There’s a lot of reasons why Disability literature still hasn’t broken through to the mainstream and into mainstream classes. For one thing, publishers, and sometimes, readers, stick to non-Disabled authors they know. If an author they enjoy and cherish publishes a book with a Disabled protagonist, instantly, that cherished author without a disability suddenly has agency in the Disability space, even though they most likely have never been Disabled or really took the time to understand Disability culture.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how this happens, but it happens quite frequently. A Disabled protagonist is formed without the nuances of being in a Disabled world. Slang words play a big part in our community but are forgotten or even outright abandoned in favor of making the book digestible to mainstream audiences, which is very demeaning all by itself. Not only are editors saying able bodied people are to out of touch to understand Disability nuances, but that the winks and nods that enhance a Disabled portrayal of a book shouldn’t exist because it will limit the audience.
I, of course, think editors are wrong in this case. I’d like to think that if publishing, as a whole, publishes the full width of Disability narratives, including the gritty and messy outlooks, then readers will understand more on their own and readers will start to develop their own Disability nuances for the better.
Along the same lines, I also believe that even the non-Disabled readers can grasp at least some of our very basic slang words like Inspiration Porn and other inside words and phrases coupled with a wide spectrum of Disabled characters and Disabled stories.
There’s an ongoing trend in publishing to hide Disability until the general readership gets used to this tiny glimpse into a new world. This erasure comes in many forms. As I said, toning down and or removing Disabled slang. Removing character agency to be a positively bouncy Disabled person and nothing deeper. And, the most obvious of all, hiding Disability in marketing copy or toning it down to avoid giving readers culture shock.
Publishing is still treating Disability like it’s a concept that has to be delicately sprinkled to non-disabled, and even Disabled, readers. This is why so many talented Disabled authors just decided to go their own way and self-publish. The market is moving very slow for them. It’s not progressing fast enough. While I agree, I’d like to point out how it’s progressed in small ways.
To show the progress, we’ll take a look at backs of book jackets.
Progressing doesn’t mean you can sigh with relief, though. There’s a lot that still needs to be accomplished in framing Disability to the Abled population. For example, this is a description from the book Out of My Heart by Sharon M. Draper.
Melody faces her fears to follow her passion in this stunning sequel to the acclaimed, New York Times bestselling middle grade novel Out of My Mind.
Melody, the huge-hearted heroine of Out of My Mind, is a year older, and a year braver. And now with her Medi-talker, she feels nothing’s out of her reach, not even summer camp. There have to be camps for differently-abled kids like her, and she’s going to sleuth one out. A place where she can trek through a forest, fly on a zip line, and even ride on a horse! A place where maybe she really can finally make a real friend, make her own decisions, and even do things on her own—the dream!
By the light of flickering campfires and the power of thunderstorms, through the terror of unexpected creatures in cabins and the first sparkle of a crush, Melody’s about to discover how brave and strong she really is.
That synopsis was problematic for a few reasons. The Out of My Heart synopsis paints Disability as something that’s an obstacle to overcome. Sure, there’s subtext in the blurb about overprotective parents, but not once during the blurb does the publisher mention cerebral palsy or Disability as something that just is a part of the character. The blurb tries to hide the Disability. I’m not interested in speculating if it’s inspiration porn because I haven’t read the book, but, from the synopsis, I feel as if the publisher wanted to try to forget that the protagonist has cerebral palsy.
Let’s compare that with a YA contemporary by a different publisher. Cursed By KAROL RUTH SILVERSTEIN, Published by Charlesbridge Teen.
As if her parents’ divorce and sister’s departure for college weren’t bad enough, fourteen-year-old Ricky Bloom has just been diagnosed with a life-changing chronic illness. Her days consist of cursing everyone out, skipping school–which has become a nightmare–daydreaming about her crush, Julio, and trying to keep her parents from realizing just how bad things are. But she can’t keep her ruse up forever.
Ricky’s afraid, angry, alone, and one suspension away from repeating ninth grade when she realizes: she can’t be held back. She’ll do whatever it takes to move forward–even if it means changing the person she’s become. Lured out of her funk by a quirky classmate, Oliver, who’s been there too, Ricky’s porcupine exterior begins to shed some spines. Maybe asking for help isn’t the worst thing in the world. Maybe accepting circumstances doesn’t mean giving up.
That synopsis gives me a lot of useful information from the start. That, yes, while the protagonist doesn’t like her diagnosis, she has character growth and overcomes her attitude towards Disability, not necessarily the illness itself. Again, I haven’t read the book, but this is an Own Voices book that I’m definitely going to pick up soon.
Charlesbridge Teen did a lot of things right with that synopsis. The second one doesn’t tiptoe around issues. It puts them front and center, letting readers immediately understand that Disability won’t be hidden for the sake of protecting the reader’s innocence.
It doesn’t matter what genre or age group I choose; all genres have this problem of trying to hide Disability or presenting Disability culture. It also isn’t just one publisher creating watered down marketing copy. This is a problem in all publishers.
Since this is a common problem, how can you combat it. First, for agents, editors, and publishers.
Have Disabled editors edit your marketing copy if you don’t have any Disabled people as workers or authors. Pay Disabled writers and editors to assist you in developing or editing marketing copy.
Be involved with the publishing process of your author, especially if you’re a literary agent or an editor. This is where proactively reaching out to your author will save you a lot of blunders. Remember, you need that author to make you royalties. It would benefit everybody involved if you are proactive about language rather than passively just trying to get a book out there. As for authors…
Talk to your agent and publisher often. It’s especially important you and your agent establish language before going on sub so they can have a better strategy pitching your book. Don’t be afraid to get involved with the process. Your agent may work for you but this is also a partnership that needs to be nourished. Talk to your agent early and often. Work collaboratively without fear. After all, this is your career.