As attitudes to disability change so does their representation in literature. At one time there was a persistent stereotype of sinister or evil characters commonly associated with disability such as ugly pirates, witches, criminals etc. The balance is being redressed but there is still a tendency to portray female disabled characters as someone to be pitied. There is also a definite school of thought that if the character somehow recovers from their disability then the writer is not facing the issue fair and square.
David Astor in the Huffington Post writes an excellent article on fictional characters with disabilities. Characters he flags up include Captain Ahab from Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick, Long John Silver from Treasure Island (Robert Lewis Stevenson) and Captain Hook from Peter Pan (J M Barrie). For characters that elicit sympathy he cites Joe Bonham, in Dalton Trumbo’s antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun, and Kunta Kinte in Alex Haley’s Roots, among others.
GoodReads is a great place to get reading inspiration. It has categories of books all chosen by readers from which to get ideas for what to read next. It has a well-populated ‘shelf’ on books with characters with disabilities. Here readers’ suggestions include such classics as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (Mark Haddon) featuring young Asperger sufferer Christopher John Francis Boone, and the distruptive Joey Pigza in Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key(Jack Gantos).
Although dating back to 2011 Katherine Quarmby’s top ten disability stories published in The Guardian is worth a look. She notes that “although some of the characters are clearly not positive I think it’s important to recommend influential books here, rather than the few written by disabled writers seeking to promote positive images that haven’t reached the mainstream.” Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens) and Wilkie Collins’ unfortunate disabled servant, Rosanna Spearman in The Moonstone, are a couple of Quarmy’s top choices.
Dear Author, an American blog for readers by readers, has a good post by guest reviewer, ‘Ridley from Love in the Margins, entitled If you like books about characters with disabilities, which is worth reading if only for the reviewer’s pithy comments and outlook on life. The reviewer uses a power wheel chair, due to a neuromuscular disease, so has a personal interest in how authors use disability themes in books. She is particularly impressed by Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale and the hero’s battle and frustration with his stroke.