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Mar. 10th, 2017

J.K. Rowling, as we all know, wrote the seven narrative Harry Potter books.

Then she wrote a novel for adults under her own name. I haven’t read it although I probably should. And along the way she also wrote several other books in the Harry Potter universe.

Then she wrote a murder mystery under the pseudonym of Robert Gailbraith, and then two more books with the same protagonist, Cormoran Strike.

And I haven’t seen more than a sentence or two online addressing the disability aspect in the series, which is interesting because the disabled fan internet community had had a lot to say about disability representation and portrayal in the Harry Potter books, much of it (deservedly) critical. There was discussion about the portrayal of people with realistic disabilities, and the use of disability as metaphor such as werewolfism, and the characters that can be read as autistic. There was a lot to dissect and I continue to see bits of the discussion now and again.

But on Cormoran Strike, nothing.

And yet in my opinion, J.K. Rowling gets Cormoran’s disability right in two ways that I almost never see from a non-disabled author. His disability matters, but disability isn’t everything.

I’m going to take these one at a time, and in reverse order.

Strike’s disability isn’t everything. So often, a disabled character’s sole character trait is their disability, or taking it a tiny step up, disability + one quirk. So the character is blind AND a jokester or uses a wheelchair AND is a computer genius. Beyond that, there’s often no there there.

But Strike has other traits beyond having acquired a disability shortly before the opening of the first novel. He is still adjusting to the physical and psychological reality of his new impairment to some extent, but the books are not at all about “adjusting to disability.” He has problems and character traits and motivations for his actions that don’t relate at all to his disability. His mobility impairment isn’t even necessarily the thing about his appearance his dislikes the most. He is in a financial crisis, he rows with the woman he thinks he loves, he has a clearly strained relationship with his sister, and while his disability interweaves into all of these situations, it isn’t the sole factor.

You can picture Strike before his disability as already being a round person. He was a different person, of course. There is no current non-disabled Strike, and that’s important. But stories could have been written about Strike’s childhood, or college days or time in the military where he would have still been a complete character who did things for reasons, and he would have overall been the same character.

All this is sadly rare.

But aside from books that are all about “adjusting to disability,” it’s also hard to find a book where a character’s disability actually matters. There may be an offhand comment that a character signed something to another, or rolled rather than walked. But overall, many disabled characters go through life without necessarily encountering an inaccessible place or attitude. Characters “happen to be disabled,” perhaps for diversity points, without their disability impacting characterization or plot in realistic ways.

Strike’s disability often matters. His level of impairment fluctuates, which reads true to me and is quite rare in fiction. There are days when his mobility is minimally impaired and days when pain or impairment have significant impact on his plans. So there are times when he would otherwise have walked, or taken public transportation, and now spending money on taxicabs or getting a ride. Distances matter. Surfaces matter. All of these ring true to me as depiction of disability, although I will leave it to others with more personal experience to rate the specific portrayal of Spike’s impairment.

His disability matters when dealing with people, because people think things, say things, do things. His sister’s attitude about his disability is by no means the only strain in their relationship, but it clearly has not improved matters. She brings it up in conversation and outs him to people without his consent in situations where he may otherwise have passed as non-disabled. In turn, he tries to avoid her and lies about his life even more than perhaps he did previously.

Strike’s own attitude matters, also. He is adjusting to disability in a way that seems entirely consistent with his personality. He is not going to be a Paralympian or a poster child for Disability Pride, and that’s just fine with me. He’s certainly not terribly thrilled with the new limits he experiences, or the additional social hurdles they create. But he manages to avoid the bitter stereotype in addition to avoiding the inspirational one.

All of which shouldn’t be rare.

But I read a lot of fiction with disabled protagonists, and it is really rare to find a character and story that manages to make disability matter without being a disability narrative.

It seems to me that Rowling got it right this time.

But I feel like I’ve been reading Cormoran Strike and the Disability Portrayal No One Is Talking About.

Has anyone else in the disability community read these books with a critical disability lens and agree with me? Disagree with me?
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