(Not) Engaging with Disability: Convenient Approaches in SFF

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In speculative fiction, by the very definition of the genre, you’re dealing with magic, technology, or other elements that aren’t present in our world. This opens up tons of story possibilities for authors.

It can also close off opportunities. For example, if you want to include disabled characters without using magic workarounds, it’s occasionally difficult to realistically integrate them into your world. After all, if your characters are incredibly skilled magicians, is it realistic that they wouldn’t try to minimize or heal their disability? If you’re working with warp portals and faster-than-light travel, wouldn’t that world also have prostheses that are nigh indistinguishable from natural limbs, and far more effective medications around the board? Magic and technology will absolutely mean different approaches to disability, ranging from hyper-advanced tools to creative uses of magic to medical/magical cures. We want to acknowledge and integrate this reality into the narrative. Sometimes, though, books may use SF/F elements to circumvent dealing with the drawbacks of disability entirely. When you’re a disabled reader, that can sting: it’s like you’ll only be allowed to participate in exciting sci-fi adventures as long as you’re not too much trouble.

We’d like to talk about approaches to disabled characters in SF/F that don’t handwave or erase the reality of disability. No matter the setting, there are ways to tackle this.

We’re not trying to tell anybody how to write their book. We’ve simply often heard that it wouldn’t be realistic for disabled characters to stay disabled in SF/F stories, which we don’t agree with. We’d like to share our thoughts; hopefully these will be helpful.

First, let’s give a few examples of ways we’ve seen these workarounds in fiction. (We have a lot of examples, so we recommend skimming or skipping the next five paragraphs if you’re already familiar with this trope.)

DaredevilIn Elsa Sjunneson-Henry’s article “Overcompensating: Magical Erasure of Blindness in SFF,” she listed several examples specifically regarding blindness: Toph from Avatar: The Last Airbender, whose earthbending power lets her detect her surroundings by feeling the vibrations in the ground; Mad-Eye Moody from Harry Potter, whose missing eye is replaced by a magical one that can even see through solid objects; Flicker from Zeroes, who can look through other people’s eyes; Daredevil, whose superpowered senses detect a nigh-perfect image of his surroundings; and Moritz from Because You’ll Never Meet Me, whose ability to echolocate is so advanced that he can count people’s eyelashes.

There are also other examples in young adult lit. Iggy from the Maximum Ride series is blind but his other senses are enhanced, and he can even feel color, to the point of being able to identify printed images in magazines. Po from Graceling and Bitterblue is a particularly interesting case, as Kody Keplinger discussed earlier this week. In The Scorpion Rules, a character with albinism receives eye implants.

Stepping away from kidlit, there’s Irene Adler from the X-Men comics, who is blind but whose precognition allows her to see even nanoseconds into the future, effectively making her sighted. (A character in Witches Abroad uses a similar trick.) Meanwhile, Doctor Mid-Nite and Doctor Midnight from DC Comics are both blind, but can see in perfect darkness, and have a visor that allows them to see during the day as well—a third version of this character can see via ultrasonic/infrared vision. Another DC Comics character, Adam Strange, lost his sight and managed to connect his ship’s sensor array to his visual cortex, which allowed him sight as long as he was piloting. And of course, everybody knows Star Trek’s Geordi LaForge, who wears a visor that enables sight.

Cover for YOUNG KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLEAnd that’s just blind characters! Other disabilities are often approached similarly, though. In kidlit, there’s Young Knights of the Round Table, in which the wheelchair user gains a magical device that allows her wheelchair to navigate otherwise impossible terrain. In Akata Witch, the main character—who has albinism—is no longer sensitive to sunlight once her magic awakens. In Dangerous, the character goes through three hyper-advanced arm prostheses in a very short span of time, while in Harry Potter, Peter Pettigrew loses a hand and receives a magical, super-strong prosthetic hand as a replacement.

