Why The Publishing Industry Can’t Get Disability Right

The Establishment
The Establishment
Published in
12 min readNov 17, 2016

By Alaina Leary

It was an upper-level college fiction workshop, and my story was being discussed that day, along with one other piece. I’d written a contemporary story, part humor and part romance, about two best friends realizing they had romantic feelings for one another, and deciding to date.

My protagonist was a wheelchair user, and accompanying the two on their unofficial date was her service dog.

People loved it. And then came the questions: “Why is she in a wheelchair?” “Was he her friend before she was in a wheelchair? Did he help her through that?” “Was it an accident? The story felt unfinished. I kept waiting for the reveal about when she became paralyzed.”

These responses were a slap in the face. Although I’m not a wheelchair user, I have been disabled my entire life. I use a cane, and I’d partially based my protagonist’s experience on some of my own lifelong issues with mobility, balance, and muscle tone. She wasn’t written as being paralyzed, but having an unnamed congenital condition that affected her ability to walk; I had cerebral palsy and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome in mind when I wrote it. My protagonist’s disability was a part of her story, but the main focus was on the romantic tension between her and her best friend — something that I know very well, as my best friend and I have been in a relationship for nearly eight years.

I’d already been somewhat aware of it at the time, but this cemented it in my mind: there aren’t enough portrayals of disability in the stories we publish, the stories we read. We have one or two “typical” stories, usually steeped in pity, and people aren’t being exposed to anything else.

And it’s affecting all of us. It affected the way many of my abled classmates perceived my protagonist that afternoon, and it affected the way I, as a disabled writer, felt about including these stories in my work, and having the diversity of the disability experience validated.

Since that day, I’ve come back to this question often: what is the reason that we don’t have more portrayals, intersectional and inclusive portrayals, of disability and disabled people? Why are so many stories about disabled people written by our friends, families, and caretakers…

The Establishment
The Establishment

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