Disability is normal. Tom Shakespeare's novel features a disabled lead character who isn't "tragic, or evil, or a super crip".

Saddell House in Kintyre accommodates disabled guests and provided inspiration for Tom Shakespeare's novel. PIC: Jill TateSaddell House in Kintyre accommodates disabled guests and provided inspiration for Tom Shakespeare's novel. PIC: Jill Tate
Saddell House in Kintyre accommodates disabled guests and provided inspiration for Tom Shakespeare's novel. PIC: Jill Tate
Drawing on a break with friends at Saddell House in Kintyre, Tom Shakespeare’s new novel is a social comedy about the misfortunes of Fred Twistleton as he celebrates his birthday. The fact Fred is in a wheelchair is completely incidental. Realistic portrayals of ordinary-but-disabled people in books, films and television is vital if we are reach genuine equality, argues the author and academic

Most years, I speak to a lot of audiences.

I have been doing the same talk about cultural representation of disabled people for 30 years, and I was worried that it has got rather out of date. My old cultural references (James Bond films! Shakespeare plays!) show my age. I now don’t say The Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, I refer to The Muppet Christmas Carol and most students know what I mean. Things have changed, thankfully.

Stereotypes have been demolished by actors such as Peter Dinklage in Game of Thrones or RJ Mitte in Breaking Bad. These days, we would never think a character sinister just because they are disabled (Or left-handed, which is how the word originated in ancient Rome). Or would we? This week I finally watched the finale of Only Murders in the Building season one (spoiler alert): guess who pushed that woman off the building – only that dodgy Deaf character, with his dangerous signing hands.

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And then I went to English National Opera’s excellent revival of The Magic Flute: you know, the one which puts the Queen of the Night in a wheelchair to symbolise her nastiness and impotence? You can imagine the outrage if another minority was treated in this way. And then there is Dark Knight and all the other films and versions of Batman, in which the character of Two-Faces is scarred to symbolise his villainy. It might have been forgivable when the comic book character was created in 1942, but it’s hardly acceptable long after 2000.

Too often, when a director or author wants a metaphor, they turn to disability. Nasty villain? Make them crippled. Tragic but brave? Ditto. Overcomes all obstacles? A super-crip, as I’d call it – they may even have (gulp!) compensatory abilities, such as Ironside, the wheelchair-using detective. This metaphor is as dated as my examples. It’s not how disabled people live. We are just like everyone else. Not evil. Not pathetic. Just a mixture of good and bad. Ordinary, in fact. So look elsewhere for your metaphors.

That’s why I wanted to write my own book The Ha-ha with a leading character who was in a wheelchair – like me – but who wasn’t tragic, or evil, or a super crip. Fred is just a 40-year-old lawyer, who lives in an accessible flat, drives with hand controls, and entertains his friends in an accessible rented country house. See: it isn’t hard to write someone ordinary-but-disabled. You can still have a good plot, you can still laugh (as long as you’re laughing with, not at, the disabled character), there should still be a mystery to resolve; who has stolen his memoirs? There can even be a pig; because there’s always a pig in a Wodehousian stately home.

We have come a long way since the Disability Discrimination Act, 30 years ago. So far, in fact, that I can rely on the National Trust or the Landmark Trust if I want to rent an accessible stately home for a birthday with my friends. It is realistic, because it really happened to me: as did the flood which woke me up in the early hours, at Saddell House in Kintyre, because centuries-old piping does fail sometimes. I can go where you go – where all of us can go, because I firmly believe this land is ours. We don’t want to read about belted earls, we want to cos-play one for the weekend.

But as a society, we have further to go, it seems. It is easier to remove physical barriers than the attitudinal barriers in our heads. Our cultural representations are a case in point. We still seem to believe that aristocrats are better than us. We still seem to believe that disability is rubbish, and you cannot have a good life if you are disabled. I happen to think all that is wrong, and I can prove it.

I was born with restricted growth; think Peter Dinklage, but sadly not a heartthrob. At the age of 42 I became a wheelchair user; think Tanni Grey-Thompson, just not very fast. During lockdown, a psychiatrist diagnosed me with ADHD; think Leonardo da Vinci, only not a genius. So I am learning more about disability all the time, and I have experienced it in many forms – congenital, acquired, hidden. It can be a real nuisance, but it need not be a tragedy.

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But don’t take my word for it. Disability is very common – more than a billion people, or about 15 per cent worldwide. It’s part of being human. We all have disabled family members, and if you don’t, you soon will. Many people will develop chronic illnesses and impairments as they age. But the good news is, most disabled people report that they lead good lives. It’s not unusual to hear someone say; “Becoming disabled is the best thing that ever happened to me”.

I can’t say that, because I don’t know life without disability. But I can say that it’s a good life; I have a career, as an academic, and now a writer. I am a good cook. I have two children and a grand-child. I have a terrible memory, and a mortgage. So far, so ordinary.

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In other words, disability is a fact of life. We should expect it in people around us, we should see it on TV, and we should read it in books. And we should live in a world where we remove as many barriers as possible to disabled people achieving the same goals – a job, a partner, a family – as everyone else.

In my novel, Fred has a job, as a solicitor, but is hoping at last to find a partner. In the next book, his quest will be to start a family. He shares a dog. He likes cooking. He comes from the Tyne Valley. In other words, I’ve tried to make him an ordinary person, not defined by his health condition. It’s a normal life.

Certainly, the pains and fatigues of disability are never welcome. Lots of people would often rather they didn’t have their particular mental or physical health condition. I get very ground down by my own spinal problems sometimes. But for many of us, the bigger problems are social, not medical. And many people are disabled by poverty, war, work, and road traffic injury. We can do something about those, just as we can enable those who end up disabled, enjoy more of what we all take for granted. We can remove the barriers, so everyone can live the life they want.

The Ha-ha is not really about disability. It’s about laughing at all the nonsense that life throws at you. The next book, The Ends, has many of the same characters, encountering climate change. In the third book, The Knowledge, I know Fred is going to meet some radical disability activists. I am not yet sure what will result. But I will guarantee it’s going to be funny. Because the world is full enough of trauma, much of which we can do nothing about. Too many people think disability is a serious subject, that you shouldn’t laugh about. I don’t want you to laugh at me; I’ve had quite enough of that. But why not laugh with me?

​The Ha-Ha by Tom Shakespeare is published in hardback by Farrago, £14.99, out now