These are my notes from the "Disabilities in Genre Fiction" panel I'm moderating at LTUE 2015.
Saturday February 14, 2015 at 10:00 AM
Disabilities in Genre Fiction Panelists: Mercedes Murdock Yardly, Fiona Wilhelm Ostler, J. Scott Savage, Sarah Chorn, and Paul Genesse (moderator).
Over 50 millions Americans live with a physical or psychological disability, about 1 in 10 being severe.
Panel description: People with disabilities are a vastly underrepresented portion of the speculative fiction readers, writers, and industry workers. Disabilities are prevalent in society and belong in the books we read and write. This panel will focus on talking about disabilities in the books we read and write. How do you write them well? What are some mistakes people make with writing disabilities? How can we talk about this sensitive topic in a way that does justice to everyone involved? Is it important to talk about disabilities when we talk about diversity? Publishing is changing, how are those changes impacting the disabled both in the books we write, in the discussions we have, and in the way books are received by fans?
Sarah Chorn suggested this panel to me and wrote the above text. Here's her bio, and her essays on this topic are extremely popular on SFF Signal and you’ll find some links below.
Sarah is a prolific reader and avid reviewer. She’s been working as a reviewer in the genre for four years, running reviews out of the website Bookworm Blues. She also runs the popular column called Special Needs in Strange Worlds on two time Hugo winning SF Signal. The purpose of her column is to start a discussion and shine a light on the importance of disabilities in the genre. Sarah also worked as a publicity assistant with Ragnarok Publications and can often be found all over the internet writing guest columns, or yammering on about books.
***One of our panelists was qualifying to be an Olympic swimmer and was a shoulder injury away from making the Olympic team. (Who? Sarah Chorn!)
The Special Needs in Strange Worlds column was inspired by a book: The Wild Hunt by Elsbeth Cooper. (Go read the original post). All her characters are broken somehow. It’s a short post, but this was the genesis of Sarah’s column.
Sarah’s goal is to make people read, write, talk about disabilities. How are people going to fit into the community if we don’t talk about it?
Fiona Ostler suggested these questions, which we will I’m sure address as well.
1) Why do you write or want to write about people with disabilities? 2) What are some things that we need to be careful with, and what are some stereotypes to avoid? 3) Where do you go for help or research to be authentic? 4) Why do people shy away from writing about people with disabilities and what do you think would help them be more confident?
From J Scott Savage: One of the things that I've heard from lots of kids with disabilities who have read my books is that they appreciate the fact that Marcus has disabilities but they did not define him. It isn't a story about a boy in a wheelchair. It's a story about a boy. That boy happens to be in a wheelchair. It's a key part of the story but it doesn't define the story or the character. (Read Farworld, Book 1, Waterkeep)
Below are some links to a few of Sarah’s posts that she emailed to me. I pulled several quotes from them and put them in the notes below the links.
I Am Not Broken: The Language of Disability - the most popular thing I’ve ever written in the history of ever writing things.
A Discussion of Disability in Lock In - second place to the one above
And I just posted the top 10 posts of 2014 for my Special Needs in Strange Worlds column. You can check ‘em out here:
I also did an interview with my disabled brother last year, which kind of really kicked this whole thing off.
Okay, I pulled the text from Sarah’s blog posts, as I thought they capture what I think we should be talking about on the panel. Sarah confirmed this covers the core of our upcoming discussion.
Special Needs in Strange Worlds: A Conversation With My Brother
SARAH: For you (her brother Rob), it seems like being isolated is part of your disability. Seeing isolated characters in novels is important to you because you relate to them.
ROB: Asperger’s is an entirely social issue. It’s how I deal with the outside world. Most of us with Asperger’s are home a lot because the outside world is a problem. We’re self-isolated, but it is the only way. Those isolated characters in books, like Fitz from Assassin’s Apprentice [by Robin Hobb], whose family doesn’t want anything to do with him, suffer because the whole world turns their back on them. It is important to see characters that are like that.
This is an important subject to talk about because you can’t live my life or understand how I see the world. You read about these problems and these characters, and learn more tolerance, understanding, and sympathy through reading. We need more of that.
SARAH: Do you think people in the genre talk about disabilities enough? Do you think discussion about disabilities is important?
ROB: I don’t think they talk about disabilities enough, and it is a very important thing to talk about. It is an important because it is real. You can witness the life of a person with that problem. If the character is well written and the disability is an in-depth part of that world, it is very good for people to witness, and for people like me to read. It needs to be there more. There aren’t a whole lot of people writing these characters. They are hard to write.
SARAH: Do you think authors are intimidated to write disabilities?
ROB: Yeah, they are. Not everything is easy. If you don’t have any problems, it is hard to put yourself in that place. You have to put yourself in an uncomfortable place to make the disabilities real in your book. Like The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, how do you write about leprosy if you don’t have leprosy? How do make it real? It’s hard to write those characters well, if you don’t have that problem, so people avoid doing it.
SARAH: What do you think that discussions about disability in the genre could accomplish?
ROB: I hope these discussions shows authors that it is important to include disabilities in their worlds. I hope that this interview, and your articles, show others that there are people like me that they can build on, or use as an influence from character building. That’s important. It’s not just for me to read about, though that’s important. Reading and talking openly about disabilities helps people understand what it is like to have a disability, which helps them understand and respect people like me
A Discussion of Disability in Lock In by John Scalzi
October 30, 2014
Language is powerful, and I’ve addressed that topic before so I feel no need to tread on that ground again. The point is, language can supercharge situations and bring out strong and justified feelings on both sides of whatever line. The word “cure” in the disabled community and the many reactions to it is just one example of the power of language and its potential to divide and upset/please and bring together. And Scalzi addresses that in various forms throughout the novel.
