Fictional disabilities are a staple in SFF. These can be invented disabilities; superpowers or magical abilities that come with disabling side effects; or characters who lack some ability that’s typical in their world. In other words, we’ll be talking about magical and science-fictional elements that create conditions or situations with disability parallels to the real world. We’re joined by three wonderful panelists for this discussion: Gabe Cole Novoa, Andrea Shettle, and Logan W.
Kayla Whaley: Let’s start with some brief introductions! 🙂
Gabe Cole Novoa: Hi! I’m Gabe, author of Beyond the Red, a YA Sci-Fi that just released this month. *confetti* Probably relevant to this conversation: I have rheumatoid arthritis and undiagnosed anxiety stuff. I’ve also talked about chronic illness and disability rep on my blog a few times, and on my Twitter more frequently.
Andrea Shettle: I’m Andrea Shettle, I’ve written two reviews for Disability in Kidlit, both for books with deaf characters. I did publish a book way back when (1990), fantasy, Flute Song Magic, no longer in print, but nothing recently. I also have attention deficit disorder.
Logan W.: Hi! I’m Logan, and while I’m not really a writer or anything, I’m always reading and I’ve gotten very into Disability in Kidlit recently. Also relevant: I have ADHD, sensory processing problems, and anxiety.
Kayla: As you all know, I’m one of the editors of Disability in Kidlit. I’m also a MG/YA (recently agented!! woo!) writer and a part-time essayist on disability stuff. Now, for our first question!
When people complain about the lack of disability representation in SFF, sooner or later, someone will ask, “But what about werewolves? What about vampires?” These are magical creatures who have some skills normal humans don’t, but these skills come with drawbacks. Sookie Stackhouse in Dead Until Dark even literally refers to her telepathy as a disability. Various abilities in sci-fi may also come with downsides.
Do we consider these characters to be truly disabled? Is there a firm yes or no, or does it depend on how it’s handled?
Gabe: I actually ranted about this on Twitter back in December. In cases of vampires and werewolves, etc. where there are clear advantages, this is a firm no for me. While I get there are downsides to having those kinds of abilities, the good far outweighs the struggle to me. I don’t get any advantages to being chronically ill, for example, and to claim that a condition that gives a character a bunch of advantages (e.g., super speed, super strength, immortality) is a disability because there are also downsides to having superpowers is extremely frustrating to me. Like, not being able to go outside in exchange for immortality, and super speed, and enhanced senses, and super strength does not equivocate to being chronically ill.
Andrea: I think it depends … as one example, although there are tons of things I could criticize on how JK Rowling handles disabilities in the Harry Potter series, some of the adaptations that Dumbledore makes for Professor Lupin, back when he was a student and again as a professor, are kind of similar to how real-life disabilities may need to be accommodated at school. I do totally get Gabe’s rant, though.
Logan: My answer for most questions like this is “it depends,” and very strongly in the case of this one because of how differently werewolves, vampires, and other such creatures are portrayed in different books and movies. Oftentimes people assume that werewolves and vampires were meant to be allegories for race relations, and that’s obviously not a perfect allegory, but neither is a disability narrative. I do, also, very much get Gabe’s rant. Not being able to navigate everyday situations without a number of accommodations isn’t a superpower.
Gabe: Yeah, I think Lupin is probably the closest to seeming disability-like as I’ve seen for supernatural creatures. But most werewolf/vampire portrayals I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a lot) focus much more heavily on the advantages.
Andrea: I think I am still mostly inclined to say, “no, these are not really disabilities” … I think many of the disadvantages of being a vampire, werewolf, having telepathy, whatever, are mostly disadvantages because society is not structured for having those abilities or for compensating for how they work. (As with disabilities, hmm …)
Logan: Yes, and because many people’s view of vampires today has to do with stories like Twilight, where the disadvantage is “you sparkle,” I’m very much inclined to say that it’s most often that these kinds of supernatural states aren’t disabilities.
