4 Tips for Respectfully Writing Disabled Characters

May 29, 2023

“Write what you know!” the experts insist—except in the case of, well, everything, because fiction is inherently composed of lives you’ve never lived. Restricting yourself to personal experiences is impossible, because that will prevent you from showcasing the diversity of humanity. Yet, what if you offend a reader for misunderstanding the challenges she faces? 


Although our culture promotes inclusivity, critics are quick to condemn portrayals that they feel are inaccurate or insensitive to a particular group. Disabilities and health conditions are two of those potential landmines. The same diagnosis can affect individual patients very differently, so I can’t supply a hard-and-fast list of dos and don’ts to follow when exploring this topic. However, I can offer a few guidelines and describe the danger zones to watch for. 


1. Familiarize Yourself with the Condition

Ironically, the bane of fiction is incorrect facts. Before inserting any scenes featuring disabled characters, you need to learn the causation, treatment (if any), day-to-day impact, and extended ramifications. If a character with sickle cell anemia claims that she suffers from misshaped white blood cells instead of red, you’ll shoot realism in the gut and broadcast that you didn’t care enough to invest time in research. 


You can’t extract emotions from a nursing textbook, though. You’ll need to supplement your foray into medical science with personal accounts, biographies, and, if possible, interviews. Find someone who deals with the disability you want to write about, and see if they’re willing to answer questions or look over your work. 


If you lack the opportunity to pick someone’s brain, the internet can be a bottomless resource. Many YouTube channels and social media accounts focus on spreading awareness of a specific condition, making their content a wealth of comprehensive information you can’t scrape from Wikipedia. Immersing yourself in true stories will add authenticity to your fictional one.


Don’t forget to study mindsets and opinions too. Never propagate what you think a disabled person should feel according to how you would react in their situation. For example, contrary to common assumption, many people embrace their disabilities rather than bemoaning their plights. Pay attention to how your subjects view their limitations, what scares or empowers them, and the kinds of struggles they have.


2. Avoid Trite Tropes

Does Tiny Tim from A Christmas Carol remind you of anyone? How about Crutchie from Newsies? Helen Burns from Jane Eyre? Smike from Nicholas Nickleby? Or—


I think you get the point.


Disabilities aren’t safe from the dastardly grip of clichés, and certain depictions have made a deep rut in the path of originality: villains with shocking deformities, nerds who stutter, blind mystics, and cherubic sickly children. While characters like Chirrut Imwê from Rogue One and Crutchie from Newsies aren’t necessarily offensive, why recycle stale (potentially problematic) ideas when you can give readers a more unique and compelling role model? Again, engage in conversations and browse the internet to help you identify the stereotypes that disabled people find distasteful or untrue, and lean away from those. 


3. Don’t Use a Disability to Define a Character

One of the reasons Tiny Tim rings false is because his every action, thought, and feeling revolves around his “strong spirit,” reducing his personality to his crippled leg. Humans are multi-faceted prisms and can’t be flattened into a single trait. A disability or health condition can be debilitating, but it will never be the only (or even the biggest) hardship a person must endure. Give your character ongoing growth, goals, and motivation, just like the rest of your cast, instead of relegating her to grappling with and eventually overcoming her disability as if nothing else could possibly hold any significance.


After Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon loses his foot, the story does not shift away from the main plot to focus on the new inconveniences he has to cope with. Instead, external conflicts and familial relationships continue to shape his character arc, creating a complex hero who inspires audiences because of his intellect and principles—not because he wears a prosthesis.


4. Don’t Saint a Disabled Character

Not to continue ruining Christmas classics, but Tiny Tim’s angelic righteousness is obnoxiously unrealistic. Unfortunately, this is a recurring theme in fiction and film that includes my earlier mentions of Helen Burns and Crutchie. People tend to pity disabled or sick people and treat them like they’re fragile pottery about to shatter at the slightest touch.


Having a disability or health condition, however, doesn’t make someone morally superior. Casting these people as bastions of purity is, at best, condescending. Whether intentional or not, it assigns all positive development to the disability, simultaneously erasing individuality and relatability due to the absence of flaws.


Fear of backlash shouldn’t drive you to write Everyman characters. Disabled people can be as cranky, selfish, anxious, and discontented as any other sin-ridden being. They can also be as joyful, compassionate, brave, and wise as any other believer pursuing the narrow road. Just don’t turn them into caricatures of hope meant to awe readers by simply existing. 


Representation Matters

A little girl in a wheelchair frequently visits the library where I work, and she loves to chatter about books. She recently finished The Wingfeather Saga, and when I asked who her favorite character was, she proudly pointed to a picture of Leeli. Why? Because Leeli has a birth defect that inhibits walking, and she fights evil bat creatures with her magic flute.


Never underestimate the power of representation. Disabilities and medical conditions are part of our marvelously kaleidoscopic world, and we shouldn’t be nervous about portraying these experiences. Our purpose as writers is not to provide solutions and healing but to craft characters all readers can relate to, whether in their internal struggles, outward conflicts, or physical challenges. With sensitivity and careful observation, we can highlight another aspect of God’s beautifully intricate image-bearers.



  1. Larissa

    A fabulous article! I would recommend to anyone starting their research to simply Google, “what does Hollywood get wrong about __?” You’ll get personal experience, video interviews, and articles like this one. I’ve done it several times and it hasn’t failed me yet!

  2. Saraina

    And now I have a reason to love WFS even more. 😭 Amazing post!!!

  3. Sarah

    Thanks for sharing! I have a work in progress (that I’ve been nonchalantly pecking away at for years in rare moments of free time — I’m not a serious writer, obviously 😉 where the main character has a speech impediment, so this article was particularly helpful for me.

  4. Anna D

    How do you guys ALWAYS know exactly what I’m working on?? Your posts are so timely. Thank you!

  5. Jaydyn

    Hi, my name is Jaydyn.
    I am autistic and I’m trying to work on a Christian fantasy book and possibly a series to go with it, depending how the story works out. I’ve had it in mind to write about kids and characters with different abilities like autism, Down Syndrome, ADHD, dyslexia, Tourette’s Syndrome, or anything similar to such but the problem I face is trying to write about it or at least a representation of them accurately or at least without offending people including myself. I like the way you mentioned that one girl who likes the character Leeli, who has problem with her legs and yet fights off monster’s with music. What resources can I read about these different abilities (I don’t like to say disability because it feels hurtful coming from me, please don’t take this as offensive). I’m glad there’s an article about being respectful towards people who think and work differently because writers will need to learn something like this if they don’t want to be inaccurate or rude, even without meaning to. May God bless you and I’m thankful for finding this article.


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