Disability Studies Quarterly
Winter 2004, Volume 24, No. 1
Copyright 2004 by the Society
for Disability Studies

2D or 3D characters

Helen A. Aveling, B.A.
Rochester, Kent, UK
E-mail: Helen_a@blueyonder.co.uk

The intention of this paper is to question how modern authors and readers respond to disabled characters in children's literature. The accepted way of creating characters by type, giving evil characters a disability or a twisted mind, is one I reject totally. I see it as type casting and a means of writer's shorthand that continues to be used. The flip sides of the accepted model are saint-like characters that are too good to be permitted to live to the final paragraph of the book. These characters are defined by their perceived goodness or their physical status, not by their emotional responses. Certainly this model does have emotions - devil-like wickedness and saint-like goodness - but these two extremes are by and large the only ones permitted. Cloying gratitude is missing from this list, but it goes hand-in-hand with goodness. Having read so many books in this vein as children, it should not surprise us if the general public reaction to disability is defined in these extreme terms.

In "classic" books for children, Heidi or Little Women, for example, the authors used the accepted model in creating characters like Clara Sesseman or Beth March. An accepted way of responding to these characters is to view them as being on the periphery of their society. This reinforces the stereotype of a passive character, who, by their goodness, accepts whatever they are given. In my review (Aveling, 2002) of Lois Keith's Take Up Thy Bed And Walk, I admit to having problems with this perspective. These characters can be seen in a more positive role as lynch-pins in their social sphere. Beth's peacemaking role benefits all her sisters, but it does not need to be linked to her delicate health; it is a part of her personality. With the benefit of hindsight, we can excuse the caricatures in these books as being "of their times", but can we afford to be as generous to modern writers who employ this same template in their books?

In Rowena Edlin-White's Clo and the Albatross (1996), Clo's sports-mad elder sister, Beth, becomes a wheelchair user following a car accident, which took away many of her abilities. The responses to Beth's dependence are seen through Clo's eyes, and we see the inevitable minor jealousy, given the family's protracted focus on Beth as being totally helpless. In the first half of the book, Beth is drawn only in terms of this loss of ability. This is saying that Beth is not entitled to a deeper personality; that being disabled is sufficient to define her. To portray a disabled character thus is reinforcing the negativity inherent in the accepted way of creating disabled characters and is seriously misleading. This assumption is carried through to the second half of the book, where the emphasis shifts from Beth-as-a-helpless-cripple to Beth-the-campaigner-for-accessible-buildings. What has really happened is that Clo, and the responsible adults around the sisters have come to an acceptance of Beth's wheelchair and now they need something else by which to describe the older girl. This half of the book is sadly very much a product of the early 1990s and the numerous campaigns for improved accessibility. At the end of the book, Beth is still lacking a distinctive character, irrespective of her wheelchair or her former sporting achievements. This echoes the reliance on physical definitions that were a staple of 19th century children's literature.

I found a similar lack of a personality with Annie in Gillian Cross' Calling a Dead Man (2001). Here the story is told from two perspectives; one being the writer's narrative capacity, the other being through the eyes of a mid-teenage sister of the "dead" man who is roped in to physically assist his wheelchair-using fiancée to find out what really happened to him. Instead of using the "classic" disabled character, Cross has created a new type: The Unflappable & Efficient Modern Disabled Person. Annie is an intensely powerful person, but seen through the younger girl's eyes, her personality relies solely on her wheelchair. The accounts of getting to the airport and flying to Moscow (when there was no certainty of what they would find when they arrived) rang very true to me. I knew what the two characters were experiencing and I could identify with what the younger girl, Hayley, was feeling as she was shown the practicalities of being a wheelchair user doing things that non-disabled people do. What was missing in this book was a personality for Annie. The nearest Cross came to giving Annie any emotions was in describing Annie as 'selfish' or "demanding," but as we are seeing Annie through Hayley's eyes, this failing could be attributed to that. On a personal level I saw no warmth or compassion with which Hayley's brother had fallen in love. Annie had been drawn slightly too strong for that.

Compare these titles to two written in the mid-1960s by K M Peyton, Flambards (1967) and The Edge of the Cloud (1969). These books, set in the early years of the twentieth century, follow a young orphan girl who is sent to live with an eccentric uncle and his two sons. Christina's uncle had been crippled (pg.76) as a result of a riding accident many years before the story begins, but she arrives on the day that the younger of the sons, Will, also has a riding accident. Although Peyton uses the accepted model when describing Christina's Uncle Russell, there is a deeper exploration of Will's personality. The boy hates horses, and deliberately starts using his broken leg before it has healed so that he cannot be forced to ride again. Will's passion is for flying, of which his father vigorously disapproves, and Will can only pursue his passion by running away from home. In the depiction of Will, Peyton gives us a young man who is real in a way that neither Beth nor Annie is. He is a more rounded character than they are: Will rows with his father, his affection for his orphan cousin develops into love. In the second book, Will is shown to be an expert on fledgling aeroplanes, and though Peyton nods at the "Douglas Bader" portrayal of disabled person in the description of the modification of the levers needed to operate the plane, it is very much a side-issue in the book as a whole.

I would like to see a move away from the two-dimensional approach of the accepted model and towards a "warts and all" three-dimensional image that more accurately reflects real life. I want disabled characters to be as three-dimensional as their non-disabled peers; for them to be character first, and to have their disability treated as a secondary issue. It is time that the wider public was encouraged to realise that we have the same emotional range and depth of personality as anyone else and that authors take this into account when they create characters with disabilities. As a disabled person, it irritates me to be referred to (too often within my hearing) as "the wheelchair user" or even worse as "the wheelchair". My mother did not give birth to a piece of equipment that happened to have a non-mechanical component to it. I am as much a living being as you are! Only when writers realise this will we begin to see books written with "real" disabled characters in them.


Alcott, Louisa May. 1934. Little Women. London: Harrap (first published 1868).

Aveling, Helen. 2 July 2002. Review of Take Up Thy Bed And Walk. TopsyWeb. 2 May 2003. http://users.powernet.co.uk/tanquen/topsy/review4folly_feb2001.htm

Cross, Gillian. 2001. Calling a Dead Man. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Edlin-White, Rowena. 1996. Clo and the Albatross. London: Lion Publishing Ltd.

Keith, Lois. 2001. Take Up Thy Bed And Walk. London: The Women's Press.

Peyton, K M. 1979. Flambards. London: Penguin Books.

Peyton, K M. 1989. The Edge of the Cloud. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Spyri, Johanna. 1966. Heidi. London: Penguin Books (first published 1880).

Biographical note:

Helen Aveling was born in Malawi in 1958, and grew up with cerebral palsy being as much an integral part of her life as her love of books. She was brought up in England, where she had an extremely enjoyable childhood and schooldays, and was the first female in her family to get a degree. Collecting books was a natural extension to her love of them, and she has an impressive collection of children's books. It has only been in the last few years that she has seriously started combining her opinions about disability and her feelings for books.

Copyright (c) 2004 Helen Aveling

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