Earlier this year the Disability and Romance Project was launched, with the aim
to start new conversations about disability in the romance community. We’ll be gathering data from romance readers, writers and other industry professionals to explore how readers respond to depictions of disability in romance, what motivates authors to write disabled characters, and if there are any barriers to publishing romance novels featuring disabled characters.
Things have, of course, changed over the decades and perhaps it's helpful to have as reference point the situation in romance writing in the 1960s, when Ann Britton and Marion Collin's guide to writing romantic fiction included disability among the "taboo" subjects:
Deformity is also unpopular. Many of the smaller publications ban it completely and the larger-circulation magazines tend to avoid it unless it appears in an exceptionally good story. Of course, there have been some very moving stories about blind girls, and girls with a slight limp who fear that love is not for them, but this kind of plot is not easy to put over sincerely. It can so easily become mawkish. If it has to be written, at least leave the reader with the hope that the girl may eventually recover, and remember that only one or two markets will even consider the story. But never a heroine with one leg. No one will buy that story. (16)
It's probably worth noting that at the time the heroine was "never 'tipsy'" (15), divorce was a "delicate subject [...] though there have been more in recent years, possibly owing to a slight American trend" (16), "Illegitimate children are out of the question" (16) and there was "a colour bar [...] .To make a mixed marriage the central situation in a story is to invite a definite rejection at the present time" (17).
The reason given for all these taboos was that in order to "appeal to as many readers as possible [...] they must respect the prejudices existing in the minds of large sections of the reading public" (17). The impression I have is that some romance authors have always challenged, or wanted to challenge, the "prejudices existing in the minds of large sections of the reading public," whether in small or large ways. In 1964, for example, Mills & Boon
asked Alex Stuart for major changes to her latest manuscript [...]. In her submission letter, Stuart realized that there might be prolems with this novel. 'Please understand that I want Mills & Boon to publish this one very much but I know your reputation for publishing "pleasant books" is of great value to you and, of course, wouldn't want to damage this' [...]. The problem concerned Stuart's insistence that the heroine's father act as a crusader in race relations in Lehar, a fictional African nation. He publishes a book demanding equal rights for black people, and targets South Africa and its apartheid laws. (McAleer 269)
Stuart, "as Vice-President of the Romantic Novelists Association, often spoke on the future of the genre" and she believed more challenging novels such as this one were "the kind which must come in the future, if the romantic novel is to hold its new, young readers and go forward, rather than backward" (169). Mills & Boon didn't publish the novel, but romances have changed with the times. Whether they've generally led the change, or largely followed in the wake of changes in the prejudices of the reading public, I'm not sure. There's certainly a long tradition of smaller publishers (e.g. of lesbian romance) catering to more niche markets, with stories that did not "respect the prejudices" of a large proportion of "mainstream" readers.
Britton, Anne and Marion Collin. Romantic Fiction: The New Writers’ Guide. London: T. V. Boardman, 1960.
McAleer, Joseph. Passion's Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.