I am a deaf woman. I was born deaf and I have lived my entire life as a deaf person in a world built by and for hearing people. Like most people of any type of disability, I have experienced abuse, discrimination, isolation, lack of information, and rejection. For as long as I have been able to read, I have used books to escape from all of it. At the age of 10, I discovered The Hobbit and I have been a devoted fan of the fantasy genre ever since.
Fantasy meets my needs for escapism in ways that no other genre can match; with gods and beasts, magic and absolute evil, and the titanic struggles of characters to hold on to themselves. Growing up, I often found a deeper connection to characters in the books I read than with actual people around me.
None of the characters I connected with were disabled.
Today, I make a practice of avoiding books that feature disabled characters. Often, how those characters think, feel, and react to the world around them rings false. They feel flat, hollow, and paper-thin, their stories too predictable, too boring. I'd rather enjoy stories about able-bodied heroes that feel real to life instead of reading underwhelming reiterations of a formula that is mistaken. This formula is deeply rooted in our culture’s narrative about what disability means, as defined by those who are not disabled. It is a privileged and myopic narrative, created by an able-bodied majority, and falls far short of reflecting the actual experience of disabled people.
The most crucial error the Able-bodied Narrative makes is the proposition that the disability is the most important and most interesting thing in that person’s life. IT IS NOT. That is not to say that our disabilities are inconsequential; our bodies have quite a big impact on how we live our lives. I am saying that OUR DISABILITIES DO NOT DEFINE US. Disability is but a part of our experience, not the totality.
Thinking of disabled people as being their disability ignores all the other things that make us fully realized and active human beings; our loves, desires, hobbies, thoughts, fears, hatreds, ambitions, and failures. It ignores the conflicts that have actual meaning to our lives and relationships—conflicts that contain within them the seeds of stories so much richer and deeper than the Able-bodied Narrative could ever allow for.
Instead, The Able-bodied Narrative defines people by their disabilities and results in stereotyped characters in predictable plots: the struggle to overcome our obvious suffering, the search for a cure or at least normalcy, and the inspiring greatness of the "Supercrip."
In the first sort of plot, the writer envisions a disability to be the worst thing to ever happen to that character, and must therefore be the most interesting thing about that character. This is a failure of imagination. What about poverty and unemployment? Abuse? Disempowerment and lack of agency? All of these are arguably more devastating than not being able to hear, or see, or walk a mile. Those listening to and writing the narrative are so focused on the “obvious” tragedy they miss the fact that most disabled people do not experience their disability as suffering. Our bodies are not abusing us. The only abuse we receive is from those who treat us as lesser beings. From those who see only a disability rather than a person with a disability.
The second plot follows from the first and concerns the search for a cure, and if that is unattainable, then the struggle to be “as normal as can be.” To the able-bodied perspective, this is only natural, right? For after all, how can anyone not want to be a part of society? And since it is obviously so impossible to be a part of society while disabled, then of course they’d want a cure! Well, that’s not really true, and it is actually kind of demeaning.
“Fix the defect” is a form of victim blaming. Except in this case, the victim is only a victim because others have said that he or she is. It is a label that is ascribed to us but which we never claim for ourselves. We do not experience ourselves as being victimized by our bodies. Our bodies do not beat us. Our bodies do not deny us employment. Our bodies don’t reject us when we seek opportunities to achieve our goals. We become victims only when others victimize us. No amount of fixing can erase that.
What we want is compassion, understanding, and respect. We want access to social structures such as entertainment, work, businesses, and transportation. We want the freedom to choose to use assistive devices or not as we will, without a moral imperative imposed upon us. Disabled people have more important and more interesting things to concern them than in fixing problems that really aren’t.
The third plot is also the most pervasive and most cherished in the Able-bodied Narrative, and the one that most bothers me. It has been dubbed the “Supercrip.” Supercrip is the “inspiring” and “amazing” disabled person who has “suffered” and “overcome” the “terrible limitations” of disability. Bitch magazine explains it thus:
Supercrip provides a way for non-disabled folks to be “inspired” by persons with disabilities without actually questioning—or making changes to—how persons with disabilities are treated in society.... Supercrip cannot just be human; she or he must be superhuman and surpass not only her/his disability, but the realms of “normal” human achievement. Supercrip allows some non-disabled folks to feel better about themselves; this is quite evident when it comes to statements like, “What an inspiration!”
In fiction, particularly fantasy, the Supercrip trope is interpreted in its literal sense—the disabled superhero, a la Daredevil, a blind man with super-sensitive hearing and touch that completely negated the effects his blindness and therefore of his experience as a blind man. It is a form of fixing and normalizes disability by rendering actual conflicts and difficulties of being disabled as irrelevant.
A few weeks ago, I shelved a long-time WIP due to intense dissatisfaction with the story I was crafting. I felt very disappointed and frustrated with myself for giving up so easily when it was only halfway done. But I just couldn’t get anywhere with it because I hated it so much. I couldn’t figure out exactly what I hated and what I needed to fix, so I boxed it for a later date.
It took writing this post to make me understand what I was doing wrong. I had created a character with a disability and then constructed a plot with all three forms of the Able-bodied Narrative at play: she suffered from an extreme form of color-blindness that made it impossible for her to perform the magic she was born to, she overcame that blindness by discovering the ability to sense the Power by touch, and thus became the only person in the world able to detect the demon eating away at the heart of existence, she then mastered her power and defeated the demon.
This character became the very essence of what I avoid reading. If I had encountered this character in someone else’s book, I would have dumped it in the trash. I didn’t even realize what I was writing. This narrative is so entrenched in our culture’s language it is invisible. All I knew was that my character felt completely false to me, the story I tried to build felt utterly flat. Which is exactly what the Able-bodied Narrative does to every piece of fiction that contains it—turns what culd have been an interesting character into a cardboard cut-out and devolves an entire story into able-bodied propaganda.
From Feminists with Disabilities, an analysis on how the language of disability as suffering is oppressive
From Locus Magazine, an article about various manifestations of disability plots
Another fantasy reader writing about how disability is handled in fantasy specifically
My name is Rachel M. I am a struggling writer-type person and I have too many WIPs to count. I also occasionally blog at Rachel's Lessons Learned, where I write about things that don't matter to anyone but myself.