction can begin to break down the us/them dichotomy so harmful in our society and reduce barriers to full accessibility. Lest this belief sound too naïve, let me hasten to add that there are many potential hazards in reading fiction about disability. If characters with disabilities are depicted as pitiable victims, or as those who must be rescued by others, or as unlikely heroes who save the day, the novel can simply perpetuate harmful views of disability and cast people with disabilities as “other.” However, reading nuanced novels with disabled main characters, followed by responsible discussions, can get students thinking critically about disability.

Discussions are critical. Done poorly, discussions, too, can reinscribe stereotypes. However, well-placed critical questions about what the text is doing can help readers identify harmful views and to comment on their appropriateness in a just world. Even a text that displays unchallenged stereotypes about disability can be recruited to question those stereotypes if teachers pose critical questions. Sadly, as we will see, such higher-level questions are rare in public materials available on the web where topics for class discussion are typically limited to plot structure, theme, and literary elements.

I argue that as we are selecting the novels and stories we use in class and the activities we design to accompany them, we should instead consider questions such as these: ← 2 | 3 →

I intend these and other questions listed throughout this book to be adapted and modified by imaginative teachers for use with a variety of texts, and to act as a counterweight to more conventional questions about vocabulary, plot, and symbols.

Researchers do report some positive change in the ways characters with disabilities are depicted in novels. In her overview of research, Eve Tal reports that portrayals are gradually becoming more realistic, in contrast to common portrayals in the nineteenth century in which characters with disabilities “were inevitably passive, ever cheerful, long-suffering, and dead by the close of the book” (1). It would seem that depictions of people with disability had nowhere to go but up. As Biklen, Bogdan, and Blatt point out in their essay in a 1977 book on TV programming for children, “The mass media has linked ugliness and disabilities with evil and violence for a long time” (3).1 They continue, “Disability labels often act as cues for images of dependence, pity, guilt, childishness, incompetence, unusual personality formation, sexless, and sexual deviance.” What they say about television could also be applied to young adult novels: “Television can either perpetuate these stereotypes or promote more positive images of people who have disabilities” (3). In a very early articulation of what will later become known as “the social model” of disability, they write that “the primary cause of their [people with disabilities] dependence may not be the disability so much as society’s unwillingness to accommodate for disabilities” (5). This examination of how society contributes to the effects of impairment is what has been hard to find in YA literature, at least until recently. ← 3 | 4 →

The Purpose of This Book

Using a theoretical lens influenced by disability studies, an approach that examines society’s role in exacerbating whatever impairments individuals may have, I will juxtapose selected YA novels about disability and discuss the effects they seem to have. I will also analyze selected published reception documents on these works: summaries, reviews, discussion questions, reading guides, and quizzes that shape readers’ understandings of these fictional pieces. Using literary and rhetorical analysis, my goal is to make visible the underlying assumptions about disability present, but not always immediately evident, in these texts and in materials about them.

Young adult (YA) novels today provide one of the few growth areas for print publications, and the last ten years have seen an uptick in high-quality YA novels centering on disability. Because they have adolescent protagonists, take up contemporary problems, and are generally written in a style that appeals to young people, YA novels are among the works most likely to be actually read by adolescents and discussed in their classes. These discussions, however well intentioned, have the potential to reinforce harmful stereotypes about disability. In contrast, discussions informed by a disability studies or disability rights perspective—one that draws attention to the constructedness of disability—can help readers develop more informed, enlightened views of disability and make society more accessible for all people. Because so many novels do not focus on disability or even mention it as a part of life for so many people, it’s critical that the few texts that are read, and the rare discussions about disability that do take place, do more than support the status quo regarding society’s still very limiting view of disability. Some texts should invite readers to question the status quo. This questioning of cultural ideologies and their effect on disabling conditions appears only rarely in YA novels, and almost never in reception documents used in the schools to discuss these texts.2

My purpose in writing this book is to promote ways of talking about disability that will invite the public—especially English Language Arts teachers and students in middle and high schools—to develop informed, critical perspectives on how disability is represented in our society and what role society plays in the construction of disability. In my analysis, I treat books more as cultural artifacts than as works of art, though I do make value judgments based on a variety of criteria, some originating in the conventional western literary tradition, some from other value systems. ← 4 | 5 →

Disability Studies in the Schools

The Society for Disability Studies is an expanding, interdisciplinary non-profit organization primarily centered in higher education. It states in its mission that it “seeks to augment understanding of disability in all cultures and historical periods, to promote greater awareness of the experiences of disabled people, and to advocate for social change.” (SDS website). The number of graduate programs in disability studies is growing, and there are many college courses influenced by this international movement. The K-12 schools, however, have so far been much less affected.


X, 162
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (August)
YA Prejustice Sublimity Literatur Analysis
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. X, 162 pp.

Biographical notes

Patricia A. Dunn (Author)

Patricia A. Dunn received her doctorate from the University at Albany. She is an associate professor in Stony Brook University’s English Teacher Education Program. She is the author of Learning Re-Abled: The Learning Disability Controversy and Composition Studies, as well as a number of articles on disability. In 2013, she received the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.


Title: Disabling Characters
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173 pages