Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Written on

What Can SFR Offer To Readers With Disabilities?

SF Signal has a new-ish feature called Special Needs in Strange Worlds, "…a column focusing on celebrating disabilities in SFF. This column will focus on book reviews, author interviews, and guest posts to highlight the beauty and importance of our flaws."

Sarah Chorn's feature has helped inject some much-needed diversity into SF/F. That said, the title and description raise two concerns:

* use of the word "flaw" risks portraying disabled people as inferior overall

* to the adult disability community, "special needs" is code for "extraordinary" and "other" in a way that performs a function opposite that of inclusivity. Think of it like this: how often are the needs of disabled folks considered first when it comes to Internet and tech accessibility? Something to consider.

During one of my frequent visits to SF Signal, I noticed author Sharon Lynn Fisher's name pop up in one of the SNiSW posts. I was like, "Oh, cool! A sci-fi romance--wait a minute." I scratched my head. Something didn't seem right.

Then I saw the book that was the focus of the feature--THE OPHELIA PROPHECY. I had read that book. It's not a book with disabled characters. Believe me, I'd have blogged about it by now if it were. THE OPHELIA PROPHECY has biopunk and genetic engineering in a post-apocalyptic setting, but the characters are as non-disabled as they come.

To Ms. Fisher's credit, she noted in her post that "…none of the characters in my Tor book The Ophelia Prophecy have a disability in the conventional sense." And she reframes "special needs" as "physical challenges" in order to more accurately represent the characters. But it doesn't change the fact that her post lacks expected insights about disability. With a feature like SNiSW, the author of the post can make a real difference. For example, what kinds of insights might we have gained if a disabled reader had provided commentary about how, in THE OPHELIA PROPHECY, the heroine's memory loss is a disability experience?

The post made me realize how easy it is to inadvertently marginalize and erase books with disabled characters--even in a feature designed to bring them to light.

The post is also a misfire considering there are about a half-dozen SFRs that would have made a much better fit. Therefore, I decided this is a good time to have a conversation about disabled characters in SFR and what one actually looks like (or might look like). One, because readers with disabilities deserve to see themselves reflected far more often in this genre and two, SFR's relative youth means authors have a chance to chart a course, almost from the start, to accurate, sensitive, and thoughtful portrayals of disability.

How can SFR help meet the needs of readers with disabilities?
If you're a non-disabled reader, I'm willing to bet you've probably seen people in your life with disabilities. Maybe someone in your family has a disability. You might work or go to school with someone who has one. Heck, if you haven't encountered anyone with a disability, you might want to think about moving out from under the rock you've been living under. It's also highly likely you've met a disabled person and didn’t even know it.

Over the course of my lifetime, I've known as many disabled people as non-disabled ones. They have included neighbors, friends, family members, and folks I've worked with. If they all were to start reading SFR (hey, a gal can dream!), they might want to see themselves represented in a story. People with disabilities date, fall passionately in love, negotiate intimate relationships, and have hot sex. They'll do all of that in the future as well.

SFR has loads of potential when it comes to disabled characters. A few books feature them, which is great, and those got me wondering how many more we'll have to look forward to. The question is how can SFR best represent such characters? How will readers know an SFR handles disability in an authentic, compelling way?

I'm going to tackle this topic and more in this post, which I intend as a conversation starter and resource rather than a comprehensive presentation.

On crafting disabled characters

First, it's important to question our assumptions about health and the human body because, as stated in The Uses of Negativity: Survival and Coping Strategies For Those of Us Who Are Exasperated by the Empty Promise of "It" Getting Better:

* "…society prescribes a model of healing that is linear and short-term…"

* "The society views victimhood as something that must be overcome."

* "The idea that things would just get better with time is unrealistic, invalidating, and alienating for those of us who have lived through a long stream of multiple trauma and oppressions in our lives."

What's the takeaway for authors? Create narratives that endorses the idea of a character whose daily life is centered around managing a disability rather than trying to overcome it.

For an example of this concept in action, read Jacqueline Koyanagi's ASCENSION (Click here to read Sarah Chorn's interview with the author at SF Signal).
To portray characters with disabilities effectively, SFR can offer stories that avoid relying on an ableist perspective. Love in the Margin's Ridley offers Some Thoughts on "Physically Disabled Protagonists":
Ableism, then, is where the typical able body is assumed to be the default and the ideal. Anyone whose body differs from this in form or function is defective. Not “different.” Defective. This is a cornerstone of the medical model of disability, where disabled people are patients in need of therapies and cures and success is defined by returning someone’s body back to the typical ideal.
Disabled people are just that: people. We’re no more defined by our bodies than anyone else. No one among us is omnipotent, so every one of us has learned to live with limitations. Where do you draw the line? What makes my wheelchair any different than someone else’s eyeglasses? Am I more disabled than an athletic man who can’t read? Why do able bodied people get personalities, but disabled ones get inadequacies?