Stepping away from kidlit again, we have characters like Professor Xavier from X-Men, who used a floating wheelchair in the cartoon, and who used medication that temporarily enabled him to walk in the recent films. Meanwhile, in the X-Men comics, Hellion lost both his hands but uses telekinesis to control artificial hands. Barbara Gordon in the Birds of Prey TV series used an electronic device to allow her to temporarily walk in one episode. In Heroes, the character Emma is deaf and has the ability to see sound as bright waves of light, and in The Legend of Korra, a character who’s born without arms can waterbend water into arm tendrils, which allow her to do pretty much everything, including drive a car.

It’s telling that we just listed over five hundred words of examples, and we could easily keep going. Note that we’re not criticizing the above titles; they’re simply examples to establish context for this article. This trope can range from “logical worldbuilding” to “kind of a cop-out” to “groan-worthy magical cure,” and not everyone agrees on which is which.

For the two of us, a lot comes down to these three related elements:

  1. how convenient the workaround is
  2. how realistic the workaround is
  3. how thoughtfully it’s approached

In terms of convenience:

Cover for GRACELINGWe brought up some of this in the discussion on magical disabilities earlier this week. It can feel awfully convenient when a disabled character just happens to have a unique supernatural or magical power that effectively negates their disability. (There are equivalent overly convenient situations with technology, but they’re not as common as with superpowers/abilities.) As a reader—especially as a disabled reader—it often grates to see a power seemingly chosen purely to dodge the practical difficulties of writing and integrating a character’s disability. Especially since many, many SF/F disabled characters fall into that trap.

The second element, how realistic the workaround is, is sort of intertwined with the above.

If a futuristic world has technology that’s only slightly more advanced than ours, high-tech devices that minimize disability may feel like a stretch—which is often both unrealistic and convenient. (Hence the overlap.)

A lack of realism can also come from shallowly thought-out applications of SF/F workarounds. For example: if a character is autistic and someone magics or sciences away the autism, leaving the character neurotypical, how a writer approaches this aftermath can make a huge difference. If the character instantly adapts and acts just like a neurotypical person might, and isn’t remotely frightened, intimidated, or confused, doesn’t have any new skills to learn, and has zero identity crisis whatsoever … To us, that doesn’t feel realistic. That feels like a cop-out.

Our contributor Holly Scott-Gardner pointed out how this works in terms of straight-forward cures: a character who’s born blind may gain the ability to see, but there is an awful lot they’d have to learn after that. Ignoring the transition process and jumping straight to “fixed now!” seems like a cheap shortcut.

In other words, if you have a workaround that’s either unlikely for your world, or is technically excusable but feels like a stretch—and if either of those situations ignore logical/likely side effects—it’s likely to feel unrealistic. That, in turn, can make the approach feel too easy and unsatisfying.

The final element, how thoughtfully the workaround is approached, is again related to the above.

Think of currently existing assistive tools. Even something as common and relatively mild like an aspirin can have side effects. Stronger medications, like antidepressants, anticonvulsants, or painkillers, often have downsides that can range anywhere from mild to severe. Glasses enable perfect vision for many people, but they require upkeep and are often impractical. Contact lenses seem like a good alternative, but not everyone can tolerate them, they’re much more expensive than glasses, are more work to use, and can easily get lost. A wheelchair is an amazing device that enables tons of people to navigate independently, but many places aren’t accessible to wheelchair users, and they’re again expensive and require upkeep.

In other words, nothing is perfect. Even the most common and effective assistive devices/tools have side effects, malfunctions, complications, or aren’t universally accessible for any number of reasons.

But in fiction, magical or science-fictional assistive tech often is infallible and widely available. It’s easy for authors to assume that the likely presence of SFF workarounds in their world necessarily means those workarounds (a) should/would appear in their characters’ lives, and (b) operate perfectly and consistently. These assumptions and simple dichotomy of “this exists/doesn’t exist” often lead to a less-than-thoughtful portrayal.

That describes the three main problems we see.

So how might you avoid these problems?

Let’s tackle “character abilities” first, as these are common in both sci-fi and fantasy.

