I’m a co-founder of Disability in Kidlit as well as an author who regularly writes disabled characters; both my existing SFF novels feature disabled protagonists. On top of that, I’m disabled myself. It’s pretty safe to say I’m a huge fan of disability representation. Specifically, I’m a fan of accurate, respectful, and textual disability representation.
However, when writing science fiction and fantasy, it doesn’t just stop at featuring textually disabled characters. Many SFF stories contain disability metaphors. These span a wide range—from purposeful to unintentional, from obvious to subtle, and from well-done to inadvertently offensive.
Many authors tackle interesting questions through these parallels: questions about human dignity; about violation; about “natural” versus “unnatural;” about reliance on medication or assistive tools; about the likelihood of ever recovering; about whether people may not be better off dead. However, they don’t always consider that these exact questions are regularly posed to and by disabled people in real life. Worse, authors commonly answer these questions in a way that’s contrary to the way actual disabled people feel about their lives.
Many disabled people are fed up with these poorly handled disability metaphors, and with the common trope of the “magical disability.” Even when disability parallels are handled wonderfully, it’s frustrating when these metaphors or made-up, sci-fi disabilities are used in lieu of actual disability representation.
To give an idea of what I mean when I talk about disability metaphors and parallels, here are a handful of different approaches:
In Kit Whitfield’s Benighted, the vast majority of society are werewolves; the main character is one of the few people who’s human. She’s seen as broken and lesser for it. A similar situation occurs in Janet Edwards’s Earth Girl, in which the few characters who cannot survive on worlds other than Earth are “handicapped” and called “apes” and “throwbacks.”
In the X-Men universe, Cyclops is forced to wear specially made visors/glasses every minute of every day. These also render him colorblind. Rogue is unable to touch someone without harming them. Telepathic characters exert a lot of energy shutting out people’s thoughts and emotions, if they’re able to do so at all; Sookie Stackhouse in Charlaine Harris’s Dead Until Dark outright refers to her telepathy as a disability.
Sometimes, characters’ actual disabilities intersect with magical abilities, such as characters with narcolepsy or epilepsy whose episodes link into the ability to see into other worlds, into people’s minds, or into the future. Other times—such as in my own Otherbound—characters with certain abilities or curses are misdiagnosed with medical conditions because the people around them don’t know the truth.
In the above examples, the authors drew conscious parallels. That’s not always the case, though. In SFF, where you’re dealing with fantasy creatures—each with their own strengths and limitations—as well as magic and technology, accidental parallels are inevitable.
Take for example characters who are magically mind-wiped; who are brainwashed; who are under supernatural influence; who are artificially created (Frankenstein, clones, androids) … heck, take zombies. Many zombie stories come down to a kill-or-be-killed situation, but in others, zombies can be restrained and made harmless relatively easily. This is used as a gag at the end of Shaun of the Dead. In that film and John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel Handling the Undead, zombies retain elements of their previous selves; in the British TV series In the Flesh and Jaclyn Dolamore’s Dark Metropolis, zombies can be “restored” to their former, sentient selves by means of medication.
Yet, I rarely get the impression that authors are conscious of how those characters relate to the perception of—for example—intellectually disabled, mentally ill, or otherwise neuroatypical people, or those with a chronic/terminal illness. Let’s be clear: I am no way saying “disabled people are just like zombies” or “it’s sort of like mentally ill people are mind-wiped.” We’re dehumanized often enough as is. I do want to point out that characters in the above categories are often stripped of agency and identity for reasons that are frightfully similar to the reasons given for dehumanizing disabled people in real life.
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 who 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 stories, 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.
Note: titles in this article are merely examples. Inclusion doesn’t reflect my opinion of the title or the handling of the disability parallel, whether good or bad.
This article previously appeared in SF Signal’s Special Needs in Strange Worlds column, and has been reprinted in Speculative Fiction 2014. It has been slightly modified since.