From Richard III to Captain Ahab: what literature reveals about how we treat disabilities

Disability is everywhere in literature, across all periods and genres – which can show us the way to go beyond stereotypes today

The controversy over Toby Young’s appointment to, and then resignation from, the Office for Students, and especially his comments about wheelchair ramps in schools, dyslexic students and accessible assessments, indicates how rife disability oppression remains in our cultural and educational institutions. There is a direct connection between negative writing about disability – stereotypes, prejudices, hate speech – and the treatment of disabled people in society. Reading literature provides one window on to the narratives about disability that circulate across cultures and throughout history.

King Richard’s soliloquy at the start of Richard III is one of the most dramatic openings of any piece of literature. From the play’s very first lines, Shakespeare stresses that his central character is vengeful, vindictive and morally vacuous. Richard tells us ...