For me, writing about other people sometimes feels like a minefield. I don’t want to write lots of white, straight, cis, able-bodied, male characters – the world has plenty of those. But as I am all those things, there’s a very real risk of writing other perspectives badly.
So when Eastercon had a range of panels on disability in science fiction and fantasy, I was determined to go and learn more.
The panel I went to was trying to get beyond the basics of representing disability in sf+f. The panellists were Sue Smith, Caroline Mullan, and Diane Carr, all of whom made some excellent points.
As Sue pointed out at the start, sci-fi is a productive space in which to explore disability and access. This doesn’t mean that it’s done flawlessly. Representations of disability often have an ablist bias – something I’m sure I’m guilty of myself.
Fortunately, the panellists pointed out both obvious and less obvious pitfalls.
Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
The panel skimmed over one of the biggest problem areas – presenting disability just to wipe it away. For example, Geordi La Forge in Star Trek seldom shows the real challenges of blindness, as he has a visor that lets him see. Similarly, Daredevil is effectively not blind due to his other senses. There was a whole other panel on this, so this panel didn’t cover it for long, but the overall message was clear – if you’re not showing the experience of being disabled, you’re not really showing disability.
Diane pointed out a less obvious but equally important problem area – metaphors. When you use disability as a metaphor in a story, a lot of the nitty gritty of living with disability is lost. You’re seeing a symbol, not a reality. Metaphors are usually spoken from a position of power, one that assumes its own view to be neutral. Someone else’s experience is leveraged to make a point. But that point is seldom about other people’s experiences.
This opened up a whole can of worms in my brain. I seldom think about the messages of my metaphors, beyond the message I’m trying to send. Clearly, that’s something to work on. And clearly, when I include disabled characters, they should be there as people, not symbols.
The panel raised some really interesting ideas, things that I’ll try to use in future writing.
They talked about DIY solutions to disability, such as people building custom-made prosthetics. This sounds like it’s rich with character and story potential.
An audience member talked about how having seizures leaves her on edge all the time, as she never knows when they will strike. That’s an experience I want to use to enrich a character.
And the panel talked about how medicine, with its technology, power structures, and resources, tries to fit people into those structures rather than adjusting to them. That’s an interesting conflict right there.
Becoming a Better Writer
I’m not going to pretend that I’ll flawlessly represent disability from now on. But just thinking about what I might be missing will make me better at it. And anything that makes me better at writing other people’s experiences makes me a better writer.
Huge thanks to the panellists for that.