Disability issues have become a hot topic amongst science fiction and fantasy fans.
Header image: “Cane on the Roof” by Annalee.Last November, Lynne Thomas, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Michael Damian Thomas published the SF/F Con Accessibility Pledge, and more than 300 folks signed on to attend only those conventions that publish specific statements about disability access, along with contact information for a trained accessibility coordinator, and commit to making accommodations for members as they work to improve access.
The pledge was inspired by a series of accessibility fails at high-profile conventions, including several recent World Fantasy Cons. But in spite of numerous requests, this year’s World Fantasy Con refused to publish policies about accessibility prior to a major hike in ticket prices–a decision that drew understandable ire from people who were waiting to buy tickets until accessibility and harassment policies were available (World Fantasy tickets are not refundable, and several recent WFCs have had harassment and accessibility polices that could most charitably be called ‘inadequate’).
In the wake of that incident, SF Signal published a guest post by Amy Sterling Casil as part of their series “Special Needs In Strange Worlds.” Mixed in with a host of ignorant and offensive comments about people with various disabilities, she claimed that “we are all disabled,” that disabled people have special abilities that people without disabilities don’t, and that she, personally, is disabled because she can read other people’s thoughts and emotions. SF Signal has since pulled the post and apologized. The less said about Casil’s responses, however, the better).
Casil’s post is a convenient example of some of the astoundingly ignorant things people still say and believe about people with disabilities in this, the year two thousand and sixteen. But as tempting as it is to treat her as an outlier, her misconceptions about disability and disabled people are still widespread–and the Science Fiction community is no exception. Science fiction and fantasy fans consume a steady diet of fiction that erases, marginalizes, and misrepresents disabled people and our experiences.
Disabled people face these misconceptions on a regular basis. I’ve been facing them since the third grade, when I was first diagnosed with dyslexia. By the time I graduated from college, I’d been diagnosed with ADHD as well, and had developed a neurological condition for which I now intermittently need a cane.
Debunking the same misconceptions over and over again is quite tiresome. When something like Casil’s post comes along, it’s a disheartening reminder that in spite of all the work disabled people have done to make room for ourselves in our communities, the bullshit is still winning.
I want the science fiction community to be inclusive and accessible to disabled people. I want our conventions and corners of the internet to be places where disabled people are treated with dignity and respect. I’m hoping that if I walk through some of the more common misconceptions, I can move the needle a little–or at least save myself some time in the future, because I’ll be able to give people a link instead of explaining all this again.
What is Disability?
This may seem like starting from first principles, but a lot of the misconceptions I’ve encountered within the science fiction community have been rooted in a poorly thought-out model of what the term ‘disability’ means.
The Medical Model
Under the medical model of disability, a disability is a deviation from what’s considered ‘normal’ for humans. The medical model views disabilities as problems to be fixed, and envisions a future in which disabled people no longer exist because they will either be cured or never born.
You’ll encounter the Medical Model at work in a lot of genre TV shows, where plotlines that involve disability usually resolve when the disabled person is cured. For example, the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Ethics” is about Worf choosing to commit suicide after an accident paralyzes his legs. He changes his mind and decides to live not because he recognizes that people who cannot walk can live full and happy lives, but because an experimental medical treatment cures his disability. The show also included a blind character–Geordi LaForge–as part of its efforts to be inclusive. But Geordi has a magic visor that not only eliminates his disability, but gives him better eyesight than other humans.
The underlying message of these ‘miracle cure’ stories is that disabled people are broken, and can’t have happy endings or productive lives until they’re fixed. Many disabled people find this outlook on disability insulting.
The Social Model
Under the Social Model, disabled people are not in need of ‘fixing.’ Whatever limitations disabled people have, it’s the discrimination and exclusion we face that turn those limitations into disabilities. A wheelchair driver is not disabled because they need a wheelchair. They’re disabled because they live in a society where access and inclusion for people who drive wheelchairs are considered ‘special needs’ instead of human rights.
Under the social model, a future without disabled people is a creepy dystopia where everyone is expected to conform to a socially-constructed ‘normal,’ or else be deprived of even the opportunity to make a life for themselves. Many disabled people are not interested in a ‘cure.’ Creating a future where disabled people don’t exist would mean coercing many of us into medical interventions we do not want.
In the United States, it’s generally considered most polite to talk about disability using ‘person-first language,’ such as “people with disabilities.” This language is rooted in the medical model–the goal is to affirm the humanity of disabled people by referring to disabilities as something we have, rather than something we are.
