A Handicapped Reader’s Guide to Disability Literature

Disability Pride Month is in full swing and I couldn’t be more thrilled with all the wonderful books by disabled authors making their way onto the internet. I love when people come across disability literature and realize the incredible range of books out there. From romance to poetry to memoir, authors with disabilities write everything. For some people, I know this year is their first foray into disability literature, and I appreciate the effort to learn new things and expand your understanding of the world.

While I like to see able-bodied people pick up books by authors with disabilities, I’ve noticed that when able-bodied people look at disability literature, they often say things like “I can’t relate to this or “the writing is just too clunky”. .” But disability literature is, at its core, for and by people with disabilities. These books are entirely centered on people with disabilities and our experiences. But when able-bodied people examine disability literature, they often write their reviews through a disability lens, which skews their understanding of the book.

Let’s look at the medium of the text itself. To create a printed book, many writers have used accommodations because the very method of communication in book form is inaccessible to them. Working on a computer, formulating ideas in written language, or looking at a page are not things everyone with a disability can do. So even to communicate, some people with disabilities have to adapt to come closer to the norm of able-bodied people.

For example, I write without looking at a screen or using voice-to-text, and it changes the pace and flow of my writing. Using accommodations to write will change the prose and structure of essays. It is literally impossible for some of us to reach the literary level based on the abilities of able-bodied people. So if you assume disabled people will write like able-bodied people, you might be disappointed.

If you apply the expectations and assumptions of lived experience with people with disabilities, the disability literature may not work for you. I often see non-disabled people say they can’t relate to the stories of people with disabilities, that our lives are too ‘different’ from theirs. Or some able-bodied people say they feel they haven’t learned enough from the disability literature to make it worth reading.

Typically, disability literature is written with people with disabilities in mind – our perspectives and life experiences. The purpose of these books is not to educate able-bodied people. Their purpose is to celebrate people with disabilities for who we are, including all the myriad ways we are able to communicate.

Disability literature is not intended to inspire non-disabled people. We live in a time when there are hundreds, if not thousands, of viral videos of people with disabilities “overcoming” their disability simply by existing. Often referred to as “inspirational porn,” these types of stories can also be found in literature. But disabled people don’t exist to inspire able-bodied people. We are just ordinary people trying to live our lives.

If non-disabled people finish a book and their only conclusion is, “But that was so sad. Why did I read this? they missed a vital part of what much of the disability literature tries to do. We don’t tell our stories to make non-disabled people feel better about themselves. We tell our stories to encourage each other and to remind the rest of the world that we exist, fully human like everyone else.

So, if you are not disabled, be aware that you may not feel completely comfortable or fully understand books written by people with disabilities. That doesn’t mean the book failed in any way. It just means it’s not written for someone with your lived experience. And it doesn’t matter. But being a good ally simply means listening, learning and letting people with disabilities lead the way.


For more on Disability Pride Month, check out “Book Lover’s Guide to Disability Pride Month” and “7 Tips to Be a Better Ally for People with Disabilities on the Book Internet.”

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