Cammie McGovern on Writing About Children with Disabilities

Cammie McGovern on Writing About Children with Disabilities

A Step Toward Falling, Cammie McGovern’s second young adult novel, doesn’t shy away from a difficult subject. In it, McGovern takes on material that is very close to her heart: disabilities. McGovern herself is the founder of Whole Children and Milestones, which provide resources to kids and teens who have disabilities, as well as their families. Here, she discusses the process of writing about children with disabilities, and what she admires about them.

I got my MFA from the University of Michigan in the early 90’s and have been writing pretty steadily, four to five hours a day, ever since—which I only mention so you’ll believe me when I say, I’m pretty sure I’ve made every mistake it’s possible for a writer to make.

I’ve written books that were way out of my comfort zone, in genres that I wasn’t well-read in; I’ve over-researched historical novels and—thrilled with all I’d learned—turned in five-hundred page doorstops with no story. I’ve gone overly dark; I’ve strained for humor; I’ve written books that I’m so embarrassed by now, I don’t even keep the files on my computer. In fairness to myself, these mistakes happen because no one can really be a fair judge of an idea in the early stages. Every idea feels simultaneously brilliant and undoable in that first rush of excitement.

My most recent book, A Step Toward Falling, is my second young adult book featuring a main character with a disability (my first, Say What You Will, was told by two narrators, both of whom had disabilities). In the process of writing these two books, I had a big revelation. Of all the mistakes I’d made in the past, the most frustrating (and most common) was starting with a central character who isn’t sure what he (or she) wants. Even though I’d read the advice—writers might be passive observers, but our characters should not be!—I still made the mistake over and over.

I admit this because I think it’s one of the reason I’m so drawn to writing about characters with disabilities. Beyond educating myself on the specifics of a character’s disability, writing about this group doesn’t require lots of research. I live with my son, a 19-year-old with autism and a cognitive disability. I might not know how his mind works (actually, I definitely don’t know this) but I sure know what it looks like on the outside. I know that he loves the weird things he loves with a ferocity that is many things at once: annoying (when he repeats), problematic (when he pitches a fit), and also—I have to admit—very funny and surprisingly compelling.

Like many of his friends who all take classes at Whole Children, a recreation center for kids and young adults with disabilities I helped to start ten years ago, he long ago stopped thinking of his disability as a tragedy or even much of a hardship. This is his life; he’s pretty used to it. Now, let’s move to what he really cares about, which is buying the Broadway show tunes CD he’s found.

Though it’s terrible to make generalizations about any group, this is the dynamic I see most often and I admire the most when I’m sitting at Whole Children listening to his friends go on. Often they hardly listen to one another. They’re loud and domineering in a way that underscores my point. They know what they want to say: I love this weird thing and I want you to know about it so you’ll love it too.

Typically-developing teens so often struggle with problems that are real but feel frustratingly self-created. Shyness, self-consciousness, a horrible inability to speak up. I know I was like this as a teenager. Placing two typical teens in a situation where they have some real lessons to learn about love and speaking up for their disabled peers felt like an extension of what I’ve learned every day from listening to my son and his friends talk.

In A Step Toward Falling, Belinda’s passion is the Colin Firth BBC production of
Pride and Prejudice, my own favorite as a teenager, which I loved so much I refused to ever talk about it in public for fear that someone would make fun of it and thereby ruin it forever for me. The book became, in a way, a visit with my old self with a new friend who embodies everything I’ve learned from my son. Belinda may have a cognitive disability but she’s a character with a strong enough voice to say, more or less: Stop being scared to be yourself. Love what you love and be proud. I suspect if I’d heard this voice, or heeded this lesson sooner, I might have a few less manuscripts in my drawer.

Cammie McGovern is the author of Say What You Will as well as the adult novels Neighborhood Watch, Eye Contact, and The Art of Seeing. Cammie is also one of the founders of Whole Children, a resource center that runs after-school classes and programs for children with special needs. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her husband and three children.


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