Disability isn’t a a character trait and how a person reacts to an acquired disability isn’t a measure of character. Disability is just another one of the elements of human diversity. Like race and gender, disability often is a source of oppression and hardship, and that oppression is due to societal structures.

Think of the possibilities if an SFR approached a disabled character from a perspective advocated in Kevin Grow And Disability As Inspiration by S.E. Smith:

"Grow isn’t remarkable because he’s disabled. He’s remarkable because he’s a good athlete."

In other words, Inspirationally Disadvantaged characters are best avoided. So are disabilities as plot points, as Laura K. Curtis outlines in Don't Co-opt My Disorder For Your Plot Device: A Rant:
Regardless of what  her experience of epilepsy is, every epileptic has a relationship to her disorder that is just as important as any other relationship in her life. (And, like any other relationship, it’s apt to change over time.)

And that’s true of any disorder, disease, or lasting injury, not just epilepsy. If you want to write an epileptic character, I’d be happy to talk to you about my experiences, my friends’ experiences. I can direct you to forums with people who will talk to you. If you want to write this stuff, for goodness’ sake, research the emotional impact, not just the physical symptoms and jargon.
SFR and the social model of disability

Imagine an SFR that takes place in a futuristic colony on another planet. In addition to the usual worldbuilding elements, why not layer in details indicating the colony had been designed to accommodate people with disabilities (maybe the hero or heroine would even benefit from it)?

That idea draws from the social model of disability:
While physical, sensory, intellectual, or psychological variations may cause individual functional limitation or impairments, these do not have to lead to disability unless society fails to take account of and include people regardless of their individual differences.
I would love to read about a society or culture that routinely accommodates disabled characters. SFR is especially suited for this type of exploration since many books in the genre include concepts from various social sciences. It'd also be interesting to read stories that explore the engineering of something other than starships and plasma weapons. E.g., universal home designs extrapolated to the future.

Or shuttles. Lots of SFR characters use them to travel from a space ship to a planet's surface, or for traveling across an alien landscape. Have you ever noticed how often shuttles are described as having limited space? From the medical model of disability perspective, a power chair user can't navigate the confined spaces because his medical condition prohibits him from navigating the narrow aisles and cramped cockpit.

On the other hand, the social model of disability approaches the issue from another perspective: the power chair user can't board (or pilot) the shuttle because the manufacturer designed it with too-narrow spaces (i.e., lack of foresight in operation here).

So if an author wants to include a disabled character in a power chair, she could explore alternate means of boarding a shuttle. For example, a shuttle that uses transforming mecha to fold and unfold around a power chair user. Or just bigger shuttles with accommodations like wide aisles, etc. This is the future, after all, and an author's imagination controls the budget. Check it out: futuristic engineers have figured out how to accommodate the disabled without prohibitive cost. Yay!

Here's another example: when gravity malfunctions on a space station, what accommodations are in place to protect disabled inhabitants/employees? Are wheelchair users expected to adjust using only their arms to navigate zero-g after their wheelchairs float away?

One way the station could provide accommodations could be automatic or voice-activated safety equipment that appears when the gravity fails. A "smart safety net" system as it were. And maybe wheelchairs of the future could come equipped with mini rockets and emergency harnesses so the user can avoid crashing into a bulkhead.

See G.B. Hajim's STRANGE FRAME for an example of an advanced power chair that enables a (secondary) character to function in zero-g.
Are space station floors seamless/smooth so characters with mobility/coordination/strength challenges can walk across them safely, or are the characters expected to navigate irregularities and other obstacles inch by perilous inch while onlookers praise their gumption? What about characters with visual impairments? I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

Things to look for or question in an SFR book featuring a disabled character:

*What kind of support system does a disabled character have?

*Does the character have an acquired disability or was he born with it?

* In the case of space opera settings featuring interstellar travel, how would a disabled character access health care?

* A disabled character, like anyone else, has a variety of coping skills. What is a character's coping skills? How does a hero respond to a physically disabled heroine who's expressing negativity about a space station's lack of accommodations? (Hint: an empathic response is preferable to an attempt to cheer her up.)

*What kind of technology might help decrease the isolation of disabled characters? We have the Google driverless car even now. And a robotic suit enabled a paraplegic man to perform the kickoff in the 2014 World Cup:

What's the equivalent technology of the future that'd help disabled characters increase their mobility? Seems to me the robotic suit angle would provide especially intriguing ideas for near-future SFRs.

* What does the story's subtext say about the concepts of "disabled" and "non-disabled"? Does it attempt to "…refuse the notion of able(ness)"? Does it reject the idea of "able-bodied" as the default?

What other considerations would you suggest? What kinds of details would contribute to an authentic portrayal of a disabled character?

