I think I have some pretty positive disability portrayals in the story. I have an old mage based on a wonderful person I used to know, who (just like his real-life inspiration) has a hunchback and a pronounced limp. He’s also missing much of one hand, which he keeps as it is, and one eye, which he had replaced with a bionic one.
Another character gets her foot crushed in an accident. She has it replaced with a bionic foot, and has a pretty long rehab where she gradually learns to walk on it, using a cane for a while, but eventually regaining her previous level of mobility. Both the bionic eye and bionic foot are perfectly normal by the standards of this world.
The MC, however, at one point has her entire brain replaced by a bionic construct, plus the top and back of her skull. This is completely new and experimental surgery. It’s a long story, but she chooses to have this surgery since an antagonist will attack her and destroy much of her skull and brain in the near future, and there seems no way of stopping this from happening. With a bionic brain she might stand some chance of surviving, and she could have both brain and skull repaired afterwards.
Even though the MC wanted this surgery, she’s initially really uncomfortable seeing herself in the mirror with her face attached to this partitioned metal dome that now replaces her skull, etc. She gets over it fairly quickly, though. However, Husband felt upon reading the book that the other characters were a bit too quick coming to terms with how she now looks. Although they’ve seen people with replacement limbs or eyes before (and both, I should add, look very realistic), they’ve never seen anything like this. For reasons of upkeep of the complex bionic brain, the MC’s gotta have this skull that can be opened via a special mechanism in the back of her head… She really LOOKS like a cyborg, in a way no one else in this world does.
Obvs her friends won’t be MEAN to her, and obvs they WILL come to terms, Husband just thought it all went a bit too quick… Now I would like to hear your thoughts on how to handle this.
Thanks for the question!
When a change in appearance is purely cosmetic, most people do pretty well in adjusting to it. However, when a person attaches a negative meaning to a change, they can have a much harder time adjusting to it. So the big question here is, what meanings do the other characters attach to this change? For example, is it a reminder that the main character is in danger, or a sign of hope that her life can be saved?
In addition, anytime a visible change marks someone as a member of a marginalized group, it brings with it a weight of stereotypes and stigma. All those negative messages can bring up strong feelings in people. Especially in privileged people, feelings like grief and worry are common. This means that the amount of ableism in the setting will affect the strength of the other characters’ reactions.
Finally, I want to say that if you do decide that the other characters should have a stronger reaction to the change, be careful how much of it you show to the audience. Spending a lot of time on people who are acting out oppression is hard on audience members who experience that form of oppression. Also, there is an ableist pattern of portraying disability as a huge tragedy that will prevent people from having meaningful lives, and dwelling on negative reactions is one way this pattern comes out.
I hope that helps!
Fay from Writing Alchemy