top of page

#OWNVOICE: Writing characters with disabilities with derek mcfadden

Tell us about yourself.

My name is Derek McFadden, and I've been writing since I was very young. Of course, I am also very lucky, because without computers and modern technology I wouldn't be able to write at all. I'm not skilled at writing by hand, though I am improving with practice. So a computer allows me to tell my stories. For years, I served as a Western Washington poster child/ambassador for The March Of Dimes. Now I write, and I'm also a reader for an agent based in California. That's the basics. Oh, I have cerebral palsy, which is why I can't write well by hand. I am also legally blind. Because God has a sense of humor sometimes. And sometimes that sense of humor is a tad sarcastic. LOL

Can I just say how excited I am to be talking to you? In my blog, I talk about fearless writers, or writers who push past obstacles, rejection, self-doubt and all sorts of other things in order to keep writing. But I think you are in a category all of your own.

You said you've been writing all your life. Was there a moment you can remember when your writing journal really began, and what inspired you to do it?

Truth be told, I had a dream at six years old that I would be a writer. It isn't unlike the dream my MC, Terrence, has in my novel, What Death Taught Terrence. I woke up from that dream and told my dad I would write books. Dad is a writer himself, so he always encouraged this. But people sometimes assume I write because my dad writes, and that's just not the case. I write because I need to, and it is quite helpful that I come from a family who understands creativity.

The first thing I actually wrote-wrote truly-would have been a dictated Berenstain Bears story that I dictated to a teacher's aid. From there, I knew I loved making up stories. When I saw, after reading widely, that, in my opinion, the handicapped were deeply misused as characters in literature. They are either the saintly side-character who teaches the able-bodied how to live, or they're too broken to matter–I knew I could do better. I took it as my duty to do so. Those of us who are handicapped who retain our voices must use them.

And thank you! I am so glad you asked me to do this. Talking about these things is good for me!

Wow. What an inspiring story. I hear you and absolutely agree that characters with

disabilities are underrepresented and poorly used. I understand why it's important for that to change, and I love that you're trying to do that. But I want to hear more about what this is like for you. As someone living with CP, can you elaborate more on how the current representation of characters with disabilities makes you feel and why it's so important to you that it changes? Sure! First thing to know is: I feel normal. Because C.P. is my normal. It's not like I had what you would call a "normal" body and then it was taken away from me. This is what I know. So it's normal to me. Which goes to explain why it's so important current representations of the disabled/differently abled in literature must change. Handicapped experiences are different for all handicapped. There isn't one or two ways to be handicapped, so why then are there only one or two ways that the disabled/handicapped/differently abled are portrayed in literature?

This has to do, I think, with authors being afraid. An able-bodied author who writes a handicapped character might–and I stress might–be afraid to write in anything besides the two stereotypes I mentioned because it's what they know, and they don't wish to offend anyone, least of all the handicapped. But when you write not to offend, it's kind of like playing not to lose in sports. In this analogy, the sports team who doesn't play for the win but instead not to lose will almost certainly lose, and whether they want to or not, the author writing not to offend will almost certainly offend by the variety they inadvertently omit. Does that make sense?

That is so beautifully put and makes total sense. I know I really want to promote diversity in my writing, and it's important. But you hit the nail on the head. I'm afraid to get it wrong.

Sure! It's not surprising. Writers write to communicate something, but we are human, too. And many writers have extra empathy within them. So the fear of offending is real for us. Absolutely. And sometimes, as a nurse, I feel like I feel it doubly, because I'm been in some hard moments with people from all different walks of life. I know how beautiful they are as people and how beautiful their lives are, and I'm scared not to do that justice. But you put it in an amazing way of why authors can't let that stop them, and that it's actually more harmful that way.

What do you want writers to know about writing characters with disability? Or what advice would you give for accurate portrayal of characters? I didn't worry so much about getting it wrong, in this case. In the case of my novel, I knew the only way for me to get it right was to write my truth. Yes, it is more harmful. Look, writing is hard. It's hard if you're writing fairytales. But it's SO hard when you're trying to tell the truth in writing, and you're not sure you know how to.

Think about what an actor does when they research a role. How a historical novelist might spend years just researching before they put pen to paper. I'm not saying don't write the things that scare you. In truth, I'm saying the opposite of that. But always write while informed. If you have a friend of a friend of a friend who's handicapped, and you've been thinking about writing a handicapped character, talk to them. Spend time with them. Note their habits, how they do things. If you don't understand why they do something, ask! We'd much rather have you ask us why we do this or that as opposed to the more popular but less useful long, confused stare. Writers have resources out there to write better characters. Don't be afraid to use them.

