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  • Writer's pictureJoy Slaughter

1 Ableism in an opening chapter


This series of blog posts was developed for the Fine Literature Book Club on Facebook. Crossing the Line was their April 2022 group read, and I was honored to lead the discussion.

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Megan caught the locker door as he tried to close it. "Who's my partner?"

"Nathan Thompson."

"That soldier guy with one leg?" she sputtered. "Are you kidding me?"


To begin the book with this conversation was a risk. It reeks of ableism rooted in the fear/assumption that those with disabilities will always fail and be a danger/burden to others.

In writing, there is a general rule that the main character should be like-able—and this should happen from the start. Main characters should also be shown as being liked by other characters. If they aren’t, they should at least be competent and proactive (think of the TV character “House, M.D.”—not very like-able but competent and proactive, so we give him the thumbs up).

To see this ableism so explicitly discussed on the second page spells doom for the reader’s relationship with Megan. At this point, the reader knows nothing of her competence and as she is shown disliked by Nathan, she is not liked by others. She does not change her situation, so she is not seen as proactive. Three strikes against her. The reader should throw the book away in disgust.

My only hope was that the reader would understand her point of view, despite how wrong it is. That they would recognize, if even reluctantly, how often humans believe such things, even if they never say it. I hoped they would be curious enough to see how it would play out.

I also wanted to address the ableism FAST.

First, I showed Megan liked by Martin, the firefighter, then I started revealing a moderate level of competence at the car wreck. By page 7, you see her attitude changing as well as Nathan’s toward her. We see more evidence of competence.

The showdown arrives on page 14. Megan offers Nathan the lower bunk on the assumption that he cannot climb to the top one. After jumping to the top bunk and crushing her assumptions, he calls her out on her ableist attitude:

“That wasn’t nice. That was patronizing.” He leaped down next to her. “I want you to assume my ability. Assume I can do anything you can. Isn’t that what you want from them?”

He points out the irony of Megan’s situation.

Public safety is a male-dominated workforce. 65% of paramedics are men. 83% of firefighters are men. 86% of police officers are male. The pandemic has stalled women’s gains in the field. Women face recruiting discrimination, uniform/equipment discrimination, advancement/promotion discrimination, sexual harassment, and other problems.

In my own personal experience, I faced sexual harassment and equipment difficulties. Finding boots and uniforms that fit female figures is difficult. I was issued a ballistic vest (bulletproof vest) that was made for men (I’ll just leave my breasts at home). Though I was never active on the trucks while pregnant, pregnant first responders find it especially difficult to find equipment that will accommodate them.

Nathan was wise to choose to appeal to her empathy. Megan understood deeply how difficult it is for those around them to take them seriously and see them as equal partners in the work.

By the end of chapter one, the negativity on both sides has been diffused such that the reader is assured that a workable partnership is possible between the two of them. I was content to leave it with that.

What was your first impression of the characters?

Did anything surprise you?

What did you like most about the chapter?

What did you find the most uncomfortable in the chapter?

What was your favorite quote?

What do you like best about Megan? About Nathan?


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