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Disabling Characters

Representations of Disability in Young Adult Literature


Patricia A. Dunn

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.
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Chapter 5. “Normal” Talents, Rudolph Stories, and “Supercrips”




In the tradition of the TV series “Monk,” the bestseller The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, by Mark Haddon, and, some would say, the Sherlock Holmes stories, several YA novels have a protagonist whose “disability” plays a part in solving a crime or unraveling a mystery. On the one hand, a sleuth with an impairment brings the disabled character out of the shadows and shows him or her in a positive light, foregrounding unusual talents or personality quirks that are valued in society, at least in this case. The qualities that might have once been seen as negative (obsession for detail, extreme logic, or intense focus) are in this situation seen as positive. These protagonists can show a world view, rarely seen in fiction, from these characters’ perspectives. Typically, these detectives interact with non-disabled characters, and they all work as a productive team in unraveling the mystery.

On the other hand, this plot line runs the risk of suggesting that the character’s impairment, quality, or talent is somehow superhuman. The stories can become tales of “supercrips.” In his book Disability Rhetoric Jay Dolmage refers to Joseph Shapiro’s concept of the “supercrip.” As Dolmage explains, this character is part of an “overcoming or compensation” disability myth:

In this myth, the connection between disability and compensatory ability is intentional and required. The audience does not have to focus on the disability, or ← 119 | 120...

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