That is great advice. As a scifi and fantasy author, I toy with how to make diverse characters fit within that genre. Is there any particular plot lines you crave to read? Like, I really want to see -- I don't know -- a person with disabilities saving the world from a deadly curse? Or something?

Personally, I love sci-fi/fantasy. But I've never gravitated to the super hero movies or the saving the world genre because there are days when I don't feel all that super. I'm just me, you know? I have never been good at manual labor. Building things. The kinds of jobs that a certain segment of society sees as manly. I have always been good at triva. Your Jeopardy-type games. Your movie/TV trivias and the like. I would love to see a character like me who is celebrated for his smarts. Not "Oh, he's handicapped, and yet he's smart." I'd love to see, "He's smart, and he also happens to be handicapped." I love that you make that distinction, and I just want to emphasize it. You have to make sure that the most important thing about diverse character is not that thing that makes him unique. Just like you said, you can't write a character that's handicapped. You have to write a character who is smart and has goals and dreams and fears, because of course, people are so much more than just one thing.

I mean, think about this: If an author wrote: "He was normal. His life was just like your life in every sense. He woke up every day and ate cereal and went to work like you do." I don't need to read that. I live that. Give me some intrigue and diversity. At the same time, do the diversity right, because I promise you, do it wrong it rings just as false as my "normal" bit there.

You've really quite elegantly demonstrated the need for better representation. And I know you're not just talking about it. You've actually addressed it within your own writing. Can you tell us about your writing process? My writing process is long. I wish it wasn't quite as long. I'll often get a scene in my head that I need to write, and I'm best at dialogue. So that comes first. Hemingway always said to let the characters tell the story wherever possible. This is dialogue. But once you have the basics of the scene, you have to fill in the details because characters can't just be floating heads talking in a void. You're gonna have to set the scene.

Since I'm legally blind and I have my physical challenges, I'll do my best here on details and what I feel must be in the scene to make it work. I think what you'll find at draft's end is that the thing that helps you most (the thing that certainly helps me most) is constructive criticism. Critique partners. Writing groups. Do not be afraid to ask someone who's life experience differs from yours, "Does this detail ring true to you?" And if their answer is, "Not exactly," listen to them. They might have a way to tackle your writing whale.

I'm not saying pay attention to all criticism because some is mean and awful and not worth your time. But don't shut yourself off to the constructive kind. A writer who thinks they know all about their subject is a writer who most definitely has blind spots to watch out for in their work.

Once I'm happy with a draft, I take it to an editor. Then I draft some more. For my novel, I worked tirelessly to get the work exactly where it needed to be. I see my writing process as a mountain. When I think I've climbed it, I've only reached base-camp.

I totally agree about the importance of constructive criticism. I discussed this quite a bit in my last interview actually. I am really curious about writing and your physical challenges. With being legally blind, what technologies help you to read and write? What's this like for you?

I am, as you might imagine, an auditory learner. Hearing things is so important to me. So both when I write something, and when I read something for my work with an agent, I'll often take the word doc. and place into Apple's version of Word called Pages. Pages will read to me what is written, so that if I'm editing someone else's writing (for the agent) I can both see and hear where mistakes are made. If I'm listening to my own writing, I can hear where something works and where it might ring a tad off-key. Sometimes, a sentence is just missing a word, or a word-choice doesn't fit a tone an author is going for. Hearing the words allows me to fix it right there.

I will never use anything but a Mac. I think they are built for creatives. They are built for word-processing and working with words. I've used some version of an Apple computer as far back as first grade. Many technologies were introduced to me in school as: "Maybe this will work for you." "How about this?" "Or this?" What I've found is that the best technology is the simplest. Once you learn it, and you're proficient at it, if it works for you there's no reason to change unless you absolutely need to. I will hunch up close to the screen. And when I say close I mean CLOSE. But really the best technology is a keyboard, some earphones, and a figurative red pen!

Let me clarify when you say editing for the agent. Do you mean a literary agent? Yes. I work with a literary agent. My work will often have me making comments/edits in the margins of works. That’s really cool. Now let’s talk about your novel. What’s it about?

