Disabled stories as narrative tropes

A close up of an old typewriter with a white page inserted. Typed text reads Stories Matter.

When you’re disabled your life can become a story. But not always a story that you own. Sometimes it’s edited or distorted, sometimes you become a side character in your own autobiography. This week is National Storytelling Week and I wanted to reflect on how and why disabled lives are so often viewed and used as an abundant reserve of stories. In truth, I was going to write this as a straight piece. But being disabled and all I was simply overcome by my own inspiring existence and ended up writing this, well…in a less serious manner.

Fables on the fragility of life

One of the biggest ways disability is used in the media is to remind people of the fragility of life and to be thankful if you are non-disabled. We are reminded, often, that anyone of us can become disabled in our lifetime and the world of woe and hardship which awaits them. They offer chapter and verse of all the things someone used to take for granted; a simple trip to the shops, a night out, the inconvenience of public transport.

How to spot a fragility fable

  • Rose-coloured recollections of a life before disability: active sportsperson, keen hiker, successful businessperson.
  • Stark contrasts drawn between the richness of life before and the banality of life now (before= better, now=bad)
  • Shock and horror at how inaccessible the world is. Because disabled people never mentioned it before.

The lore of lessons learned

Everything is a learning experience in life right? Even disability. What did it teach us, how has it made us better humans, #grateful #humble #PositiveAttitude etc etc. Look, I’m not saying never be positive or there’s nothing to be positive about if you’re disabled but life isn’t an instagram grid. Not everything is a lesson or a teaching moment to be exploited for every click, hashtag and LinkedIn like.

How to spot the lore of lessons learned

  • A listicle. Five things my illness taught me, 7 things I wish I knew before becoming disabled (bonus point for an accessibility challenge).
  • Toxic positivity hashtags. All of them. Endless hashtags just emphasising how grateful and humble someone is.
  • Before and after photos, but the after photo has to be happier than the before photo. Because of all the things learned. Obvs.

The story of the supporting protagonist

When you’re giving main character energy but what this tale really needs is a non-disabled lead. Suddenly the supporting protagonist takes centre stage and you become either the comic relief or the plucky sidekick that just keeps trying, but is unfailingly saved from all the silly situations you get yourself into by the non-disabled character.

How to spot a story of the supporting protagonist

And finally, the Tolkien of tales… the epic inspiration arc

We all know that disabled people simply existing is a feat worthy of a medal, or at least a gold star like you used to get at school if you did well. Our storytelling value is off the scale when it’s an inspiring anecdote of overcoming, being successful despite the poor hand of cards dealt to us, or bravely enjoying a night out or sometimes just being out in general society. What else will warm the cockles of non-disabled people on a cold night? To be hailed as heroic because we went to a work do, or partook in a sporting challenge of some kind. It is perhaps the pinnacle of disabled storytelling, the OG if you will.

How to spot an epic inspiration arc

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