05-26-18 – Blog Queen - Sarah Raplee

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Born This Way

Hi everyone! I am YA author B A Binns , writer of contemporary and realistic fiction for teens. My tagline tells you what I am about - Stories of Real Boys Growing Into Real Men - and the people who love them. 

For this month, the Genre-istas asked me to do a special post, as part of their April focus on Writing Other-Abled Characters. I've chosen to write about my work in progress, which features a disabled teen as one of the main characters. In this post you will get some history about disabled characters, as well as information on how I went about choosing to give one of my teens a congenital disability, cerebral palsy. You will also get a look at an excerpt from the manuscript. And, if anyone is interested in learning more about the story and getting a chance to be a beta reader, feel free to leave me a comment with contact information.

Last Saturday, Kathleen Delaney blogged about her experiences becoming an amputee, and how that effected her writing. A lot of the literature featuring disabled characters involve formerly able-bodied people who, through accident or disease, become disabled.

As a teen several (OK, a lot of) decades ago, I read my first story featuring a disabled character. Light A Single Candle by Beverly Butler, told the story of a girl my age loosing her sight. This book left me terrified by the possibility of facing such a disability myself as well as entranced by the courage of the once normal girl facing this disability.  Over the years, many of the books I read featuring disabled characters used the same trope, a "normal" person who became disabled and either learns to make the best of their disability, or who decide the right thing to do is end their lives so their able-bodied kith and kin will cease suffering in the ceaseless effort to care for them.

These are all valid and valuable stories. But they are not the only stories about disabled people. Many in the disabled community have noted the dearth of stories about who are differently abled their entire life. Most of the disabled are people living with a congenital or childhood condition. They are not nostalgic about the good old days before. Nor do they have to learn to adjust to their disabled status. Instead, they live a full life, at ease with the situation they have always lived in, like this father shopping with his daughter on his crutch.

Ever one to face a challenge head on, I chose to place a disabled person in my current YA project.

From a presentation on disability in children's literature
I began by choosing the disability, and settled on cerebral palsy, thinking I knew something about that condition. CP is often the result of some injury or insult that occurs in utero or during birth. Therefore, many people with CP are literally "born that way".

Fortunately, I teach classes to authors on the subject of writing about people outside their own group - Adding the Spice Of Diversity To Your Writing. ( I decided to follow my own instructions to students. That means beginning by tossing out everything I thought I knew about the condition and start as a complete knowledge. Otherwise, "Write What You Know" could too easily result in writing how you would feel if you were in that situation. Or, worse still, it could pull up a stereotype or caricature instead of a real character. I take students through this issue in several lessons.

Practicing what I preach involved  following five steps:
  1. Readers are number 1 – so I always keep track of who I am trying to reach. Yes, most of the readers will be able-bodied young adults. But I also strive to appeal to disabled readers, and their friends and family. I hope many of them will both sympathize with the character, and identify with both his disability and his unique strengths and abilities. 
  2. That means taking myself, and what I think it would be like to be disabled out of the picture. 
  3. Then I took everything I thought I knew about being disabled and cerebral palsy and tossing it in the proverbial wastebasket. 
  4. Doing research, both secondary and then primary research from experts. 
  5. Taking extra effort to steer clear of stereotypes such as the A-Sexual Cripple, the Always Happy Cripple, and his/her cousin, the Always Angry Cripple.
So, as I instruct my students, I symbolically burned anything and everything I thought I knew about CP, scattered the ashes, and began research. While I do have some disabled relatives and friends, I did not actually know much more than is presented in the popular media, which includes stereotypes and depictions of disability, some of which are watered down and twisted. (Take a look at some of the comments from the disabled community about the book and movie, Me Before You -

All ages at the Disability Expo
My efforts started with good old-fashioned books. I always begin by learning as much as I can on my own, then approaching experts. I don't want to waste an expert's valuable time, and those willing to provide me with cultural background and information are, in fact, experts who deserve every consideration for their expertise and willingness to share. I read through several hundred pages of Cerebral Palsy: A Practical Guide for Caregivers to gain a general understanding of the illness and its effect on individuals and their families.

From there I moved into primary research, including attending the 2016 Disability Expo in Chicago. There I found a variety of mobility aids, and people of all ages, playing tennis, dancing, and even giving dance lessons. I had a mixture of people to talk to, different ages, disabilities, and those disabled in their older years, as well as those born that way. The end result, I learned a lot more than I thought I would, and met a ton of new people. One of the side joys of being a writer.

My model for Alex. not 14, but too happy to ignore
The next step was to create my character, fourteen year old Alex Gruberman. In many ways, choosing CP was a fortunate decision on my part. This condition has many different aspects, and effects different brains in different ways. He's a small town high school student born with moderate left-side hemiparesis, That's a long term that means his left arm and leg are weak, the muscles are are contracted. It affects his muscle tone and ability to coordinate body movements. He is able to walk short distances with braces and medication. At home he goes without the wheelchair, but in school he uses a motorized chair. It also means he is subject to bullying.  Other kids in the small town, including his own cousin, call him brain dead, and lego-less.