Terence McDonald is handicapped in the same way I'm handicapped; mild cerebral palsy, bad eyes. On page one, he discovers he has died and he is brought into the afterlife by his deceased mother. From there, Terrence learns he must undergo a "life review." This is an all-encompassing look at his life. We see his life not just from his perspective but from the perspectives of those who lived life with him, too. In doing this, Terrence is granted the chance to see himself as others saw him. He must learn "the overriding lesson of his life." If he can't, he risks being banished from the afterlife.

Imagine It's A Wonderful Life if George Bailey were not just 4F but truly handicapped. Or a Mitch Albom novel that centered on a disabled protagonist. The key, though, is that this book is not just for the disabled. Those of us in that category know what it's like to be disabled. I wrote this book firstly as therapy for myself but secondly so that hopefully more people could understand what it's like to live a differently abled life. In the book, you will meet not just Terrence but the father he often butts heads with, the step-mother he loves for all she gave him, the daughter he adores. And much more. And then, beyond that, each chapter is fronted by a poem hinting at the plot to come. I love poetry, but I often find it isn't all that accessible. It was important to me the poetry in this book both be accessible and say something important to the reader. What Death Taught Terrence was the toughest and best writing experience I've ever had. I don't pretend to be some sort of guru or anything. But I do hope that, if you read it, that maybe it changes your life just a little for the better. I'd be proud if it did that.

I think that’s what every writer wants, but yours sounds extraordinarily powerful. I pulled it up, and first, that’s a beautiful cover. I also read the first two poems. Did you write the poetry yourself? Just yesterday, I wrote an essay on Medium that deals with "Writing While Handicapped." I'd be happy to share a link to that essay, if you want it, too. Yes, the poetry is all mine. I'm proud of it!

I’d love that. I'll put the link at the end of the article. You should be proud! It’s exquisite.

An editor of mine once wrote and said to me, "My favorite part of your book is the poems. Did you write them?" The way she said that, it was kinda funny to me. As though I might have taken someone else's poems and just inserted them into my own work because I was, I don't know, lazy? LOL No, all the poetry is mine.

I didn’t mean to imply that at all. Sorry. They truly are beautiful, and I’m totally adding your novel to the top of my TBR pile. I think everyone should too. So besides your novel, what other writing have you done or you currently do? I have a poetry collection that I'm quite proud of, Prose From A Grandson To A Senior Fellow. It was the last book my grandfather, who is on the cover with me, read before he passed away due to lung cancer.

Oh, and I knew you weren't trying to imply anything. I just have always found that particular question, and the way that person posed it, funny. Because they weren't trying to offend, either. LOL I am always attempting to write something new. Though I find that talking about a story before it's ready for its reveal can stunt its growth. I don't know if this is true, but it certainly feels true I am always, always, always trying to write stories that feel universal but which are true to me!

Wow. It’s been so great talking to you. I have learned so much. Is there anything I didn’t ask about your personal experience or writing characters with disability that you think writers should know?

I think we pretty well covered it. The one thing I would say is to remember that every life is

different. Every disabled life is different. But there are things that bring us all around to universality. We all love. We all hope. We all dream. We all wish. Be careful not to make your disabled character too myopic in the sense that they are more than just their disability. If you can look past their disability to what truly makes up their character, readers, too, will have an easier time doing this later.

Derek, that’s absolutely beautiful. We are down to the last two questions that I ask all authors. What is one random fact about you? The sillier the better. I once "ran" a sports league with my best friend that featured all of our stuffed animals and made them beloved sports stars in their home archipelago, which we called "The Islands."

That's funny. When I was a kid, I used to make all kinds of stories up about my stuffed animals. We were writing stories back then. I wonder if other authors did it too. Maybe I’ll take a poll.

Lastly, you’ve give such beautiful advice, but if you could only pick one thing to tell a writer, what would it be? Writers write. No matter what anyone tells you, if writing is your destiny, if you're truly meant for it, don't let anyone's no or anyone's skeptical view of your dream steer you off-course. It's your writing-life to live, no one else's. Thanks for asking me to do this interview! I hope you and your readers will get out of it all that you need. I find that certain things come into our lives when we need them. I'd like to think my book will be that way for some readers.

I like to think so too. You certainly touched my heart with this interview too! Thank you so much for giving your time, and being the wonderful, courageous person and writer you are!


If you're like me, and can't wait to dig into more of Derek's things, here are some links;

Purchase What Death Taught Terrance


If you are interested in being interviewed or having me review your book, or if you'd like to write a guest post for my blog, please reach out on social media. My Twitter is @CACampbell17 and my IG is @cacampbellwriter.

72 views0 comments


bottom of page