Romantic Novelists Association Conference 2017 – a talk on writing about disability

Slide from @DisRomProject 'Writing Disability in Romance: Potentials and Pitfalls

A couple of weekends ago, I went to RNAConf17 in Telford. This was my 6th conference and, as always, it was fantastic. I was in a flat with the rest of the Naughty Kitchen and sat up until waaaay past my usual bed time, eating chocolate and drinking (tea in my case, because I’m sad like that) and chatting about all manner of things. My favourite moment was when a first time conference attendee suddenly said “It’s so nice to be in the company of so many women who UNDERSTAND what it’s like to have people living in your head.” Yep. We get that.

Oh, and I had a lovely fan girl moment when I ran into Sarah Morgan. I love her books. I babbled. She was very gracious and let me take a photo with her.

I attended talks on how to manipulate images, how to ‘do’ social media, the future of the industry etc. The most eye opening talk by far was by Dr Ria Cheyne who talked to us about her research project into the representation of disability in romantic fiction. Her talk about about things to be aware of when writing disabled characters in romance. This is something I’m interested in. I’ve written depressed characters before, which I’m comfortable doing because I’ve been there. I have an idea in embryo about a mobility impaired character, and, since I don’t have first hand experience of it, I know I need to do research to make her life realistic.

Anyway, here are my notes from the session. If you have time, please visit the DisRom Project and take their survey. Pass it onto friends who read romance.

Slide from @DisRomProject 'Writing Disability in Romance: Potentials and Pitfalls
Main slide

Dis Rom Project discussion with Dr Ria Cheyne 

They’ve only had 500 or so reponses to their survey so far, so not enough to draw conclusions from. But responses to the question ‘Would a disabled character on the cover or in the blurb make you LESS likely to buy the book’ were 1%! Most people said it made no difference. A few people (around 19% said ‘it depends’).
The advice for writing about disability was:
  • Do your research – look at forums, speak to people with similar conditions. Don’t assume anything. Eg. Wheelchair users aren’t ALWAYS in their wheelchairs. A person using a white cane isn’t necessarily a 100% sightless.
  • Don’t use disabled secondary characters as a way of showing how good a main character is.
  • Don’t make disabled characters mysteriously wise (make them real people).
  • Be wary of recovery narratives where the disability is suddenly cured by a bonk on the head or a new miracle treatment. 
  • Be mindful of language. Eg ‘She was a wheelchair user’ is different to ‘she was confined to a wheelchair’.
  • Remember hidden disability – not all disability is obvious or visible.
The questions at the end were also illuminating.
Covers from Scope's Romance Classics (2016)
Click on the image to go to the page on the Scope blog

We discussed why representation was important (everyone deserves a happy ending!) and talked a little bit about how people reclaim derogatory language and how someone in wheelchair calling themselves a ‘crip’ is potentially realistic and non-offensive, an able-bodied person calling them that would be offensive, just as it would be in real life. 

We also discussed how it was a good idea to have people familiar with the condition beta read the book before it goes out. This is a sort of ‘sensitivity beta read’ to check for mistakes or misconceptions rather than to check if anyone is offended by anything (people are offended by all sorts of things, you’d never write a book that doesn’t offend someone, somewhere).
It was a really interesting talk. It made me think about a lot of things.

Here’s the link to the survey again. Please do fill it in (and share). 

https://disrom.com/take-part/

The Disability and Romance Project