How Do I Keep My Fictional Disease From Being Ableist?

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In my fictional world, a disease (possibly affecting the nervous system) was discovered that causes various degrees of physical and mental disabilities. However, rogue scientists find out that certain patients carry no visible sign of the syndrome (they can only be detected with medical tests), and instead develop superhuman abilities. A party sets out to suppress these “superpowers,” fueled by “public safety” concerns, and another one to exploit them, fueled by greed; in both cases the patients are kept unaware of their true abilities. My protagonist and a few other people will fight both parties to create a better future for affected people (both superhuman and suffering).
Diseases are a common part of life and have been featured in a lot of literary works, but certain conditions (especially those related to mental health) have often caused discrimination and social suffering, and I don’t want my story to hurt readers. I’m afraid that presenting a disabling syndrome as a “may give you superpowers” condition could be offensive towards people with an actual disability. I think that shaping my fictional disease so that it is reasonably different from real, existing health issues should be enough, but I would really like to hear your opinion on this matter.


Thanks for your question! It is great that you are putting a lot of thought into these complex issues.

Avoiding stereotypes of similar real-world disabilities is a good start, but respectful disability representation also includes thinking about the overall way that disability is portrayed in this story. Is disability being represented as a fact of some people’s lives or as a life-destroying tragedy? Are disabled characters presented as full people with their own interests and goals, or are they being reduced to their disabilities? Do disabled characters have agency, or are they burdens and victims for other characters to save?

Here are some questions to help you examine the way that disability is being used here: Why is disability an important part of this story? What parts of the plot depend on this disease that causes disabilities? For example, if disability was removed from this story, what parts of the plot would need to change? Also, why does this disease give people disabilities or superpowers, but never both? For example, is this separation between disability and superpowers important to the plot?

The answers to these questions will help determine whether the story is being set up to be a positive or negative representation of disability. For example, if the reason why this disease causes a range of disabilities is that it allows the villains to use “public health” as a reason to suppress superpowers because they are afraid that people who want superpowers will seek out the disease and become disabled instead, then this is a negative portrayal of disability. This also touches on painful and ongoing real-world ableism that disabled people are currently struggling with, such as the myth that vaccines cause autism. Having a disease that sometimes kills people is enough of a reason for people to be concerned about it spreading – disability doesn’t need to be brought into it.

Alternatively, if the reason that disability is part of this story is because fighting ableism is going to be an important part of the plot, then that’s a good start. However, the key to making this a good representation is having disabled characters lead the struggle against ableism. If non-disabled people lead this struggle, then it turns into the harmful pattern of privileged people rescuing marginalized people from oppression – a pattern that reinforces the idea that the marginalized people are helpless victims. Also, remember that non-disabled characters can’t contradict ableist stereotypes, only disabled characters can do that.

In addition, I am concerned about the separation between disability and superpowers. In this case, singling out a group of disabled people as the only group that never gets superpowers creates an unequal dynamic. I strongly recommend against this. It can be rare for people with this disease to get superpowers (whether or not they show symptoms), but disabled people deserve to be included in having superpowers.

If you created the separation between disabilities and superpowers to avoid the harmful disability superpower pattern, then be assured that you can avoid it without using this separation. The disability superpower pattern happens when a character gets a superpower to “make up for” their disability. As long as the character’s superpower isn’t set up to compensate for their disability, it is fine for a disabled character to have a superpower, especially in stories with multiple superpowered characters.

Finally, to answer your question about whether it is okay for a fictional disease to give characters superpowers, it depends on how it is done. Your instinct to make sure that this fictional disease is different than any real-world disease is right on. Having it be too similar to a real disease creates strange implications and could also be uncomfortable for people with that disease. To help with this, I recommend creating a symptom for this disease that is different from any real-world diseases. The goal of this is to create more distance between this and real diseases. As a side benefit, it may also make it more believable that this new fictional disease is giving people superpowers.

I hope this answers your questions. Good luck with your storytelling project!

—Fay from Writing Alchemy

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  1. Darian

    This reminds me of the Infected series by Andrea Speed. It features an incurable disease that causes afflicted people to transform periodically into big cats, which is a symptom that is very different from real diseases. It sounds like silly wish-fulfillment, but that’s kind of subverted in the way it’s a dangerous disease most people don’t want. And the story explores the whole situation in a good amount of detail. Nearly all afflicted people in the story have some level of disability, they don’t live very long because the transformation is hard on the body, and they don’t have human-like control over their actions while transformed, so they’re dangerous and sometimes they are killed in self-defense. Turning into a big cat can be a superpower in some situations, but most people don’t have control over when they transform.

    The main character is a bit different; he was born with the condition and he can control when/whether he shifts, as well as having enhanced senses while in human form, so he’s definitely superpowered. However, as the story progresses, he does start to have physical consequences from frequent transformation. So even he isn’t immune to the disability aspect, and (SPOILER ALERT if it matters) he eventually has to stop shifting because he’ll die otherwise.

    I read all this quite awhile ago. There’s definitely an implication that the disease is analogous to AIDS, which is problematic because people with HIV/AIDS don’t turn into dangerous big cats and kill people. There could also be better representation of disability–although there are several important characters other than the main character who are “infected,” and they do contribute to the plot at various points, I don’t actually remember any infected characters other than the protagonist that are around for all 8-10 books (or however many there are now). Of course, a lot of people die of the disease, so that might be why. The most memorable one to me is the protagonist’s partner, who died of being a tiger-shifter before the main story opens–there is a prequel, and he’s mentioned a lot, or appears in flashbacks. Anyway, it is an interesting story with good and bad points, not only in how it handles sensitive topics, but also in the writing. The good points are good enough that I liked it a lot and read it twice. Maybe I’ll read the whole series again and see how it’s held up ~10 years later.

  2. Lorenzo Gatti

    The described premise sounds similar to the “Wild Cards” stories by George R. R. Martin and friends, which should be a good reference to learn from because several aspects of the proposed setting appear definitely worse:

    A natural (or in these conspiracy-prone times, artificial) pathogen instead of an alien biological weapon is a tragedy rather than an “adventure”; the difference of attitude, with humanity as victims rather than fighting survivors, can be more important than concrete consequences.

    A chronic “syndrome” that might even pass undetected instead of an explosive mutation (sudden and drastic enough to justify the metaphor of drawing a wild card) implies stories about patients and public health, not about people with powers.

    An abundance of disabled victims without upsides instead of interesting situations with disabilities and tragedies mixed with useful powers seems both a dilution and a deliberate, unnecessary focus on disability.

    A slow burning pandemic implies the untouched fearing and oppressing the diseased in general, while rapid exposure of the whole world, with most people not too affected and no fear of further infection, means that normal or superpowered people are discriminating the inferior or monstrous; it proves an effective way to focus on interesting individual cases without labeling people by the fairly generic condition of catching a disease or not.

  3. Michael

    It seems to me like you could do without the disability bit entirely. Just have the virus cause superpowers, full stop. Or, have it cause symptoms which don’t result in a disability usually, with superpowers as a side effect. That or a rare alternate outcome. Disability superpowers by now are pretty cliched in these stories, even apart from the potential problems shown here.

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