Check out our top eleven books featuring kickass characters with disabilities. Representation, and being able to find yourself reflected in the characters you love, can make a huge difference in how you see yourself and your own imperfections.
From the controversy over Marvel’s choice not to give the canonically-deaf Hawkeye a hearing aid in the Avengers movies, to Stiles’ unapologetic acknowledgement of his ADHD in Teen Wolf and Percy Jackson’s struggles with dyslexia in The Lightning Thief, to the blind Matt Murdoch in the new hit comic-made-tv show Daredevil, characters with disabilities and differences of all kinds are stepping into the spotlight and proving that real people—imperfections and all—can be the hero of any story.
However, it is my opinion that if you are going to write about a disabled character, it’s a bit of a copout to magically cure them at the end. So here are eleven novels in which the disabled character is not magically cured, and is still vitally important to the plot.
(If I use any offensive or non-PC language, it is entirely accidental and through ignorance. Please leave a comment and I’ll fix it asap.)
#1 Inda by Sherwood Smith (fantasy) – autism
This amazing epic was also part of the Game of Thrones: What to Read While You’re Waiting listicle, and there’s a reason it is so loved. (Basically, it’s awesome.) Inda follows a young, second son of a Marlovan prince who is sent to the Academy to study the art of war—after all, war is what the Marlovans are known for, and even a boy destined to stay at home and guard the keep must excel at fighting, tactics, and strategy. But danger comes in many forms, the least of which is the fierce competition among the boys. When one of Inda’s friends is killed and the blame placed on Inda, he must decide between his honor and the life he has always known.
While Inda is high-functioning autistic, the specific type of autism is never mentioned. Part of what makes Inda’s character and the book so wonderful is that literally no one cares that Inda is autistic. He’s good at what he does, and that’s what the other characters care about. And since there are no “perfect” characters in this series, and everyone is nuanced and flawed to a normal, human degree, it’s not super obvious that Inda is different. He’s just another well-written character in a book with a fabulous, character-driven plot. (I seriously cannot say enough good things about this book. Go read it already.)
#2 The Year We Fell Down by Sarina Bowen (romance) – incomplete paraplegia/spinal cord injury
Corey is an ice hockey player. It’s her passion, and it’s what she always expected to do in college. But an accident has left Corey in a wheelchair instead, unable to play the sport she loves, and adrift in a new place, with new people, and a life with no direction. Enter Adam, another hockey star stuck in the handicapped dorms because of a badly broken leg. Though Adam’s injuries will eventually heal, and allow him to play again, for now Corey and Adam are sharing the same disappointments and pain. Soon they begin sharing emotions as well. But Adam will need to decide whether his newfound love for Corey is enough to make him give up his trophy girlfriend, and Corey will need to find the self-esteem and be brave enough to create a new life—with or without Adam.
#3 Secret of the Songshell by Brian Tashima (YA fantasy) – Asperger’s
Joel Suzuki is a teenage boy who loves rock music, lives in a single family home, and dealing with money-issues, grades, and bullies. He also happens to have Asperger’s Syndrome. One day, Joel gets an amazing surprise—he meets his favorite rock star on the street. This particular rock star also happens to be dead. Well, he’s supposed to be dead. Apparently not. When the rock star goes so far as to offer Joel the opportunity to become a rock star himself, Joel understandably jumps at it. But there’s a catch: he has to go another world—an alternate reality, if you were—to combine his unique brainwaves with music sound waves. This will give him the ability to write songs so powerful and moving that his music will be loved the world over. But before Joel has the chance to become a rock sensation, he is tasked (of course) with saving both worlds by locating the powerful Songshell.
#4 Spellhorn by Berlie Doherty (children’s/YA) – blind
Spellhorn was written with the help of a class of blind children, and attempts to create a world that is sensible for blind and sighted people alike.
Laura, the protagonist, may be blind, but she is also amazingly perceptive. Her lack of sight has no bearing on her ability to lead the Wild Ones—a type of fae—to the Bright Wilderness. When the Wild Ones take her from her small village they embark on an adventure that makes Laura question her old life and herself.
#5 The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan (paranormal) – limp
Nick and Alan Ryves are brothers who fight demons, and in a world where magic is summoned by dancing, Alan’s severe limp supposedly puts him at a disadvantage. So kind of like Supernatural, only better. They’ve been on the run their entire lives, hunted by a magician whom their mother stole an amulet from—their mother who screams whenever Nick ventures too close. But when two teenagers ask for their help, and Alan is marked with a demon sign, their only choice is to find and kill the same magicians the brothers have been running from. As the adventure progresses, Nick begins to suspect that what Alan has told him of their family’s history—their reasons for hiding, and their mother’s screams—may not be entirely true.