Pros and Cons of Advanced Technology 

Incorporating advanced adaptive technology in stories with disabled characters seems like an automatic choice. SFR stories could certainly feature disabled characters whose functionality is optimized by futuristic tech and medical advancements. That'd be one way to increase diversity and would enable the inclusion of disabled characters in, say, action-adventure sci-fi romances.

But is technology the one and only answer? Relying on super advanced science risks implying that just because a disabled character can function with adaptive technology then she is somehow no longer impaired. Technology risks erasing a character's disability just as much as the magical cure one might encounter in contemporary stories.

Still, there are other ways to integrate adaptive technology without diminishing a character's disability. Here are a few:

* Stories focusing on the development of advanced adaptive medical interventions (e.g., heroine is a prosthetics engineer in a near-future setting.)

* Stories that include high tech interventions used by characters, yet acknowledge the disability isn't cured by it. For example, perhaps a heroine's leg prostheses require regular maintenance and repair. How long will the repair take? If the prosthesis is damaged, is her mobility affected during this time? Will she need alternate means of transportation or other kinds of assistance in the meantime?

Zoe Archer's steampunk romance SKIES OF GOLD features a disabled heroine with a prosthesis and the story touches upon the vulnerability she experiences as a result.

* Character takes medication to manage symptoms of epilepsy or any other number of conditions. Perhaps the medication works wonders or science has found a way to eliminate side effects, but the character must take her medication regularly. How might this regimen impact a heroine who's on a quest type of adventure aboard a starship? How much medication is she allowed to have before needing a refill? Or if the medication is administered via a shot or implant, how long will it last?

* Integrate scenes of a character needing an adjustment to his prosthetic. Where would he go, and how accessible is the company who'd handle the job? What will be the futuristic equivalent of a company like Hanger? 

Sexy times--disabled people have them

People with disabilities have sex. I shouldn't have to state the obvious, but unfortunately that's not the world we live in. Whenever I encounter disabled characters in SFR making love, I cheer. Frankly, I want to cheer about it more often.

By avoiding featuring disabled characters having sex in SFR, we reinforce a harmful message:
There’s a common social attitude that disabled people are not sexual — that something about disability strips people of their sex drive, and that, moreover, disability makes people inherently sexually unappealing, so it’s not like they could find partners even if they wanted them. This is accepted as common knowledge, despite the fact that it creates some extremely harmful social attitudes and social structures.
Here's what I'd love to read about more often in SFR when it comes to lovemaking scenes:
…disabilities are the mother of invention, creativity, clever adaptation, and brilliant accommodation, and when it comes to sex, we put our creative thinking skills to work in a variety of ways.
Meljean Brook's RIVETED is a steampunk romance that addresses disability and sex in a thoughtful manner. And when it comes to the use of clever technological adaptation and creativity in a disabled character's sex life, in my reading experience P.J. Schnyder's A GIFT FOR BOGGLE reigns supreme (read it for free!).


For more information about disability issues, here's a list of articles courtesy of S.E. Smith's site This Ain't Livin. 

In addition to the titles mentioned in this post, there are a few other SFR stories that feature disabled heroes and heroines. The books vary widely, however, in terms of how the disabilities are handled--some are simply cosmetic; some are more integral to the plot and characterization than others. Still, it's a place to start.

TIN CAT - Misa Buckley
The Iron Seas steampunk romance series by Meljean Brook
ISLAND OF ICARUS - Christine Danse
ALIEN BLOOD - Melisse Aires
SOMATESTHESIA - Ann Somerville
MILES IN LOVE - Lois McMaster Bujold

Related TGE posts:


This post would not have been possible without the valuable input of Ridley from Love in the Margins. She's very knowledgeable about disability and how it's portrayed in romance and I've learned a lot by reading her reviews and tweets. Ridley supplied me with numerous links and provided a beta read.

Here's the LITM mission statement:
We (mainly) review romance and erotica featuring characters from every corner. Of special interest to us is how the romance genre tells (or avoids telling) the stories of those whose lives don’t fit into the neat and tidy box labeled “default.” Characters of varying sexual orientations or gender representations? We review it. Couples of color? We review it. Heroes with disabilities or heroines managing chronic illness? We review it. Blue-collar Cowboy Dom with ex-con brothers falling for a transgender ballet teacher recovering from combat-related PTSD? Not sure this book exists, but if we find it, we’ll review it. We’ll talk openly and honestly about what we loved and what we hated, as romance readers and people who deal with this stuff in everyday life.

Love in the Margins is for all of us, the readers. All fiction carries an underlying message about how the world works; and we’re going to try to hit on the love stories that represent us all. This is a blog that welcomes discussion and criticism. Hate speech is prohibited but open speech is not.

You can also follow Ridley on Twitter.

If there are more SFRs featuring disabled characters, I'd love to hear about them.

Joyfully yours,