Children (one on foot, one in a wheelchair) careen down a steep slope.
Lately, I’ve noticed a long-overdue trend, in various genres, where a story’s central character experiences life with a disabling condition. As a science fiction and fantasy writer, I’m also excited about the possibilities for writing disability in either preindustrial or advanced-technological settings, or among alien species for whom “disability” may imply something different and thought-provoking. With its core intention to explore futures-that-might-be, science fiction is a literature of the possible, and this raises intriguing questions—ethical as well as scientific and technological—about living with disabilities.
The subject is personal as well as conceptual for me. Both of my parents were special-education teachers in New York City public schools. My mother taught Resource Room, a supplemental instructional service where children came to her classroom for an hour each day for additional support with reading, writing, and/or mathematics. My father taught at a school for children and adolescents with profound physically and/or mentally disabling conditions. Since my brother’s and my school holidays didn’t always coincide with our parents’, we’d come to work with Dad on these days. Because of our parents’ work, we developed respect for human variation and the ways people worked with and around their limits—limits that we all have.
In my early twenties, my awareness expanded to less visible impairments, such as the mental-health conditions that affected me and other family members: anxiety, depression, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. (I still wince when I hear people casually toss out things like, “Oh, he’s so OCD” to describe someone who’s just fussy, who may be annoying to get along with but who doesn’t spend an hour checking and re-checking that the cat hasn’t followed them out of the house and is now locked out on the porch.) Then, as I grew older, people close to me developed either age- or injury-related conditions that impact their lives. My spouse has a mobility impairment from a car crash, using a cane for balance and living with chronic pain. My mother has multiple sclerosis and now depends on her wheelchair to get around.
I mention all this not just to provide “I’ve been there” bona fides, but also because I’ve witnessed a backlash against efforts at inclusivity in stories. You’ve heard these criticisms: that writing diverse characters is “politically correct,” a passing fad, and/or just window dressing that doesn’t advance real acceptance or change.
I’m not suggesting that you include a character with a disability as a “token” or because it’s hip. Readers will see through this and won’t appreciate it. But consider this: one of the most liberating experiences anyone can have is to encounter someone like themselves as the protagonist of a story. Conversely, it’s disempowering when, instead of finding characters who look, sound, think, move, behave, and dream like them, readers find absences. You know you exist, but when you don’t find yourself reflected in books, you internalize the notion that your story doesn’t matter; you don’t matter. This realization is particularly acute for young readers just coming to understand their place (or lack of it) in the world.
The bottom line: if it feels like an imposition to “give” a character a disability to advance some agenda or because it’s fashionable, follow your instinct and don’t do it. But if you’d like to write about a character with a disability, here are some general suggestions and then a few thoughts about science fiction and fantasy in particular.
In writing a disabled character, you tread a tightrope between making their disability everything or nothing. It’s a significant part of life, but it isn’t the person’s sole identifying feature. Yet it’s also too easy to forget the character’s limitations when it’s inconvenient. This isn’t just true of disabilities. How about that character who survived a sword cut to his leg in Chapter 2 and by Chapter 3, he’s back to his daily run without time off to heal or lingering debility? Or what about the character whose mother just died and, other than the immediate shock, isn’t shown mourning and adjusting to the loss in subsequent scenes?
You’ll need to give this character a full life, with interests, skills, desires, hopes, and impactful experiences, as you would for any other character. Yet it’s also important to think about how their condition affects both their daily life and the decisions that drive the story. Research is vital: reading and watching documentaries about the condition, talking with someone who has it, and testing things out physically yourself, if you don’t have the condition—such as borrowing a wheelchair and experiencing what it’s like to ride the bus, go into a restaurant or bank, do your work, and interact with others from this position. If you have the condition yourself, then you have a rich fund of lived experiences to draw from, but it would still help to do the medical, psychological, or other research, especially if the science associated with the disability will be an important part of your story.