#6 A Wizard Alone by Diane Duane (YA fantasy)– Autism (this one skirts the line of miraculous magical “cure” at the end, but I let it pass because the character actively uses his autism to defeat evil.)
This book is the 6th in the Young Wizards series, and while I would recommend them all (starting with So You Want to be a Wizard), this is the first one to involve a character with a disability. A Wizard Alone skirts the line of miraculous magical “cure” at the end, but I let it pass because the character actively uses his autism to defeat the source of all evil and “cures” himself.
The newest young wizard is Darryl, an autistic boy who has been on his Ordeal for three months—which is a really long time for an Ordeal, fyi. Nita and Kit, the two teenage wizards that the series has so far been following, are tasked with finding and helping Darryl. But Darryl is more that he seems; he is an Abdal: a powerful good figure who can, once trained, exist in more than one place at a time in order to help balance the scales of good and evil, and he’s much smarter than he seems. When Nita realizes that Kit has entered Darryl’s mind in order to help him, and has unwittingly fallen into the trap that Darryl is building for the root of evil, the Lone One, she must attempt to save Kit without thwarting Darryl’s plans for the Lone One.
#7 Archer’s Voice by Mia Sheridan (romance) – mute
Bree is new to the quiet town of Pelion, Maine. She came seeking peace and a respite from her own memories that plague her in the form of nightmares and panic attacks. But on her first day in town she meets Archer, a silent man hiding his own terrible past. As trust grows between them, and the two fall in love, Bree and Archer discover that their new relationship could be the key to healing old wounds, and to Archer’s getting his life back from the silent prison it has become.
#8 Secret Songs by Jane Stemp (YA fantasy) –hearing impaired
Ceri is hearing impaired, and occasionally has difficulty hearing and understanding everything the people around her say. But her disability gives her power over her life; she can choose when she wants to hear, and when she wants to take out her hearing aids and be alone with her thoughts and dreams about the ocean. When Ceri and her family take a trip to Scotland to visit her half-sister, Ceri meets another man who is drawn to the sea in the same way. Their friendship helps lead Ceri to a mystery that, if solved, will help Ceri understand herself and her life in a new way.
#9 Simple Jess by Pamela Morsi (historical romance) – unspecified intellectual disability
Our protagonist is Althea Winsloe, a young widow living in the mountain town of Marrying Stone, Arkansas, (because of course) in the early 1900s. She’s content living on her own, but the townspeople are really kind of terrible, and tell her that she has to choose a new husband by Christmas or they’re going to choose one for her. I don’t think this would ever actually happen in any time period, but it makes an ok premise. Althea, being the beautiful leading lady of a romance novel, has her pick of any man in town, but decides on the one they call “Simple Jess.” Jess has an intellectual disability and isn’t considered the smartest man, but he’s kind, sweet, and really damn hot.
#10 The Elementals by Saundra Mitchell (YA historical fantasy) – limp
The Elementals is a companion novel to The Vespertine and The Springsweet, but can be read on its own.
The year is 1917. The protagonists are Kate, a progressive girl enraptured by the new motion picture phenomena, who has decided to flout convention and become a film director, and Julian, a boy from the Midwest dissatisfied with his life on a farm, and determined to travel despite his crippled leg. The two teenagers both have elemental magic, but when they meet up in Los Angeles on a quest to follow their dreams, they will find that magic is not necessarily an answer to their problems.
#11 The Crystal Gryphon by Andre Norton (fantasy) – deformity
The Crystal Gryphon is the seventh book in the Witch World universe, but first in its trilogy. Kerovan and Joisan, a prince and a noblewoman married as children, are living in different areas of High Hallack until Kerovan comes of age. Joisan lives with her uncle and aunt, learning how to run an estate. When war comes, a new set of lessons are added to help her survive her newly endangered life. Kerovan, born in a building tainted by old magic, has hooves instead of feet. His parents avoid contact with him by sending him to be trained by a crippled veteran. Over time, Kerovan learns to treat his hooves as an advantage instead of a burden. When his planned first meeting with Joisan is disrupted by invaders, Kerovan sends Joisan a tiny, magical crystal gryphon; but its power is known by others, and Kerovan will have to save his unknown wife from those who seek it.