Writing about disability – to be PC or not to be?
Dropping In author Geoff Havel discusses why political correctness and children’s fiction shouldn’t always go hand in hand.
Why did you write Dropping In?
Dropping In is a book that really matters to me on both a personal and a social level. When I was nine years old I was diagnosed with a degenerative hip disease called Perthes’ disease. For 18 months my legs were fully encased in plaster with a bar between them, keeping them spread at a wide angle. When the plaster was finally removed I was left with a shorter leg and a hip that ached if I tried to do too much. It was during this time that I developed my attitude to disability.
I remember being treated differently from other children, both when I was in plaster and when I was recovering later. The different treatment was usually positive but left me confused and embarrassed. I couldn’t understand why, on a cross-country run, teachers repeatedly pulled up in a car to ask how I was going, or why I got a standing ovation when I completed the race. I’d come last by a mile. I now know they were applauding the effort, but that was not my focus. Anything to do with my legs took effort, but at the same time schoolwork was a breeze, my marks were excellent and I got no standing ovation for them. What I was really good at went unnoticed because it was not connected with my perceived disability.
In Dropping In I have tried to show the issues people with physical and mental problems have and compare how they are treated differently by society. I know many people with cerebral palsy and many with ADD. Both groups are subject to judgements about their capacity to do things, their motivation for doing things and how they should be treated. Political correctness plays a big part in those judgements, especially when looking at what these groups should or should not be able to do. The danger is that we limit what people try to do by limiting expectations.
What is your attitude to political correctness in literature?
One problem I see with the logic of those who would censor literature is the failure to differentiate between content and intent. Content is merely the vehicle that carries the intent. It is impossible to warn children of the dangers they may one day face if those dangers or situations are not mentioned.
Many of the scenes in Dropping In are what could be called politically incorrect but I have tried to reflect reality. In the book, teenage boys do risky things without due thought to the consequences of their actions. In my experience, teenage boys consistently behave like that. I did. My son did. Nearly every man I know has stories of stupid things they did as youths. If a function of literature is to learn about life and its pitfalls in a vicarious way, then it would do young readers a disservice to sanitise the text and remove the sort of actions teenagers do get up to. What is important is that the consequences of those actions are clearly shown, both good and bad.
Who is the character of James inspired by?
My daughter has a friend, Mandy Leask. I have always admired her determination to find a way to get on with life. I like how she dances in her wheelchair. Terrence Phillips and Gavin Spriggs, who also have fairly severe cerebral palsy, weigh up what is possible, and set out to achieve their goals. James was initially based on a blend of those three people with a dash of me. I was nine chapters into the book when I met Peter Bistrup-Hall in the reception area of a physiotherapist. He was the complete embodiment of the character I had imagined and has since consulted with me to make sure the character of James is as realistic as possible. Some of the things that James tells the boys about are adapted from Peter’s own experiences.
How did you use humour to keep your depiction of James and Ranga realistic?
To create a stereotype of a person with a disability is something I was afraid of doing. Every person is an individual and I tried to focus on their personalities first, and any problems they had as almost part of the setting. For Dropping In I wrote scenes that could have happened, used modified versions of things that really have happened and checked the accuracy of my main characters with similar people in real life.
In the scene where Ranga jokes about James’ height, the ‘correct’ assumption might be that James would be offended, and that Ranga was insensitive. The humour shows how both have accepted James’ cerebral palsy and that their friendship is not defined by it any more than it is defined by Ranga’s ADD or Ian’s lack of confidence.
In the scene where Ian and James escape from the classroom because James tricks the relief teacher, the unexpected naughtiness of James lightens the situation as we learn that James probably has major problems using a toilet and also that he is not above misusing his cerebral palsy to gain an advantage. When I showed that particular scene to Peter Bistrup-Hall he laughed and said he’d often done the same sort of thing. I hope that in many of the scenes a reader would think they have behaved in a similar manner at some time.