Disability in Fiction: You Can’t Get Everything Right the First Time

So I was reading a story the other day that was, really, a very well-written story with interesting characters and an interesting plot and a pretty respectful look at disability. (The story also included a couple characters who were less than respectful of disabilities, and that in no way detracted from the actual respect in the story; these characters were unilaterally told off for their disrespect.) However, one thing stood out to me, a couple days later, as being less than awesome.

Character A walks into a college office with Character B to meet Character C to discuss accommodations. A is … let’s say A is using crutches to get around. From appearances, this could be because of a broken ankle that will heal in the next month, or it could be because of any number of more permanent conditions. C says, “Oh, I see that you are disabled.” B adds, “Yes, and A has a handicapped parking tag in sy car to prove it.”

First off, I’ve had temporary handicapped parking tags on several occasions for breaking various things in my legs. That does not indicate that I need to run on down the disability office on campus and get special in-class accommodations. (in fact, all I did was say, “Hey, Prof, broke my leg, mind if I change my assigned seat to one I can get into a little easer?” and the prof said, “Of course, pip!” I imagine if that scene had gone differently, I could have gone to student disability services for backup, but I would never start there. I would never register a broken leg as a disability.) The presence of a hangtag in one’s vehicle does not prove one’s disability.

Secondly, there are conditions that would result in a permanent hangtag that would indicate a need to register with SDS, and there are those that wouldn’t. There are conditions that indicate a need a register with SDS that do not involve a hangtag at all, that are completely invisible if you are just glancing up at me as I walk into your office. Take, for example, a traumatic brain injury that impairs someone’s ability to memorize long lists. This person may or may not drive, but either way, sa wouldn’t get a handicapped tag just for a memory impairment. Sorry, but your TBI (in this particular example) does not make it more difficult for you to walk further to enter a building. However, it does affect your performance in the classroom. The absence of a hangtag does not prove the absence of a disability.

Finally, the idea that a hangtag should be used as proof of anything is completely absurd. A couple years back, I kept a hangtag in my car, because I often picked up my mobility-impaired friend from classes. With this tag, I could park close enough for sa to get to the car. Yes, the tag was sy spare one, but it didn’t have sy name on it. (Tell me your local college or university would really go to the trouble of looking up the actual ownership of a hangtag.) If all it took to be registered at SDS was the presence of a hangtag in my car, well, I could have been registered despite no physical disability on my end. Likewise, I knew students who had their grandmothers’ spare hangtag, despite their grandmothers living hours away, simply so they could make use of the parking advantages and be lazy. (Their own admission, not me drawing conclusions.) I knew a student with documented fibromyalgia who had difficulty walking very far for classes but did not have a hangtag for various bureaucratic reasons – and sa was registered with SDS.

So, dear writer, I did enjoy your story, and you did an overall excellent job portraying a character with disabilities and sy home accommodations and characters interactions with sa. Overall, I have very positive feelings towards your story, both as a fun story and as a respectful and insightful look into the life of a person with disabilities. I just wish that one exchange had gone a little bit differently.

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