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The Significance of Characters with Disabilities in Literary Fiction

Today I am thrilled to host my first guest, Deirdre O’Grady, who was my sensitivity reader for The Cottage on Winter Moss.

What is a sensitivity reader?

These days writers are encouraged to be as inclusive as possible; to reflect, in their writing, the world we inhabit with all its diversity. However good a writer may be at stepping into the shoes of others, she can never really know what it is to be someone whose shoes are what I will call ‘culturally bespoke’ - specific to a certain group of people who have an ethnicity, disability or sexuality or some other trait that she doesn’t share. So she does the best she can and then she asks someone who has real-life, possibly personal, possibly academic experience, to make sure she has got it right. This person is a sensitivity reader. She reads to ensure that inaccuracies, misconceptions and prejudices have not crept into the manuscript and to make sure that those who are portrayed within the text will recognise that portrayal as true.

Deirdre has a HDip in facilitating inclusion in disabilities, a diploma in disability studies and a diploma in psychology. She lives in the Republic of Ireland. She has two children, both of whom are neurodiverse and who both have a physical disability. She is a recreation therapist and delivers Disability Awareness courses in Cork.

Olivia’s character in The Cottage on Winter Moss is thought provoking and raises significant issues about the influence of literature on society’s attitudes towards disabilities. A literary character who has a disability encourages discussions and allows us to reflect on our own perceptions of disabilities.

Olivia’s relationship with her mother will resonate with many teenagers on the cusp of womanhood. While striving for independence, teenagers can become headstrong and adamant that they are capable of much more than their parents give them credit for. Such as the case with Olivia’s mother, Marjorie, and indeed a lot of us parents, the apron strings can be difficult to cut loose during the transitions between childhood, teenage years and adulthood. However, Olivia is in her twenties and like many people with disabilities, the apron strings are often held even closer and tighter as expectations are all too often tainted by a diagnosis. Milestones common with advancing age can be stunted by misperceptions when those with disabilities are held in a perpetual child like state.

The difference in Marjorie’s views versus Olivia’s is highlighted in various incidents in the story: when Marjorie objects to Olivia having a drink from the good crystal wine glass and again when Marjorie attempts to decline a gin and tonic on Olivia’s behalf. Yet, Olivia is obviously a very capable young woman who has a job with responsibility, and a strong insight into events and people within her community.

Olivia’s struggle for independence and acceptance is one all too familiar to many people with various forms of disability. Like many people who don’t have a disability, Olivia struggles with loneliness and sexuality. However, this can be heightened for people with disabilities as acceptance is harder to achieve.

Olivia’s relationship with Dee and her romance and subsequent marriage are wonderful examples of accomplishments available when equality and acceptance are the bases of relationships. Both Dee and another character, Patrick, see Olivia as an equal and consider her for who she is. This allows their relationships with her to flourish without being negatively influenced by inaccurate presumptions of capabilities. By seeing the individual before the disability, strengths of character become obvious and the individual can truly be seen for who they are.

Allie has superbly developed Olivia as a character capable of a fulfilling life with friendships, love and prospects but individuality must be acknowledged in the influence of a condition such as Mosaic Down Syndrome as symptoms are vastly variable. A diagnosis should not determine assumptions of strengths and weaknesses in an individual nor can one individual be considered on par with another even when the diagnosis is the same.

The acceptance of individuality and diversity is often highly influenced by portrayals within literature. Unfortunately, throughout history the depiction of disabilities has not always been as positive and accurate as Allie Cresswell has achieved with Olivia.

Some of the earliest portrayals of disabilities were evidenced between the 19th and 20th centuries when side-shows were at their peak. The use of those with disabilities for monetary gain portrayed those with disabilities as tragic, monstrous and freakish, while monopolising on the fear of the unknown from observers fearful of contagion and the evil the performers were advertised as being or having. Those with disabilities were subjects of ridicule and discrimination.

This image is an example of a poster for a side-show, with the highlight of the show being Jo-Jo who was born with Hypertrichosis, a genetic disorder that manifests in excessive hair growth. The resounding question on the poster ponders the nature of Jo-Jo’s being and questions whether he is a boy or a dog. The question of Jo-Jo’s humanity and the animalistic representation immediately determined a societal view of his difference. By depicting him as half human, half animal, society is encouraged to treat him as such. Respect was obviously low in priorities. It is difficult to strive for self fulfillment when one is depicted as animalistic. When those with disabilities are segregated and left in the fringes of society, the barriers they face increase and struggles are intensified.

Society's views have a significant influence on how we perceive our own self worth. When literature portrays disabilities in a derogatory manner, we accept and internalise the perception and a self fulfilling prophecy can follow. However, when literature is used as a vessel for consideration and enforcement of equality, acceptance and inclusivity are produced.

The deconstruction of such negative portrayals is laborious but essential to the ongoing development of inclusion and acceptance. Positive rather than negative representation of those with disabilities such as with Olivia, create a familiarity of differences which significantly reduces misconceptions and discrimination.

Consultation with sensitivity readers with expertise in the field of disabilities as Allie Cresswell has done, ensures accurate representation of characters and creates a society of acceptance and inclusion. By highlighting strengths of character and producing a familiarity of form, those with disabilities are embraced for their individuality and personal and societal acceptance is encouraged. It is therefore essential that literature depicts characters who are realistic while being respectful of the challenges faced by those affected.

Should you require the services of a sensitivity reader with expertise in disability awareness, contact Deirdre O’ Grady at


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