“Making people change because you can’t deal with who they are isn’t how it’s supposed to be done. What needs to be done is for people to pull their heads out of their asses. You say ‘cure.’ I hear ‘you’re not human enough.’”
– Lock In, John Scalzi
– Lock In, John Scalzi
Scalzi addresses the fact that just about every walk of life has suffered from the disease, and everyone will be impacted in one way or another. Much like cancer, this is one of those diseases that the whole family seems deal with.
Special Needs in Strange Worlds: An Interview with Mercedes M. Yardley
MMY: I love how you brought up how people with special needs can completely alter lives. It’s true. This isn’t how I imagined my life would be, really. I don’t think any child studies the clouds and plans to have a child with special needs. But I do think my life is much richer and fuller because of Niko. He does force me to take stock of what is important, and not too many people really get that privilege.
(The above link is a great interview with so much truth. Read it.)
Corinne Duyvis on Minding your Metaphors
As for the importance to keep things like this in the genre, I think Corinne Duyvis says it best in this week’s Special needs in Strange Worlds:
SFF features countless heart-wrenching scenes featuring protagonists who decide to “mercy kill” a loved one who underwent a terrible ordeal. It’s meant as a poignant, tragic show of compassion and mercy. The characters will give reasons like: “They can’t even talk.” “They’re drooling.” “They’re not the same person they used to be.” “They wouldn’t have wanted this.” “They can’t even look after themselves.” “It’s unnatural keeping them alive like this.”
What does that imply about the millions of disabled people who fit those descriptions?
Similar problems arise with other parallels. Characters may be disrespected, treated as burdens, or wallow in their own misery in ways that echo problematic portrayals of disabled people. For all the interesting questions tackled in SFF, I wish I saw more questions of informed consent. Or questions of treatment, of assistive tools, of accommodations, of community. Characters rarely adapt to their situation and move on with their life to the best of their ability.
While I don’t think disability metaphors are sufficient disability representation, I do think that they’ll come up naturally in many texts, and that they’re relevant to the discussion of disability in SFF. For authors, it’s important to be true to their plot, their world, and their characters … but it’s also important to consider how their narrative may resonate with and impact disabled readers.
I Am Not Broken: The Language of Disability (Sept 10, 2014)
I was at work yesterday talking to a coworker about my upcoming surgery when I mentioned, laughing, “I’m broken,” with a shrug. My coworker laughed, and I laughed and she moved on and I stayed right there, rooted to the floor, thinking about the words that had just slipped into my dialogue. I meant them as a joke, and that’s how they were received, but in that moment while I was watching her walk away, I realized just how profoundly I had degraded my own situation.
Perhaps I am feeling particularly touchy about this topic because earlier this week I had the absolutely horrible experience of watching an elderly woman reduce a teenager with Down syndrome to tears by calling him a “retard” in a public, crowded store (don’t worry, I yelled at her). Days later, I’m still moved to tears thinking about that teenager, who was telling jokes and laughing, absolutely shattered by one woman’s thoughtless remarks.
These words, these horrible, degrading words, slip into our dialogues at the worst possible times, and often we don’t even notice them. I’m not broken. I’m not bent. I’m not incapable. I might not work the same way everyone else does, but that doesn’t mean I’m unable to accomplish those things others can accomplish.
We are not broken; we’re just a different kind of normal. We are not incapable or unable; we just get things done a little differently.
The world we live in isn’t defined by two versions of reality. There isn’t the “normal” reality for all the normal people, and the slightly skewed reality for all of the rest of us who yearn for normalcy. Our fiction should reflect that. King George VI wasn’t any less of a powerful speaker or ruler for all of his stuttering. Odetta Holmes wasn’t slowed down by her wheelchair.
I’m not broken and neither are you.
There is real power in the words we use, and the way we convey ideas. Speculative fiction is a genre of the imagination. It’s progressive and plays with ideas and themes that aren’t always commonplace in our world yet. We like to think of ourselves as cutting edge, ahead of the times. We are unafraid to ask “What if?” and then find out just what would be if that “what if” was a reality. We take incredible ideas and make them bite size. We get thoughts brewing, and progress rolling. We dare to look at the world we live in differently. Isn’t it wonderful? There is so much to love about this genre. So very much.
We need to talk about how ableist thinking doesn’t reflect the world we live in. We need less of it in the books we read and the media we are tuned to. We need to look at our history, at the popular mindset, and dare it to change. Isn’t that what speculative fiction is all about?
This is a link to an article about “Ableism”
Ableism is so pervasive in the language we don’t know it’s there.
(Stop ableism 2015 is a thing on Twitter)
Random note: SARAH’S story about her brother being in the WC. He’s as whole as he’s ever been in the WC.
I Am Not Broken: The Language of Disability
By Sarah Chorn
(I’m planning on having Sarah read this next passage as the finale of our discussion on the panel. I think it’s truly powerful stuff).
Reading helps us become more empathic, more tuned in to those around us. I want my daughter to love literature, regardless of what genre(s) she ends up enjoying, but I want her to learn from it. Ableism is history. We deserve the books we read to reflect this. We owe it to ourselves, to our society, and to our progeny. We owe it to this progressive, fantastic genre. The way we think and talk about disabilities needs to change. Period.
We are not broken. We are not bent. We are powerful, capable, beautiful people. We are important. We are normal. Our normal might be a little different than yours, but it is still normal. We’re no better or worse, more capable or incapable than anyone else. Just different, and shouldn’t we celebrate that?
We belong in your books, and in your discussions about diversity. We deserve language that uplifts and equals rather than divides and demeans.
Words are such small things that are so incredibly powerful.