Thursday, October 30, 2014

Question: Language to Use in Reference to Deaf Main Character

Just wanted to say good luck for NaNoWriMo this year!!! I'm doing it as well (can't wait to start it) and I hope that you will smash it! Can I add you on the NaNo website as a writing buddy? I've also got a question that i hope you can help me with. My main character is deaf and I was wondering if you could give me tips on language to use and not use when writing a disabled character as the last thing I want to do is offend anyone. Good luck and I look forward to seeing how you do!

I'm so excited for you!  I've done NaNoWriMo for 10 years and it's always been so great and it's that much more fun when you have lots of people in your corner.  (I think I found you on the NaNo site.  I'm finishing my 2012 novel, We Are Who We Were, so you can check that for confirmation.)

First, I hesitate to identify Deaf people as disabled because Deaf people have their own culture.  They have their own language.  It's a larger issue than just positive or negative language, I think.  I'm wondering why your main character is Deaf.  Not what happened to make them Deaf but why you, as the author are featuring a main character from a culture you don't understand.  I'm not Deaf myself, and I don't know enough about it to be a great resource, in this instance.  

I can tell you, generally, that if you are using the character's Deafness to make them seem pitiable, inspirational or bitter solely because they're Deaf, don't do that.  Deafness (I'd gather) is as integral a part of Deaf peoples' identities as being physically disabled is for me.  So, the character's Deafness should not be the only thing about them, and likewise, you shouldn't ignore it either.  Your character needs to be rooted in an authentic voice.

I'll end with this scene, which I've always thought was really effective at demonstrating the difference between how Deaf people view themselves, and how hearing people view Deaf people.  (Marlee Matlin, who plays the teacher, is a Deaf actress.  You can also search Sean Berdy, who is another Deaf actor.)  My biggest piece of advice?  Research (YouTube, post on the NaNoWriMo forums), and talk to Deaf people.  They'll tell you what you want to know.

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