The other main character is his next door neighbor, Tash Parker, an African American teen who just moved to this rural and predominantly white section of southern Illinois. In the following excerpt from the story I call Trooper, Tash has been walking her dog and hears sounds of pain coming when she passes the house and steps in to intervene.

TROOPER Excerpt:

“Parents aren’t supposed to hurt their kids,” I say sternly. Soft voice or not, I have to tell Alex's father what I think of him.
“I wish I didn’t have to,” he answers, and now he sounds both soft and sad.  
“He wasn’t hurting me,” Alex says and comes into view, standing beside his father.
Standing! “How?” I gasp. Has he been pretending at school?
He leans on a crutch held in his right hand. It’s decorated with a rainbow of different kinds and colors of tape. There is a handle for his right hand to grasp and a cuff that fits around his upper arm.
He walks closer, pushing past his father. Actually, he wobbles, even with the crutch. He wears shorts, letting me see that his left and right legs don’t work together. His left side drags in a way that looks painful.
Shango escapes my grasp, jumps to the ground and rushes at Alex, moving the way he did when still a puppy. He rears up and puts his forepaws on Alex’s thighs. Alex falls back, his right arm flailing as he loses balance. His father reaches for him, but stops when Alex grips the door frame without losing his cane and somehow stays on his feet.
Alex is closer to me now, and I smell what energized my normally sedate bulldog. “You have bacon,” I say accusingly. Nothing turns Shango on faster.
Alex pulls a piece from his pocket and tosses it to my dog. “Dad fixes bacon for me as a treat to help me survive home therapy sessions.”
His father sighs. “It’s hard on Alex. I hate being his enemy.”
“Not enemy,” Alex assures his father. “You have to do this.”
He leads the way inside the house. We settle on the sofa with Shango in his lap while his father goes to the kitchen to fix dinner.
“I owe you,” Alex tells me. “Dad ended my exercises early.”
“Is he a good cook?”
“Barely knows how to burn water.”
I can’t believe silent Alex made a joke. Maybe it’s not a joke? The odors coming from the kitchen are not spectacular. I smell stew. Onions, carrots, and beef, but my aunt would say it needs more spices. No wonder he made Alex bacon as a treat.
“Mom rolled up her sleeves and dove into things. I could moan and cry while she manipulated me. I liked that. I have to be extra careful with Dad. When I cry out his face tightens and his hands begin shaking. He hurts when I hurt. I try to remain silent, but sometimes when my muscles scream, my mouth screams too.” His right shoulder shrugs. “It’s not like school. Silent there is easy.”
“Do the exercises help you?”
Another shrug. “My muscles aren’t getting any worse.”
“What about your chair?” I ask, pointing to where it sits folded in a corner.
“I don’t use it at home. The crutch is harder and slower, but I hate the chair.”
“If you hate it, why use it at school?”
He looks at me like I’ve just asked the stupidest question ever. I feel my face grow hot as I realize he's right. He’d get creamed in the halls with those legs.
“I have moderate spastic hemiparesis, he begins. The muscles in my left arm and leg continually contract. That makes me stiff and…”
“And awkward.”
“Yeah, that. I was slow and shaky and kids kept knocking me down. They said it was an accident, but I was on the ground all the time. I managed kindergarten, even first grade, mostly by staying in my seat as much as possible. Then I started using the chair to survive. If kids act like they don’t see me or don’t get out of my way I’m not the one getting knocked around.”
“You didn’t knock me down today.”
He gives me a long, cool, penetrating stare. “You’ve never bullied me.”
No, but I have ignored him, just like everyone else.

Thank you for reading.

I hope you see Alex as a kid of inner strength, who doesn't bemoan his life and problems, but learns to live with him. And, by the end of the story, he even learns to dance.

If you are interested in reading more, let me know in a comment, and I will get back to you.
And if you want to talk about your efforts in writing about a differently-abled character, tell me that too.


Diana McCollum said...

Awesome post! Reading about differently-abled characters has almost always been a healthy person who becomes disabled. I like your story excerpt!

B. A. Binns said...

Thanks Diana.

Judith Ashley said...

Hi B.A., It is amazing what adaptive equipment is available to people who are differently-abled. I had a client who had a left hemi-paresis among other problems from a auto accident. He was wheelchair bound but went skiing, ocean deep sea fishing and dancing. The skiing and fishing were his favorite because he was outdoors. I think it is even more important than ever to show young people the worth and value all of us bring to our society. I'm old enough that differently-abled children were not in public schools at all or they were in closed classrooms and did not engage with the "normal" students. What a waste!