As humans we often use labels to categorize and understand the world around us. We use numbers in competition to define excellence, education to inform the credibility of one’s opinion, weight to determine a person’s physical fitness. But as we all know, nothing is that black and white. The world just simply isn’t that one dimensional. There are exceptions to every rule. Regardless, we tend to place labels and compare data, often pigeon-holing people into neat little categories.
For the purposes of this post, I’m sticking with disability labels. I have both anxiety and ADD. I also teach special education where we place disability labels on IEP documents, with the intentions of helping design an educational plan that is created for that specific student’s learning needs. The problem with labels though, is that people can allow labels to create the definition of who they are.
I’ve had ADD and anxiety as long as I can remember. There are many times during a day when my ADD or anxiety affects my behaviors, ways of thinking, and attitude. Once, I was having a spastic moment where I forgot, yet again, to grab something from my desk that I needed. One of my co-workers turned to another and jokingly said, “She’s ADHD.”
In the moment, I didn’t think much about it. I’m very aware that my ADD affects many aspect of my personality, but I also embrace it because it makes me who I am. Later, after my brain had settled down, I thought about it. Is this something, that in the eyes of others, defines who I am? Do they see the disability, more than they see me?
I use this example because I’ve witnessed this happen with characters in novels as well – the characters are defined by their disabilities rather than having them as just one facet of their personality. They become the ADHD character or the OCD character, where the disability dictates all the other personality traits – not the other way around. There’s a big difference between being OCD and organized or being organized and OCD. However; that difference says a lot about both the character and society’s mentality as a whole.
I’ve written two novels with disabled characters in order to help break this representation in literature. The most recent young adult novel that I’ve written, addresses just this issue. Sydney has to come to terms not just with the disability of anxiety but also the label. She has to find a way to deal with it and not allow her anxiety to define who she is.
Unfortunately, I don’t think society is going to stop using labels to categorize things. But as writers, we have the power to change the perception of how disabled characters are constructed in our stories. We possess the ability to empower them and make them bigger than their disability – creating them as complex as anyone with a disability really is.