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
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.
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?
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
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?
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
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
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.
Am Not Broken: The Language of Disability - the most popular thing I’ve ever
written in the history of ever writing things.
Discussion of Disability in Lock In - second place to the one above
I just posted the top 10 posts of 2014 for my Special Needs in Strange Worlds
column. You can check ‘em out here:
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
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
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
Do you think people in the genre talk about disabilities enough? Do you think
discussion about disabilities is important?
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.
Do you think authors are intimidated to write disabilities?
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.
What do you think that discussions about disability in the genre could
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
Discussion of Disability in Lock In by John Scalzi
October 30, 2014
Language is powerful,
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.
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
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
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
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.”
does that imply about the millions of disabled people who fit those
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.
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
Am Not Broken: The Language of Disability (Sept 10, 2014)
by BookwormBlues (Sarah Chorn)
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
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.
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.
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.
not broken and neither are you.
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
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.
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?
belong in your books, and in your discussions about diversity. We deserve
language that uplifts and equals rather than divides and demeans.
are such small things that are so incredibly powerful.