Mental Disability in Literature

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As some of you may know, it’s autism awareness month. This is a very special issue to me; my older brother, G, has very severe autism and my childhood took place in an environment where that was not an unusual or strange thing.

I understand more than most what a mixed blessing a family member with disability can be, particularly when that disability is mental. There are frustrations and anger, but also love and compassion. This is why it irks me when I see most portrayals of mental disability in literature, especially SF/F.

Literature often does not portray mental disability well. Whether out of ignorance or inability to show the complex family and social dynamics, literature (as well as many other storytelling medium) fall far short of the mark. I often find that, in fiction, persons with disability are used more as a plot device than as a character with purpose and emotion. This is not something done maliciously or out of some anger towards those with disability, but perhaps it happens because we take people for granted–people of all shapes, sizes, and ability.

I’ve put below some of my favorite representations of autism and disability below. I’d love to hear yours.

Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck

A Song of Fire and Ice, George R.R. Martin (This is not for Hodor’s protrayal, which I find largely disappointing, but for his relationship with his grandmother, who loves and accepts him for who he is despite her frustrations.)

Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer

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