Gabe: Like I said, I feel personally that with these examples at least, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. (Except maybe in Lupin’s case, which I could see. Then again, there’s Fenrir Greyback, who was also a werewolf and totally capitalized on his advantages, so, I don’t know.) Yeah, Twilight is a good example of no. Vampire Diaries is another example of no — even the werewolves have pretty decent everyday advantages, and they eventually learn to control the change to werewolf, which pretty much eliminates any disability argument to me.
Andrea: Most of the disadvantages you see are things like, the inconvenience of having to lock yourself up for a few days on every full moon, but not the everyday kind of disadvantages, microaggressions, and discrimination that disabled people experience. Yeah, Twilight is a great example of, nonono, not a disability at all.
If it were a vampire dominated world *shudder* then humans are the ones who would be disabled, not vampires.
Logan: Good point, Andrea. When people bring up the idea that supernatural creatures are inherently disabled, they seem to be playing off the idea that because the supernatural creatures are a minority, it must therefore mean they’re some sort of other minority too.
Gabe: Yeah, I think that’s true, Logan. I’ve also seen people point to supernatural creatures as a way to claim there’s plenty of disability representation out there, which is frustrating.
Andrea: Of course it’s complex, because some of what makes a disability a disability (vis a vis social model) is the question of whether society is structured to favor people whose bodies, neurology, abilities, etc. are similar to yours or not. Most stories featuring werewolves, vampires, etc. do feature them as a minority (as Logan says) so society isn’t structured for them.
But, yes, even if you do decide to handle them as disabilities (meaning, not just, “Oh no, woe is me, I can’t go out in the day time anymore,” but, “Okay, are there workaround solutions similar to how there are work around solutions for real life disabilities”) … they just do not replace representation for deaf people or people with ADD. Just like representation for deaf people or people with AD(H)D cannot replace, say, representation for people with rheumatoid arthritis or people who are autistic or have cerebral palsy.
Logan: There’s so many subsets of “disabled” that neurotypical, able-bodied people seem to assume that if you’ve got one, you’ve got them all, and that’s another reason it doesn’t quite work to say “supernatural = disability.”
Kayla: I think the point about the social model perhaps lending some support to the argument for disability is an interesting one. It’s also interesting to think of it in terms of the medical model and how often vampires/werewolves/etc. stories feature a “cure” plot. Does that mirror or parallel the way that disability is often treated in narratives in a way that supports the supernatural as disability angle?
Gabe: I mean, I honestly feel even with the social model it doesn’t apply to supernatural creatures nine out of ten times. Even with society structured against supernatural creatures, they still have very distinct advantages — immortality, super strength, super speed, enhanced senses, etc. It would have to be deliberately written as a disability, I think, for it to work.
Logan: I agree — the disadvantages of a superpower like that are a bug, not a feature, the opposite of the way we perceive most disabilities
Gabe: Yup. I agree. And it’s the opposite of how we experience many disabilities.
Andrea: Absolutely … although society isn’t really structured to accommodate supernatural creatures, it still isn’t really structured in a way that really disadvantages or excludes them either.
Kayla: So, let’s talk about a slightly different category of “fictional disability” then.
A trilogy that’s gained a lot of positive attention in the past years is Earth Girl by Janet Edwards. In this world, nearly all humans have the ability to travel to other worlds. A small minority is unable to survive on other worlds, however, and is stuck on Earth. These people are called “Handicapped,” “apes,” and “throwbacks.” The idea of a world with superpowered individuals in which those without powers are considered disadvantaged also occur in many other SF stories. These characters would not be considered disabled in our world, but they might in this other setting.
Is this a question of disability depending on one’s environment? Is it a cop-out, or an interesting allegory?
