Amanda Leduc was always going to be a writer, but she didn’t start out as one. She first pursued a bachelor’s degree in creative writing, then a Master’s to become a college professor since that was the path most traveled. The only problem was that she didn’t enjoy teaching.
Instead, she began writing her own stories while working odd jobs to support herself on the side; in hospitals and fundraising for churches were just a few. After waiting for 25 years to publish her first book, she finally did it, but the disappointment quickly set in.
“Part of it was just grappling with the idea of the realization that I had expected that publishing a novel would change my life in some sort of way,” Leduc said. “And then I published the novel and it was like, OK, now you have to write and publish another one.”
As she ran on the hamster wheel of authorship, pursuing her next novel only to start all over again, she realized that she gravitated towards disabled protagonists, especially in her fantasy novel released earlier this year, The Centaur’s Wife.
“When I look back on earlier things that I was writing about, I was writing toward disability, towards the specter of difference in some way,” Leduc said.
Around the same time, she traveled to Hedgebrook off the coast of Seattle to participate in a writer’s retreat alongside a beautiful forest. As she strolled through the idyllic woods near the retreat with a walking stick, her first time using it, she realized how inaccessible the woods are, despite being a key element of fantasy novels and fairy tales.
“I have cerebral palsy and I’ve always worked with a limp and had various, not huge physical challenges, but certain things that are more difficult for me. And walking in a forest is one of those because I always have to be careful of where my feet are and go,” Leduc said. “I was thinking about how the forest keeps disabled people out. But then I was thinking about the forest as it connects to fairy tales because we usually think of forests as these kinds of magical fairy tale places. All of a sudden I was like, hey, wait a minute, there’s a lot of characters in fairy tales that actually have disabilities.”
Iconic characters like Rumplestiltskin, the seven dwarves in Snow White, and the titular Beast in Beauty and the Beast immediately came to mind. Leduc also thought of the possibility of invisible mental disabilities, like narcissistic personality disorder plaguing the evil stepmother in Snow White. Suddenly, the taught link between villains and disability appeared obvious to her.
Upon further research, Leduc found that not a lot had been explored regarding the relationship between fairy tales and disability, save for a few studies in the academic realm of writing.
“And I came home…and did some research and found to my great surprise that there wasn’t actually a lot that had been written about it before,” Leduc said. “In terms of a pop culture, there wasn’t much which was really exciting because I am not usually a person who is like ahead of the game or those kinds of things are concerned.”
And thus her nonfiction book, Disfigured, was born. Initially, Leduc wanted to investigate the fairytales of other cultures outside of the US and Canada, but she realized she didn’t have enough knowledge to do justice to those stories and stuck to those she knew best from Disney and old fables. She also drew from her own experience when writing Disfigured, combining her narrative with the research she had been doing.
Leduc acknowledged her own able-bodied privilege, that despite having cerebral palsy, she is able to sometimes disguise her limp and avoid symptoms by carefully structuring her day. But her life with cerebral palsy wasn’t always so simple.
“I was bullied quite severely when I was in elementary school as a result of the limping,” Leduc said. “And then also I had a number of surgeries as a result of having CP and that sort of socially had a really big impact on how I conducted myself and saw myself.”
As she wrote Disfigured, Leduc began to see her disability as less of a liability and more of a strength, focusing on the unique perspective her disability allows her to draw from.
“[It] actually sounds cheesy, but it’s like a superpower as opposed to a flaw because you have insight as a result of this difference that actually is very valuable to the ways that we can look at society and how we want to improve it, which is something that, interestingly enough, has been thrown into really sharp relief in the wake of the pandemic,” Leduc said. “I think the disability community has sort of been at the forefront of innovation and community, just in general, where COVID is concerned and trying to be helpful and giving knowledge and looking at people who in many cases have already had to spend a lot of time in their homes even before the COVID-19 pandemic.“
She also planned to use the release of Disfigured to promote her fictional novels, but she quickly found that her nonfiction book actually did a lot better than her fantasy novels, which only encouraged a deeper dive into the subject.