When you’re talking about unique superpowers, it’s relatively easy to avoid the trope altogether. Just use a power that doesn’t relate to the disability in any way. Bam, a flying Deaf person! A blind person with pyrokinesis! An autistic person with superstrength! A technopath with epilepsy! The possibilities are endless, and we’d love to see more disabled characters integrated into these narratives and treated as full parts of the cast, without needing to minimize their disability before they get to play.

Cover for ZEROESHonestly, as far as we’re concerned, this particular version of the trope is overdone and likely to always feel convenient. That said, our contributor Randi Oomens made an interesting observation about the character of Flicker from Zeroes: “[Flicker] still had to rely on sighted people since she looked through their eyes. She was still blind when she was alone, and she did use her cane for O&M which I found very accurate. She even complains in her mind at one point when the tip gets stuck in a crack.”

If you’re going to use abilities like these, please consider such logical downsides and limitations, and engage with them honestly rather than seeking workarounds. Toph is a good example of this. Daredevil is not; for example, his sense of touch is so acute that he can even read printed books by feeling the ink on the page, which feels like an easy way to avoid the few limitations he might otherwise have. In her review of Graceling and Bitterblue, Kody Keplinger described several intriguing limitations and weaknesses author Kristin Cashore introduced to the character of Po after realizing she used this trope in the first book.

When you’re talking about supernatural abilities that aren’t so obviously connected to disability and can be more broadly applied, it gets trickier.

After all, telekinesis doesn’t directly relate to paraplegia, muscle weakness, chronic fatigue, chronically painful feet, etc. but it sure as heck would come in handy! Telepathy doesn’t directly relate to blindness, but depending on the strength and type of telepathy, characters might gain a mental map of the room by sensing people’s presence, or use the ability to look through others’ eyes. And wouldn’t teleportation be handy for someone with agoraphobia or brittle bones?

The fact is, many supernatural abilities will likely mitigate the disabled character’s limitations in some way. As far as we’re concerned, that’s not necessarily a problem—especially if these powers aren’t restricted to the disabled person, but other, non-dissbled characters have the same abilities. It actually opens up interesting opportunities to show how disabled people might use this magic in different and innovative ways. The key here is to look at the magic as an assistive tool, and not a fix.

Your telekinetic wheelchair user with paraplegia, for instance, might be technically able to use their power to move their legs and “walk,” but it could be exhausting enough that they peter out within ten minutes. “Walking” could require intense concentration, to the point where they might not be able to hold a conversation or direct their attention elsewhere for even a moment. The movements could look and feel awkward, making the character self-conscious. (Or maybe they can’t do it in the first place because their telekinesis isn’t strong or refined enough!)

Taking into account those considerations, the power feels like something that could be useful in specific situations, but not all. (Just like a tool!) Why bother walking to the store if you can just use your wheelchair? Save your energy and free up your mind to do other things.

Moreover, think of the applications telekinesis could offer beyond walking. (For many wheelchair users, walking really isn’t the priority ambulatory people might expect.) The character might use their power to pick up objects on the floor or high shelves; open heavy doors; flick on out-of-reach light switches; heft their chair up a few stairs; or more. And even then, using their power could be tiring or require so much concentration it’s not always worth the effort.

What about even less specific powers—say, that of a witch or magician—which might be able to straight-up cure characters? Well, maybe that magic still has limitations and can only heal recent injuries, not ones that are already healed over, let alone congenital differences. Maybe the magician can’t outright cure the character because it requires more finesse than they have, or their magic is only temporary, or because they would need medical knowledge to apply the magic correctly.

Let’s switch to sci-fi specifically. Often, these worlds feature highly advanced technology or medical treatments. Once again, focus on the realistic limitations that would accompany these workarounds.

Furiosa from MAD MAX: FURY ROAD holds up her hands, clearly displaying her prosthetic arm

Let’s say your world has advanced robotic prostheses. They would likely require continuous upkeep. Would they malfunction in certain conditions? What sort of natural wear and tear would occur? Maybe controlling the prosthesis requires purposeful concentration, or causes a strange or unpleasant sensation. It could be a hassle to put on and take off. Perhaps sensation is limited, or fine motor skills are lacking. And consider that amputees in our world rarely wear their prostheses full-time; when might the character choose not to wear theirs, or be unable to?