Gabe: I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I think in that setting where everyone has an ability and a minority does not, clearly puts the minority at a disadvantage, so I can see how it would be considered a disability. And if we were to imagine that was a real situation, with society built around people who have that ability, it would be a disability. But on the other hand, in terms of writing that kind of situation, it does feel like a reverse discrimination narrative—as if able-bodied writers have to make it about them. Again.
Andrea: I’ve read the full Earth Girl series now, and think that series could be great fodder for an article or dialogue all to itself! I do think it can be used to explore disability as being an interactive effect of the differences in our bodies/neurologies and the environment around us.
Gabe: I can see how in terms of whether or not it’s a disability within the story, it can totally apply as a disability.
Logan: Earth Girl is one of my favorite books, and I’ve gone through an incredible number of phases with how I feel about it because the author does some amazing world-building but also props up a few problematic assumptions about disabled people (mainly that we all want to be cured). But my favorite part about the world-building is that there’s very obvious institutionalized ableism that affects the Handicapped in the books — but there’s also a lot of referencing that every single other disability has been cured, and everyone’s upset they can’t cure this one.
Andrea: I found the complete erasure of all other disabilities very problematic too. First of all, I don’t see how it is even possible to completely cure or prevent every single disability ever. New disabilities are always going to evolve just by changing expectations for things people should “all” be able to do. The problem is, many series like Earth Girl and other books like Freakling by Lana Krumwiede just don’t even try to explore those issues.
Logan: In general, I do think that books like this can be a good opening onto how the social model works in theory (the characters would not be disabled at all if they lived in a different time or place), but it needs to not be the be-all end-all of disability representation
Kayla: Having not read Earth Girl myself, it’s interesting to me that they’re actually called “Handicapped.” That makes the allegory explicit in a way that not many other similar situations do.
Andrea: The inability to go to other worlds itself is an example of a condition that probably always existed, but only became a disability when traveling between worlds became the norm. Dyslexia could be a real-world example — a thousand years ago, most people didn’t read or write, so dyslexia wouldn’t have been a disadvantage then.
Kayla: That is a really interesting point, Andrea.
Gabe: Yes, interesting point, Andrea. I also agree with Logan. I haven’t read Earth Girl so I can’t comment on details about the book itself, but I know as a reader I would personally rather read about existing disabilities, or analogs to one, rather than completely made-up ones, especially made-up ones that put able-bodied people in the spotlight.
Logan: There’s actually a scene in one of the books where the characters discuss the use of words and how they hurt, and the main character comments that it’s not the words you use, it’s how you say them (in regards to them being called Handicapped).
Andrea: Yes, agreed with Logan … there is so much missed opportunity in how Earth Girl, Freakling, and other books like them handle disability issues.
Kayla: Do you think that in the right hands, these sorts of fictional disabilities could be an interesting way to explore actual disability issues then? Is there a way to mitigate the problematic elements?
Gabe: I do think it has that potential, yeah.
Andrea: I do absolutely think that in the right hands they could be a way to mitigate these problematic elements. For one thing, don’t erase all real-world disabilities.
Logan: And definitely don’t go down the miracle cure route, because it’s so alienating to so many of us. Within the Earth Girl trilogy, there’s a lot of discussion about how they can’t cure this disability (but then there ends up being a miracle cure narrative that grates so heavily on what they’ve set up in the past books) that’s a good allegory for how fraught cure talk is in real life, but the execution fell far short of what’s needed.
Andrea: And yeah, like Logan, I’m not loving the miracle cure in Earth Girl, which just replicates the same miracle cure problem you see in the handling of so many real-world disabilities in fiction.
Gabe: Uggggh, miracle cure. I’d be really angry if I’d invested in a series about disability and it ended in a Miracle Cure.
I personally just am not a fan of the reverse discrimination thing, so I’m not likely to pick up a book with this specific type of fictional disability. I think it could potentially be done well … I just take too much issue with it to read it myself.