People who subscribe to the social model tend to prefer the term “disabled people,” or more specific variants, such as Deaf people or Autistic people. We do not consider ‘disabled’ or ‘disability’ to be dirty words–our disabilities are facts of our lives, not shameful secrets for which we should be pitied. Some people who subscribe to the social model consider ‘person-first language’ offensive, because it suggests that people can only acknowledge our humanity by ignoring part of who we are.
While I’m contrasting these two models, however, I want to be clear that they’re not mutually exclusive. There are people who do not want to change themselves to conform to a narrow definition of ‘normal.’ There are other people who advocate for research into treating and curing their disabilities who nevertheless believe that it shouldn’t take a cure for society to treat them with dignity and respect. Personally, I would love to be cured of my painful, debilitating neurological condition, but if someone offered to ‘cure’ my dyslexia, I’d tell them to eff off.
These issues are complicated. But because most people don’t have to engage with the complexities involved, the most prevalent model of disability is a half-baked form of the medical model. Many of the damaging and pervasive myths about disability spring from that poorly-constructed concept of what disability even is.
We Are Not “All Disabled.”
The science fiction community tends to take this diluted version of the medical model to extremes. Because we’re used to speculating about abilities that humans could have if certain fictitious conditions were met, some of us consider all human bodies fundamentally broken. For example, since being able to fly unaided would be both cool and convenient, it’s easy for us to fall into the trap of thinking that we must all be disabled because we can’t fly.
Here’s the thing, though. Because we can’t fly, we have built a world that is accessible to people who cannot fly. We build roads and sidewalks to facilitate ground travel and elevators to provide access to tall buildings. We don’t treat inclusion and access for folks who can’t fly as a ‘special need,’ or word job postings to discourage people who can’t fly from applying.
Claiming that we’re “all disabled” is insensitive because it erases the discrimination and exclusion that actual disabled people experience when navigating a world that isn’t built for us.
We Are Not “Differently Abled.”
Much like “we’re all disabled,” the concept that disabled people are “differently abled” erases the very real ways that our communities disable us by maintaining inaccessible physical and social structures.
The “differently abled” concept encourages people to ignore barriers to access and inclusion. For example, the teachers I had who most insisted on calling my learning disabilities “learning differences” were also the most likely to insist that I could overcome my well-documented processing disorders if I just “applied myself.” Their concept that I was “different” instead of “disabled” rendered invisible the monumental effort I put into completing my assignments, and led them to ascribe my exhaustion and frustration to laziness.
The use of “differently abled” is especially a problem within the science fiction community because it feeds the myth the people with disabilities develop compensatory superpowers. Some of us read and watch so much bullshit about disability that we have to be reminded that Daredevil is a comic book and not a documentary.
I’m using DareDevil as my example ‘supercrip’ because a lot of folks honestly believe that blind and low-vision people develop heightened senses of hearing and touch. The evidence for that is, at best, inconclusive. (The National Federation of the Blind says flat-out that blind people don’t develop sharper senses).
I joked on twitter the other day that the only “different” ability I have that non-disabled people don’t is the ability to puke without making a mess. Disabled people develop skills to improve our access to the world the same way we develop any skill: through training and practice. If we have abilities that other people don’t, it’s because we’ve taken the time to learn them.
We’re Not Here To Inspire You.
Inspo stories hold up disabled people as paragons of hard work and optimism for achieving such monumental feats as living independently, holding down jobs, exercising, or voting. These, too, are rooted in the medical model–this time with a dose of magical thinking that a good attitude can cure all ills.
Having a good attitude in the face of challenges is laudable, but holding on to the belief that we can completely overcome our limitations through willpower is unhealthy. I know this from experience: I spent a good chunk of my teens on and off crutches because I was too busy trying to “will” my way out of sprained ankles to actually let them heal.
When others impose their belief in the magic of willpower on us, it’s both patronizing and victim blaming. The teachers who insisted I “apply myself” in school may have been trying to motivate me, but they did so by setting a standard I could never meet, then blaming me for failing. Of course I had a bad attitude about it. I didn’t need a pep talk; I needed accommodations.
So please, when you’re reading or writing stories about disabled people, take a moment to interrogate their role in the narrative. Are they the heroes of their own stories, even if they’re a background character in the story being told? Are they three dimensional people with inner lives and personal agency, or are they just reflections of another damaging stereotype? In real life, disabled people overcome challenges to meet our own goals, not to conform to an objectified ideal that makes non-disabled people feel better about themselves. We deserve to see ourselves represented that way in fiction.