“I’ve really started to actively explore how my own life experience as a disabled person has influenced the writing that I have I’ve done in the past,” Leduc said. “And I’m also interested in doing in the future.”
Seeing how quickly people disregarded those with disabilities for the sake of returning to normalcy, even though the pandemic is not yet over, also made Leduc want to dive further into the narratives society circulates about disability.
“It really has made me think anew about the way that we tell stories and the way that disability is so entirely coded in very particular ways in both the fairy tales that we tell, but also in other storytelling tropes in mainstream culture,” Leduc said. “The James Bond franchise has a whole host of evil characters who have one eye or a slash across their face and stuff like that. And this is the sort of thing that a lot of people don’t question. It’s very easy shorthand to say, oh, this person looks different. So obviously they must be different and evil inside.”
Investigating these ideas lead Leduc to her new passion; pushing others to think about how we so easily link disability to evil, and what it means to write about disability without relying on that trope.
“The only narratives that people keep seeing over and over and over again are the disabled person that’s the villain or the able-bodied person who’s made disabled but then has their disability taken away or fixed at the end of the tale. And that’s a happy ending,” Leduc said. “We need to have more stories out there that normalize this kind of thing so that people can understand that, actually, this is very normal. If you are either born disabled or if you become disabled, it doesn’t change who you are as a human being.”
Leduc addressed the fear some have of not identifying with a disabled character, saying it shouldn’t dissuade people from releasing stories that show the whole of someone’s experience as a disabled person.
“You don’t need to see yourself reflected in everything that you read and everything that you see in order to identify with it,” Leduc said. “It’s actually good for you to read stories about people who are different from you in order that you can understand elements of what it’s like to be someone else in the world.”
She acknowledged, again, the privilege she holds as a white woman who could still access most spaces, but that it only made her feel more responsible for sounding the alarm on inaccessible spaces and incomplete stories.
“I’m not going to do an event at a place that’s not wheelchair accessible,” Leduc said. “Nobody thinks that it’s a big deal for a nondisabled audience. And organizers don’t think it’s a big deal. But it is when you’re participating in an event as a spectator and you see a structure ahead of you that shows no one expects you to ever be up on that stage.”
Leduc said excuses are quickly running dry for the nondisabled to do nothing to advocate for their disabled peers, especially with the rise of social media activism, and encouraged prompt solutions to basic issues disabled people must face daily.
“The nondisabled world does not give two thoughts about what it means to publicly exclude someone in that way. They see it and say, ‘oh, that’s disappointing, well, we’ll do better next time.’ Well, don’t do better next time. Do better now.”
Leduc said she ultimately wants her readers to remain vigilant as they consume media, noticing when a villain has a disability or is made to appear different from the hero. She shared her hope for a world where people don’t need to struggle to move through the world, where resources remain open to all despite how many struggled before them.
“It goes beyond that sort of physical marking to what does it mean to have an invisible disability, and what does it mean for people who maybe struggle with mental health or have mental health disabilities and things like that? How do we as a world operate in a kind of one size fits all box that actually leaves a lot of people out?” said Leduc. “But if we get it into our heads that everybody has a specific way of moving through the world and they are entitled to whatever they need in order to move through the world, then that actually becomes a lot easier because resources open up.”
In Leduc’s eyes, when the world is made more accessible for disabled people, it’s ultimately made better. When we begin thinking of the world in a different way and remove the barriers limiting so many of us, we all move closer to the freedom we deserve.
“I just think that it’s not just the responsibility of disabled people to raise awareness of these issues, everybody has a responsibility to make the world more accessible in so far as we are able,” Leduc said. “When you make the world accessible for people who are disabled, you actually make the world accessible for everybody.”
FEATURED IMAGE CREDITS: VIA CURSOR MRKETING SERVICES