Consider, too, the broader societal effects of the prosthesis. How does it affect the character’s relationship to their disability and their identity? How do others respond to or act around your character? What do they assume about your character because of the prosthesis? Is the prosthesis visible, and if so, would the character cover it up or not care? Thinking beyond the physical will help immensely.

Medical treatments or surgeries can be approached similarly. Factor in the cost, availability, and access. But also consider the risks. For instance, perhaps your character has the opportunity for a surgery that can cure paraplegia. What are the dangers, should something go wrong? Death? Further loss of function(s)? Chronic pain? Maybe it doesn’t always work and the character would have wasted their money. Or maybe the surgery isn’t a cure, but just a procedure to tackle a specific problem.

In both cases, even if the surgery goes well, consider the aftermath. The recovery process, its duration and pain levels. Long-term, intensive physical therapy. The emotional transition. Would they struggle to adapt?

Futuristic medication is again much the same. Maybe it’s expensive, experimental or rare. Maybe it has awful side effects, or interacts badly with other medications or disabilities. Maybe it keeps the character dependent on a dystopian government for refills, when they’re trying to stay under the radar, and the black-market knockoffs aren’t worth the risk. Maybe—just like the surgery!—medication isn’t a complete fix to begin with, but only minimizes one or two symptoms, or prevents an existing condition from progressing further. “Better” doesn’t mean “flawless.”

While we’re discussing realistic ways that magic or technology might (or might not) affect disability, also look at the other way around. How could disability affect magic or technology? If a potion is finished brewing when it turns bright blue, but the witch in question is blind, she’ll need to figure out alternative approaches. If your character can manipulate ice but they have arthritis and cold makes their joints hurt, well, they might need to be very particular about how and when they apply their powers. And if your character uses a heavy prosthetic arm but also has chronic fatigue or muscle weakness, it could be a daily toss-up between the practicality of having two arms, or needing to conserve their energy.

It’s also important to consider that, instead of finding common limitations to the tools or treatments that exist in your world, you might not even need to. What if your character doesn’t use these options in the first place?

There are many reasons a workaround might not be accessible to your character. They might be incredibly expensive, or only available through specific providers. They might be rare, difficult to locate, or so brand-new it’s not even something they’ve considered. And on and on.

Think about reasons your character might choose not to adopt assistive tech, undergo a medical procedure, turn to magic as a cure, etc. Let’s look at a scientific cure as an example. Even if it’s completely accessible and safe, many disabled people would reject a cure. Perhaps your character views their disability as intrinsically tied to their identity, and a “cure” would fundamentally (and negatively) change their very being. Maybe they don’t see their disability as negative, so why bother? Maybe they’re taking some sort of political or personal stand, because the treatment is only available to certain people, or because the method of its creation was wildly unethical. Maybe they’re worried about the slippery slope to eugenics. Maybe they’d lose critical benefits or income if they’re no longer disabled. Maybe they simply aren’t interested, or they have higher priorities to deal with first. Maybe there’s a huge stigma, like with painkillers or mobility scooters in our culture. Or maybe the procedure is against the character’s religion.

In short, just because it’s there doesn’t mean the character has to use it. Think of laser eye surgery in our world, and the millions and millions of people who decide to stick with glasses and contacts anyway.

Even if a world has “fixed” certain disabilities, there can always be the occasional complicated exception to the rule. Seemingly identical disabilities often have different roots, symptoms, and subtypes, and even identical disabilities can have other complicating factors; it’s unlikely for a one-size-fits-all approach to work. Also consider that SF/F worlds may introduce brand-new disabilities or variants of existing ones, which can be fascinating when they’re thoughtfully explored and the narrative doesn’t ignore real-life disabilities.

We’ve touched on non-physical effects of disability a couple of times, and want to reiterate this. Magic or technology may not erase the emotional, social, mental, relational, historical, etc. components of disability. Consider social stigma, (internalized) ableism, stereotypes, visibility, and more. The disability experience goes far beyond the conditions themselves. Presenting a holistic view of disability will go a long way toward avoiding—even subverting—the trope of the overly convenient shortcut.