If you’re writing a fantasy novel, it’s most likely that you’ve set it in a preindustrial world. What hurdles might your character have to face? What technologies would be unavailable to them, and even with some technical assistance, does this character face other barriers, such as the cost of purchasing assistive devices? Would your world’s magic system provide the character with assistance that technology might offer in ours?
Or is magic implicated in the character’s condition? This might mean a spell that causes the character to lose their sight or a limb, or the price of magic in general. As the venerable fantasy writer Orson Scott Card has lamented, too often, magic-using characters wield these amazing powers and never pay a price. They do stuff that—let’s face it—violates the laws of physics, and they don’t end up drained, suffering from a migraine, hungry, or even feared or ostracized. What has your character sacrificed in return for their magic? There’s a long tradition in many cultures where a magic user is also impaired in some way; a crippling injury or birth defect might even be interpreted as a sign of divine favor. Is this the case for your character? Or is there just a huge, and fascinating, contrast between their impairment and their impressive psychic power? That combination of strength and vulnerability, in whatever form each takes, makes for compelling reading.
How does the society in which your character lives react to them? Without the benefit of scientific explanations, what assumptions, or even superstitions, might community members entertain about them? These can run the gamut; it’s more interesting if the other characters don’t all respond in the same way. One person might insist that the protagonist’s withered arm marks him as the Evil God’s representative; another might feel sorry for them in a self-serving way; another might be a friend and supporter who sees past the disability to the person. Reactions to the character can also change when they change locations. They may be feared or reviled in their own village, but over the border in another land, their distinctiveness may make them revered, or folks in the big city a half-day’s ride away may not even notice them.
If the society in which this character lives is resource-strapped, poverty-stricken, and beset by an extreme climate, would that mean some community members view this character as a burden on their family or the whole group? Maybe influential people pressure the character to leave the community in a time of scarcity and this is the impetus for their adventures to begin. On the other hand, I think it’s important to be aware that even in communities where desperate conditions prevailed, individuals with disabilities were just as often cherished. I remember reading about a Neanderthal skeleton that showed evidence of a congenital disease that would’ve required others to carry him from place to place and assist with his personal needs. He’d been buried with care and his skeleton suggested he’d lived into middle age, evidence that he was a valued community member, not a “burden” to be discarded at a time many of us view according to the “survival of the fittest” mode. Being rejected by one’s community makes for great conflict, but it’s good to keep in the back of one’s mind that rejection has not always been the default reaction to people with disabilities in the ancient world.
The advanced technology that’s the baseline for science-fiction stories offers a different challenge for the writer: why hasn’t the biomedical tech “fixed” a disabled character? Maybe they have a problem with accessing these resources: if they’re poor or otherwise disenfranchised, the technology to cure their condition is beyond their means, and that in itself might drive the plot. Or might the character have a reason to refuse treatment? Does their disability come with a talent or favored feature that they’d lose if they were cured? Does their culture of origin value either the disability itself, or some ability that comes with it, enough to discourage repairing it? Might the person view their condition as a part of their identity and others with the same condition as part of their culture? If the person belongs to an alien species, would something a human reader might view as a disability be an advantage, a privilege, or a gift instead?
Perhaps the available technology can’t remedy the disabling condition, but like awesome magical powers might do for them in a fantasy novel, it might offer compensations. Perhaps the character exerts power and experiences freedom in a virtual space while their physical self retains its limitations in real space. Does this person wield great influence in a virtual space, anything from a holographic alternate reality (like a game) to the world of high finance, dependent on virtual transactions?
Creating a character with a disabling condition can provoke reflections on the limitations we all experience. When the writer fashions such a character with skill, empathy, and realism, as they make their way through their world(s), negotiating around the hurdles and drawing from their strengths, readers recognize a connection with them, for that’s what we all do. Still, it’s important to remember that the character is a person first, not a symbol or an inspirational figure. Don’t forget the value of a light touch. The character most likely doesn’t waste time feeling sorry for themselves—and neither should the reader, or you.