When I was younger, I loved to read. One of my favorite genres was middle grade fiction. At the time, I didn’t see many characters with disabilities portrayed in a relatable or non-heroic way. (And by heroic, I mean heroic for basically just existing and dealing with inaccessible environments.) As an adult, I am now more aware of the importance of authentic disability inclusion in stories.
Why is it so important? Middle-grade characters with disabilities can help young readers learn about diversity and inclusion in a way that is fun and engaging. They can also show young readers with disabilities that their experiences are valid, regardless of their differences. In this article, we will discuss what inclusion looks like in middle grade novels and how you can achieve it in your own writing.
Disability Inclusion in Middle Grade Fiction
Inclusion in middle grade fiction means that all characters, regardless of their abilities or differences, are treated as equals. This includes having a character with a disability as one of the main protagonists or sidekicks. And to me, that means having characters with disabilities in books as a token character OR to only aid in moralizing or “teaching a lesson” about disability or differences.
One way to achieve inclusion in your writing is to make sure that disabled characters are not tokenized or used as a plot device. This means that their disability is not the only thing that defines them and they are fully developed characters with their own goals, motivations, and flaws. Disabled characters should also be portrayed realistically, as whole people. They have the same internal and external conflicts as everyone else.
Many times in literature we see people with disabilities held up as a “hero” for no reason other than the fact they are living their life with a disability. This is a false narrative. In fiction, heroes are people who overcome external and internal obstacles, regardless of what those may be. While it may be more difficult (or take longer) for a person with a disability to complete an every-day activity, that’s just their life. Just being born or developing a chronic health problem isn’t necessarily an “inciting incident.”
How to Achieve Inclusion in Your Writing
In order to achieve inclusion in your writing, it is important to do some research on disabilities and the experiences of disabled people. There are many great resources available online and in print that can help you get started. Try reading memoirs by disabled authors, browsing Disability Studies journals, or . . . talking to someone with a disability. In fact, if you may need to hire a sensitivity reader or even have someone co-write with you if a lot of your content centers around a character with a disability.
One of the most important aspects of inclusion is disability representation. Characters with disabilities should be included in middle grade novels because they offer a different perspective that can help young readers learn more about people who are different from them. But “having a disability” doesn’t just mean having a physical difference. Disability inclusion also looks like including characters with visible and invisible disabilities, as well as neurodiversity. This helps to show that a “disability” isn’t just something you can see on the outside.
If you’re looking for a book that does this well, check out my middle grade mystery, No Clues, You Lose. I love writing books that include characters with disabilities where the disability is not the focus. No Clues. You Lose is similar to books like Nancy Drew or The Boxcar Children. It’s the first in a series. (And I’m already working on Book Two!)