Andrea: Like, if you’re going to finally give me a character “just like me,” don’t then yank them away from me at the end by giving them a cure. I’m not sure I would say that it is “reverse discrimination” per se. To me, that would imply disabled people discriminating against non-disabled people, similar to how “reverse racism” sci-fi has black people committing racism against white people.
Gabe: I suppose that’s true; it just feels close enough to me because, like I said, people we would consider able-bodied are front and center. Which, again, could still be done well and I get that their society makes them disabled. It’s just not a narrative that I am attracted to, personally.
Andrea: Yeah, I see your point, Gabe … maybe there’s another way to phrase it. I’m personally attracted to the idea of it because I think it could be fascinating if handled well; I’m just frustrated at the actual results which are so often done so poorly. Like erasing real-world disabilities — you can’t really have an exploration of what makes disability a disability without having at least some examples of actual, real-world disabilities.
Logan: Gabe, I definitely feel the same way about many other disability allegories, especially ones that are set in close enough to modern-day that there very much are people with “traditional” disabilities, such as squibs in Harry Potter. But I’m inclined to agree with Andrea that I like the idea of it; the execution just tends to be very shoddy.
Kayla: Earlier, Gabe mentioned that he would rather read about a made-up illness that analogous to a real-world one rather than the type we’ve been discussing. Authors will often either create those analogous illnesses/conditions, or make new ones up that have no obvious connection to the real world.
Is this a logical part of speculative worldbuilding? Even if it’s logical, is it problematic, too? If so, how? Are worldbuilding concerns enough to justify introducing fake conditions if this is indeed problematic? Are there specific factors that could influence your opinion?
And in the case of obvious analogs, are you taking away representation from people by not just using and naming that existing disability, or are the symptoms more important in terms of relating to the character?
(Wow, there are a lot of questions in that. Feel free to just answer whatever sparks something.)
Andrea: … I think I’m mixed in this one …
Gabe: I think this depends on the situation. It does make sense to me that there would be different illnesses in different worlds — or how an analog might exist because in another world, the way things manifest may vary. I think the important thing here though is how well it’s done. If it’s overly convenient (picking and choosing), then that to me can be problematic because the author is deliberately ignoring real things that real disabled people have to deal with because it would be too hard to incorporate it into the plot, which isn’t fair.
I think, if the analog or made-up condition has a full range of consequences for the affected character, and that character struggles with their disability in a way that is authentic to actually disabled people, it can be okay.
Andrea: In real life, new illnesses and conditions do sometimes emerge, and as Gabe says, you wouldn’t expect every world to have the exact same conditions. But, similar to Gabe, it depends on how you handle it. For one thing, please don’t erase real-world disabilities when introducing new/fictional disabilities!
Logan: Earth Girl is a good jumping off point for these questions too — the disability is portrayed as an immune system malfunction, somewhat analogous to autoimmune diseases that we actually have (which presents another problem with “how is everything else cured”), and the fact that everything else is “cured” is meant to be a block in the world-building of “we are so technologically advanced,” and I think we’ve already talked about the problems those kind of things can create.
Kayla: It does seem like authors sometimes think you can have fictional ones or real ones, but not both.
Logan: Yes, very much this idea that there must be a separation between the fictional world and the real world, and that both can’t coexist.
Andrea: Yeah, if you give us the fictional disabilities, give us the real ones too … partly because that’s a more effective way of exploring issues like what makes a disability a disability, but also because it kind of sucks to be told, “Well, okay, you can sort of have representation, but not really, we’re just going to give you pretend representation.”
Logan: Like Gabe mentioned, there’s so much “picking and choosing” when writing about fictional disabilities or fictional analogues of real-world ones — people have sensory processing differences, but those are only ever portrayed in a good way and never shown to cause meltdowns or discomfort of any sort, or people walk differently but are never portrayed as tired or in need of a break.
Andrea: It seems like that might be one of the most damaging effects of this kind of “almost but not really rep” — that it reinforces and emphasizes the lack of actual disability rep we have.