All that said, we’re honestly not asking authors to avoid these situations entirely. We don’t purely want to pile doom and gloom onto the characters and keep them from enjoying the benefits of rapidly evolving technology! Why should we? This trope often makes logical sense. Disabled people are nothing if not resourceful about finding and utilizing assistive tools, and these tools will only become more advanced and convenient as time goes by. New tech? Magic? If these are accessible to the character, the odds are good they’d have at least considered making use of them.

In fact, in some situations it would be strange if they don’t. Characters like wealthy politicians, princesses, and futuristic crime lords will likely have access to top-notch care. If they’re disabled and sit sadly to the side while the rest of the cast goes out on adventures … as readers, we would want a good reason why they don’t get a better wheelchair / adaptive saddle / prosthetic foot. Without that, it can feel like the character is robbed of agency and kept artificially sidelined.

It’s all about balance.

Finally, we’d like to point out that everything we’ve discussed is simply good worldbuilding. It’s often the details that flesh out a world.

If all of this sounds like a lot of work to write, consider that “a lot of work” is the daily reality for many disabled people. It’s precisely those considerations that will make the character feel realistic and relatable to disabled readers. It’s not like suffering is mandatory for it to count as disability, but the approaches we’ve been discussing don’t have to be anything more than practical inconveniences, daily irritations, or a simple fact of the character’s life that they don’t even notice anymore.

When authors don’t honestly acknowledge and engage with that, and resort to workarounds to avoid dealing with the disability entirely, you end up with a host of—sometimes painful—tropes.

We know this lack of acknowledgment or engagement is rarely intentional. Authors have ingested this trope just as often as anyone else. It makes sense that they might subconsciously default to it and then move on with the rest of the story. We’re simply asking people to question that first instinct and think outside those defaults instead of writing yet another evasion of meaningful engagement with disability. Speculative elements are opportunities, not shortcuts.

The main takeaway is this: think broadly, deeply, and intentionally about how you write disability. Work with it, not around it. If you understand the tropes and the current reality of disability, you’ll be well on your way to creating a respectful portrayal, no matter the setting.



About Author

Corinne Duyvis

Corinne Duyvis is a critically acclaimed author of sci-fi and fantasy novels. Otherbound, her YA fantasy debut, received four starred reviews; Kirkus Reviews called it “original and compelling; a stunning debut,” while BCCB praised its “subtle, nuanced examinations of power dynamics and privilege.” On the Edge of Gone, her second YA, is about an autistic girl during the apocalypse and received three starred reviews. SLJ said: “Insightful, suspenseful, and unsettling in its plausibility.” Her most recent novel is Guardians of the Galaxy: Collect Them All, an original novel set in the Marvel Universe.

Kayla is Senior Editor at Disability in Kidlit and a graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Her work has appeared at The Toast, The Establishment, Uncanny Magazine, and in the upcoming anthology Feminism for the Real World. She is represented by Beth Phelan of The Bent Agency. When not buying way too many books, she’s usually being overly sincere on the internet.

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8 Comments

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  4. I struggled when creating a character for my novel series, which is set some 200 years in the future. The ease with which many scifi movies and books slip into ‘lets make our disabled characters all superhuman’ is disheartening, and never gives a disabled reader a role model. The worst case for this is Avatar – it’s not a film about a disabled character, it’s a film about a blue able-bodied alien.

    In Synthesis:Weave I worked hard to make my disabled lead seem realistic, with good reason why he can’t be fixed – anything he does that seems unrealistic with regards his own physical prowess is based on fact (my partner is a wheelchair user and he provided the inspiration and reality checks). I wanted him to still be a wheelchair user, to have useful abilities that other characters may lack (something necessary for all characters), but not become all-powerful, which ultimately spoils any character. I managed to find a balance by giving his advantages built-in drawbacks. So far I’ve found that most wheelchair-using readers have empathised with him quite well.

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  6. i LOVE this article so much. im so excited to see/read more media with disabled people, the possibilities you bring up are fascinating!

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