The Stories We Tell and the Amazon Experiment

I am the metaphor for the hero to learn a “valuable lesson.” I am your “afterschool special,” your vengeful monster and scarred villain. I will die or be killed gruesomely to serve as motivation for the protagonist, or I will overcome and be healed. This is how the world views people with disabilities; how the world portrays characters who are like me. And I hate it.

In genre fiction—where there is typically an expectation of unique worlds, daring heroes, and amazing adventures—I am either erased or exist only because my disability is needed as a plot point. I exist within narrow parameters, confined to the same sad storylines. You’ll recognize many of them: the psychic blind, happy people with intellectual disabilities, bitter cripples, and inspirational overachievers.

Not long ago, I wanted to more formally explore these “disability narratives” in the stories we tell, so I set up a simple test. I went to Amazon and typed the word “blind” into the search box—more than 26,000 books were selected. After narrowing the category to Romance; the list contained 1466 books. And finally, I designated just Historical Romance—134 books. In this “Amazon Experiment” I would read the description of every one of those books and see if there were any trends in the stories told about characters who were blind.

What I discovered was that the vast majority of these disability narratives would fit into five categories. Please pardon any snarkiness, it is fully intentional. I am paraphrasing the descriptions of actual books to protect the guilty.

1. Bringing Light to Darkness and other Painful Metaphors I Never Want to See Again
A story of passionate awakening, [NYT Bestselling Author]’s novel unites a war hero consigned to darkness with a woman who finds her own salvation by showing him the light of love.

2. Let Me Heal Him/Her with my Love Because You can’t be Blind and Happy
When Lady Noname, is carried to safety from a fire, she recognizes her rescuer as the man who despises her! But he has been blinded and Lady Noname must nurse him back to health.

3. Beauty & the Beast or more accurately, the Blind & the Beast
Once overwhelmingly irresistible to women, Wicked Sir Knight’s life was changed forever by a brutal wound. Now he has come to wreak revenge by claiming his enemy’s daughter. Left blind by his invasion, innocent Fragile Blind Woman trembles before the scarred barbarian.

4. Blind Psychic Powers or Amazing Sword Fighting/Martial Arts Abilities I Wish I Had
A young girl is ritually blinded to gain powers. While she can never get her eyes back, she can however learn to truly see the world around her and seek a life based on love instead of avarice.

5. Learning to Accept Blindness and Grow up to be Rebuilt Better, Stronger, Faster…
Teenage Girl must struggle with the news that she will soon go blind. As if this weren’t shocking enough, she is forced to face the fact that she must now attend a school for the blind to learn Braille and how to use a cane. She inwardly hopes for a miracle that will save her sight. But will that miracle come, or will she need to learn to embrace her new life?

This does not mean these books are awful or terrible. In fact, I have actually gone on to read about a third of the books in the Amazon Experiment; a couple are The New York Times bestsellers and one is a national award winner that I often point to as an example of where someone effectively captured disability. My intent is to highlight that in all of these books it is the same kind of disability narrative and the repetition of these stereotypes becomes ingrained into society.

As an example, I once asked a room full of authors what their response would be if I asked them to make the protagonist in their current Work-in-Progress a woman—most nodded, yesses were heard around the room. Then I asked if they could make their character a person of color—again, nods around the room. Then I asked if they would make the character disabled—silence. The discomfort was palpable. In theory diversity and disability was great to include in fiction but when it came to implementation, they couldn’t easily connect disability with their protagonist. They had trouble adjusting to the practical reality of disability existing outside of the boxes they knew. This is why 134 stories on Amazon could be broken down into five story categories.

It is a difficult thing to face every day, to see yourself portrayed as Victim, Monster, Cripple, Inspiration, or Cured. Are these the only stories we tell? Are these the only stories we read? Are these the only stories we deserve? Obviously, the answer to that should be a resounding “No.” I demand more from writers. I demand more from readers. And you should too. We shouldn’t be okay with these limits on creativity and imagination. My Amazon Experiment highlighted characters who exist only because of the disability and speaking as a woman with a disability, we are so much more. We are mothers and brothers, lawyers and 1800s lamplighters, fierce warriors and mysterious magicians. We are heroes in our own stories; stories defined by who we are rather than what we can or cannot do. Those are the stories I want to read.

Day Al-Mohamed

Day Al-Mohamed is author of the novel Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn: A Steampunk Faerie Tale, editor of the anthology, Trust & Treachery, and a regular host on Idobi Radio’s Geek Girl Riot. Her stories have appeared in Fireside Fiction, Apex Magazine, and GrayHaven Comics. She is a Docs in Progress Fellowship alumna and a graduate of the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop.

In addition to fiction, she also works in comics and film. Day’s short story, “The Lesser Evil” was nominated for the WSFA Small Press Award for Best Short Fiction of 2015. However, she is most proud of being invited to teach a workshop on storytelling at the White House in February 2016.

A disability policy executive with more than fifteen years of experience, she presents often on the representation of disability in media, most recently for the National Bar Association, at New York Comic Con, and at SXSW. She lives in Washington DC with her wife, N.R. Brown. You can find Day online at DayAlMohamed.com and on Twitter @DayAlMohamed.

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