Friday, June 8, 2018

7 Tips for Writing A Character with an Intellectual Disability

Aaaaand this month on "Hannah won't stop talking about representing disabled characters in fiction:" We're going to discuss writing characters with intellectual disabilities.

What's an intellectual disability? you may ask. Put simply, it is a disorder that is characterized by below average intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior. This can affect a person's academic, social, and practical skills. It is entirely different from a learning disability, as an intellectual disability is a result of a below-average IQ while a learning disability is when a person has difficulty learning in a typical manner.

Intellectual disabilities seem to be represented more in fiction than most other types of disabilities, which is awesome. However, just because it's done somewhat more often doesn't mean that the representation is perfect. Here are some tips for writing a character with an intellectual disability:
7 Tips for Writing A Character with an Intellectual Disability

1. Recognize the different levels of intellectual disabilities. There are mild, moderate, severe, and profound. I could explain to you the ins and outs of each of these, or you could look it up on a site that is probably more trustworthy than what I've gleaned through reading and observation. Why is it important to recognize these different levels? Because the better you understand each level, the more accurately you can represent your character. You can understand the different academic, social, and emotional challenges they face, as well different tools they can use to live their lives well (or badly, if you choose to write such a character). So figure out what level of intellectual disability your character has and then do your research (more on that later).

2. Give your character a personality. A real one. Not a stereotyped one. People with intellectual disabilities are *drum roll* people. They have likes, dislikes, opinions, and moods. Some people with this disability are nice. Some are mean. Some love to laugh. Some don't. Please, please, please take personality into account when writing your character. Don't make them a walking list of characteristics you got off of WebMD. Make them characters first, then intellectually disabled people second. It's not hard. Just put a little bit of thought into it.

3. Take world-building into account. If you're writing speculative fiction, you need to figure out how your world's rules, religions, histories, and social systems affect your character. Are they seen as cursed by a deity? Or does their disability allow them to be particularly good at a revered job?

If you're writing fiction set in this world, you may think that world-building doesn't apply, but it does. Does your character live in a small town that's very loving or perhaps very harsh towards him/her? Or do they live in a large city that is less personal but has more resources for them?

Think about how your setting changes how your character is treated. And then figure out how this treatment will affect your character's self-image, behavior, and decision-making.

4. Go with "different," not "alien" or "bad." Sometimes an intellectually disabled character can cross over into the "alien" zone where the writer depicts them as so different and bizarre that they're somehow less human. I shouldn't have to say this, but: People with intellectual disabilities are not subhuman. They're people. They may talk, think, and behave differently, but they are people nonetheless. So please don't write your character as something to gawk at. Rather, write them as human beings. How? See tip 2.

5. Understand that intellectual disability doesn't always go hand-in-hand with physical disability. While intellectual disabilities can be paired with poor motor skills, speech difficulties, and differing physical characteristics, they aren't always. This is especially the case when it comes to mild intellectual disabilities. This gets to be a tip all on its own because I've noticed that this pairing happens in like 98% of representations, so I thought it was worth mentioning. Also, bonus: Autism is different from intellectual disability. While people with autism can also be intellectually disabled, this isn't always the case. They are different, so write them as such.

6. Research thoroughly and personally. Reading a couple of medical journals isn't going to cut it. While it may give you a general idea of what an intellectual disability is, it won't give you an idea of who intellectually disabled people are. And writing characters is all about the humanness, not the research. Read blogs by people with intellectual disabilities or their caretakers. Do volunteer work that allows you to meet people with this disability. Talk. Read fictional and nonfictional stories featuring characters with intellectual disabilities, both the good and the bad. It will open your mind and allow you to write a more realistic character.

7. Remember that your story doesn't have to be super dark and depressing. Most of the books I've read that feature this disability end with the disabled character dying or ending up in a horrible position. Throughout the entire story, things are dark and twisted and depressing. While those with intellectual disabilities do face many challenges and prejudices, it would be really, really nice to see them represented in a story with a happy ending. Or middle. Or at least a story that doesn't have to do with experimentation or suicide or bullying. Or even in a story where the main focus of the story isn't their disability. After all, the disability is not who they are. It's just part of who they are. So consider coming at your story from an angle that's different from the death and despair concept that's been used so often.

Okay. I think we're done here. Now I have to ask: Are you writing (or planning to write) and intellectually disabled character? I'd love to hear about him/her! And please leave a comment below with a book or movie that you think represented this disability well. I'm always looking for more good reads!

Have writing, reading, or writer's life questions? Use the hashtag #ChatWithHannah below or on social media to have them answered on my Youtube channel!

Related articles:
9 Tips for Writing Physically Disabled Characters in Fantasy
5 Problems Within the Own Voices Campaign (And How to Fix Them)

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  1. I had a story I was working on a few NaNoWriMo's ago (But I stopped writing because it just ended up not being what I wanted to work on anymore) a sci-fy with dystopian elements, and I remember that out of the whole book the only thing I found I did enjoy was how I had worked the element of the three siblings–who were the main characters–of the story. Two older brothers, and younger sister who was autistic. I only have minimal experience with autistic people, but I wrote the sister mild enough in it that when I revised (back when I was still writing it) I would hopefully have more knowledge about it and make it more realistic in case it was completely off point.
    I think my favorite part about her though, was how she enjoyed the same things her brothers did, and did really well when it came to sports such as skateboarding. She didn't talk, but she still had a personality that I'm glad I managed to have shine through.
    Even if I don't ever work on this particular story again, I think it gave me some welcome experience in writing characters!

  2. I really appreciate your blog, Hannah. Your tips are always so thoughtful and I totally agree! Intellectually disabled people are humans too!
    I haven't tried writing any intellectually disabled characters, but maybe I'll try it someday!

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