Logan: Definitely agree about the “you only get pretend representation” — it’s like when someone storyboarding is asked to come back with an elf of color and comes back with a blue elf.
Andrea: I’m never a fan of erasure or invisibilization, but it is kind of an extra double slap in the face to have that erasure and/or invisibilization at the same time you’re giving us invented disabilities.
Gabe: Right, exactly. If you don’t show the character struggling with their condition … honestly, what’s the point of even writing the “disability” to begin with?
Logan: Yes, you technically did what people wanted, but like Kayla says, you’ve only emphasized the fact that we don’t get to see ourselves and have to look through wavy glass to see anyone
Kayla: I love that wavy glass comment, Logan. So well put!
So, to sort of tie all this together: is the potential value of exploring disability issues through fictional disabilities worth the potential harm that also comes with them? Should authors (particularly abled authors) incorporate these into their SFF worldbuilding, or avoid them?
Gabe: I think it is worth it … as long as it’s done with the right mindset and a commitment to do it well. That means research, and disabled betas, and listening to the community, and listening to critique, etc. If you’re going to half-ass it, though, then go write something else.
Andrea: I think authors (abled or not) who want to have fictional disabilities in their SFF worldbuilding need to firstly think why they need it, and secondly do their homework. Everything that Gabe says.
Gabe: I think you’re right, Andrea. Especially now with some writers translating the push for diverse narratives to mean that it’s a trend and just want to hop on the bandwagon which is … no.
Logan: I think there’s definitely value in fictional disabilities, but they have to be tempered with some sort of real-world explanation in order to provide the kind of story that will actually benefit disabled people. It’s so easy to just come up with something off the cuff and assume what you wanted to explain will show through, but there’s a lot of research and intensive effort that goes into making it good.
Andrea: Similar to the question of, “Should abled authors write disabled characters at all?” … Yes, please do, just please do your homework and get those beta readers with shared/similar experience.
Logan: Andrea, I’ve definitely had that experience. I wrote to an author once to explain to her why I didn’t like her explanation of a character’s sensory issues, and her response was “he’s not disabled, get over yourself.”
And talking about the need to ask why is really important — if you want to write about disability, write about disability. Not about something entirely made-up that doesn’t speak to people experiencing these sorts of things here and now.
I think that’s why it hurts less (for me at least) in something like Harry Potter with the squibs rather than in something like Earth Girl, which is meant to be a book about disability and disabled life … but missed the mark.
Kayla: And presumably, in this case, it would also be especially important to understand the many and varied disability tropes and the history of erasure in literature, because if you’re using fictional disabilities as a way to explore disability, you ought to be really well grounded in the real-world politics and context.
Andrea: Absolutely. You need to familiarize yourself with that long history of how disability has been handled elsewhere in fiction. I think sometimes authors may not even be thinking of real-world disabilities, or at least not about real disabled people; Harry Potter is problematic in erasing all real-world disability among the magical community, though.
Logan: That is true, Andrea, about Harry Potter — the difference for me was that it felt as if the erasure was secondary and/or accidental (which doesn’t make it okay, but somehow hurt less), instead of being central to the plot of the book. Be careful if you read the sequels to The Adoration of Jenna Fox.
Andrea: Yeah … kind of like, Earth Girl had deliberate active erasure, then there is passive invisibilization. Earth Girl alone (and ditto Harry Potter) are each worth their own series of blog posts!
Kayla: We could definitely keep talking about this for hours! There’s so much more here to cover, but this has been a fantastic discussion of a really complicated topic. The takeaway seems to be that authors need to be intentional and thoughtful when considering using these fictional disabilities — no matter which type — and to understand that there’s real potential for harm.
Thank you all so much for joining us! It’s been lovely. 🙂
[Ed. note: Article was updated in 2020 to correct a contributor’s name throughout the post.]