How Can I Make My World Accommodating to Disabled People?

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I am writing a non-magical fantasy story set in a low-tech world that is primarily composed of city-states with limited regional authority. I am trying to work out what kinds of seemingly realistic accommodations could/would be in place for disabled people. Culturally, I am trying to craft a world whose prejudices are very distinct from Earthly ones: no sexuality, gender-related, disability-related, or “race”-related discrimination exists. I am not trying to be “realistic” in terms of portraying the accommodations that the real past or the real present offers; I am trying to be realistic in a very optimistic, yet low-tech way, when it comes to accommodations. Do you have any advice for me?

– Kiera

Hi Kiera,

A lot of the time when people think about accessibility, they think about adaptive equipment such as wheelchairs and prosthetics. While adaptive equipment matters, it is important to keep in mind that the structure of the society plays a big role in shaping people’s accessibility needs. For example, cities with lots of stairs, but few ramps or elevators, create a need for wheelchairs that can climb stairs. In contrast, there isn’t a need for wheelchairs that can climb stairs in a city where all of the buildings have ramps and elevators. This is why it is helpful to start with broader aspects of social structure, such as architecture and social norms, when designing an accessible society.

I recommend researching accessible architecture. Many aspects of accessible architecture can be achieved at lower technology levels, like using ramps instead of stairs and using curves instead of sharp corners. On the smaller scale, things like using round tables and diverse seating options are also very achievable. Keep in mind that different people have different accessibility needs, so it helps to avoid uniformity and instead provide multiple options.

It’s also worth thinking about how ancient technology could be used by a society that cared more about accessibility. For example, while electric elevators are a relatively recent invention, humans have been using crane technology since ancient times. A society that wanted to could adapt this crane technology into something like an elevator.

The social structure of the society also has a big impact on accessibility. It is important to avoid situations where there is only one way to participate in something. Instead, create social situations where either the behavior of the group adjusts to meet individual needs or where there is a range of ways for people to participate. For example, having quiet spaces at large community celebrations provides space for those people who are overwhelmed by crowds. Another important behavior is open communication where people set expectations and ask about accessibility needs while events are being planned.

When it comes to adaptive equipment, devices like wheelchairs and prosthetics have been around in some form for a long time. A little research into this history should provide a reasonable starting point for deciding what form these items will take in your setting. Keep in mind that a society that cares more about accessibility will put more effort into developing adaptive equipment, so it makes sense to err on the side of optimism and make sure that the accessibility needs of the characters are being met.

Best wishes,

Fay from Writing Alchemy

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  1. Dave L

    One “accommodation” is to have assistants. People who, for example, lead the blind, translate for the deaf, handle objects for those w/ limitations on their hands or arms

    We see this less and less as technology takes over many of these tasks, but in a low-tech no-magic world it would be a viable option

    This does bring up some questions:

    Who pays these helpers? If it’s individual then only the well-off can afford them. If the society places a premium on helping the disabled, then public funds might be used. Or it might be volunteer

    Does each disabled person have a specific helper or are there general helpers at main meeting areas, or both? Depending on the nature of your disability you might need a full-time 24-hour (or however long your day is) assistant, or you might just need a hand once in a while

    How well does society regard are the helpers? Helping may be a sacred and holy task, or it may be regarded as akin to slave labor or even literal slaves (though your write-up does not suggest a slave-holding society)

    How do the helpers regard their charges and vice versa? The relationship between disabled/assistant is always complex (I’ve served in both roles), but there might be an attitude generally common in your world. Romance may be prohibited, allowed, or even expected

    How much detail you describe this, like every other aspect of world-building, depends on the story. If a main character is severely disabled, then you need to go more in-depth

    Good luck

  2. E. H.

    Maybe it’s a social norm that anyone not dealing with an emergency would provide at least a moderate amount of help to a disabled person in an ordinary encounter on the street. It could also be a serious crime and moral taboo to take advantage of disabled people.

    Ideas like “a small, wheeled vehicle for someone who can’t walk” are very possible in simple forms even in a low-tech environment.

    Part of the reason it took a long time for some of this stuff to become common is lack of concern for the disabled; not that it would have been so hard to make.

    If the city has stairs, they can probably build ramps, too, at least in some places. They could also try to build most things not accessible by ramp at as low a level as possible.

    There could be something like carvings in the walls to help blind people get around.

    • AnotherMagicDragon

      Do keep in mind that many people with disabilities, just like many people without disabilities, like to live as independently as possible. There are a few people in my building who use walkers. Sometimes they’ll ask for help…like when the elevator is stuck and I, an able bodied person who can take stairs, can fix that. Sometimes they’ll be struggling to navigate the exterior door and their walker. I’ll offer to help one time, but I’d never help without asking or keep offering. I view it the same as someone carrying a heavy load. Part of this is because I’ve read horror stories about overeager “helpers” and part because when my sibling was temporarily in a wheelchair, her lack of independence was the most frustrating part for her.

      • Dave L

        YES! THIS!! 100%!!!

        And never “help” a disabled person w/out their permission

        I’m a medical transporter. My clients have a wide range when it comes to assistance needed, so I have to be very careful here. Offering to help, but not helping if they don’t want it

  3. Dave L

    Don’t forget animals. Guide dogs, helper monkeys, etc. Depending on what animals you have and how intelligent they are

    Training a helper animal tends to be VERY labor-intensive. And the human has to be trained, too. But it is low-tech no-magic

    Note that a bad guy who attacks a helper animal would be considered VERY evil. Attacking an animal AND an indirect attack on a disabled person, trying to render that person helpless (depending on what the animal does). Do not expect readers to that villain being redeemed, or even escaping the worst punishment your story can devise

  4. Kiera

    Thanks so much for all these great responses to my question, and of course to Fay for answering my question in the first place. I’ve been given so many great ideas and exciting new things to think about! I appreciate it!

  5. Amniote

    Is it plausible for a society to become accessible to a certain disability, just by some disability-unrelated things? (Such as the rich being wheeled around in wheelchairs to show off their wealth, and so the society ends up with a more wheelchair-accessible environment?)

    • Cay Reet

      I’m not sure if it would work with wheelchairs. What I could see would be certain types of implants or prosthetics which give you ‘more’ than the natural part becoming so popular that an able-bodied person might consider getting an eye implant or an artificial left arm which is stronger than a regular one.

    • Dave L

      Very plausible

      Elevators for tall buildings were not originally invented for wheelchair users, texting and email were not originally invented for the Deaf, and TV remote controls were not originally invented for the bedridden

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