Representing Real People: Working With Sensitivity Readers


In an era when authors strive to be inclusive, there has been a surge in workshops and seminars on sensitivity readers at national and local conferences. The list of reasons why sensitivity readers are needed for works of fiction can include: accurate representation, cultural appropriateness, use of correct language, avoidance of bias, unintentional stereotypes, or racism.
To be effective, an author must write characters with whom her readers can identify. If the representation of a character is off-key, it takes the reader out of the story, sometimes concurrently annoying or offending. Here’s a simple example: I’m a registered nurse. I once read a novel where the main character had a concussion and the emergency room doctor prescribed pain medication. I was done.

Head injuries are never given sedation. If the patient becomes confused or disoriented and cannot be aroused, you don’t know if it is due to the knock on the head or the pain medications. Not only did this faux pas take me out of the story, I never went back to that author. I felt she failed to do her research and had misrepresented my world.
Now imagine you are person with a disability, reading a book about someone who shares the same disability. How would you feel if the character was made to appear less than? Less than the other characters, less than how you feel as a person, and worse yet, someone to be pitied. Unfortunately, there are books that have done this—to the dismay and disappointment of the disabled community and their allies. Not only is this insensitive, it’s self-sabotaging because the author has alienated entire groups of potential readers.
How can an author avoid this? Unless the author has the disability she wishes to portray in the story, the author must recognize the fact that she has not had the lived experience. Just as a non-medical author would need to research how to treat head injuries (not with sedatives!), the author who wishes to include characters with disabilities in her book needs to call in a subject matter expert. As uncomfortable as it may be, she must find and reach out to someone who shares the disability she wishes to portray. The expert, AKA sensitivity reader, must be willing to work with her on this character and the interactions in the world she is creating.

Read the entire article in the November 2018 issue of InD'Tale magazine.

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