Hello! I’m a first timer to this site and have found so many helpful articles. I would like to know if I am portraying harmful ideas around disabled people in my story. This might be a bit convoluted but I hope I can explain in a well-enough manner.
I have two races that differ from one another in that one can use magic and the other cannot. To simplify things, this difference is due to the presence of a biological difference in one race and the lack thereof in the other. Both these races consist of humanoid beings and have the ability to reproduce with one another. The coupling of these races lead to a group that can now use magic, albeit in a slightly different way.
A problem, however, comes into play when this group with slightly different magic attempts to reproduce with the race that originally had magic. Mutations occur because the types of magic are different and offspring can be born with various disabilities or physical aspects such as deformed wings or impacted horns. Sometimes disabilities can be severe, leading to offspring dying soon after birth (but this is usually only in extreme cases) or it can be mild (not impacting the individual’s body too heavily).
The coupling between this group and magical race is not encouraged but not explicitly outlawed. Nevertheless, many of these offspring exist in the world and are looked down upon. Most of them are forced to live on the streets because they are seen as undesirable. They are somewhat important to my plot as I have a main character that is the result of this coupling and attempts to make a safe haven for people like him.
After sorting out my plot and some worldbuilding aspects I realized this particular concept of my story could be harmful, even though I did not intend it to be at all, and I would like to know whether my worries are justified or not.
Thank you for your time
Thanks for the question. Having houseless disabled characters organizing together to create a safe haven is a great thing to depict, and something that could meaningfully parallel some of the struggles of houseless communities in the real world. However you are right to be concerned about this underlying aspect of the worldbuilding. It contains a premise that has multiple harmful implications. While those implications weren’t intended, they can’t be separated from the premise and the only way to prevent them is to make some changes.
The core premise that is causing so many problems is that mixing between certain groups has negative consequences within this setting. This is significant. In the real world, there are racist ideologies that present “racial purity” as an ideal and racial mixing as a problem. These hateful ideologies include myths that bad things will happen if different groups mix. Having there be concrete consequences for certain racial groups having kids together, no matter how specific the scenario is, makes these racist myths true within the world of the story. This results in an in-world justification for “racial purity” being something beneficial. However unintended this implication is, it is harmful and structural changes are needed to prevent it.
Another aspect of this premise is that, in this setting, disability is the negative consequence that makes certain groups having kids together a social problem. This is stigmatizing. While it is good to have disabled characters organizing and supporting each other, portraying that can’t undo the messages sent by incorporating disability into the setting in this way. Even if opposing this negative idea of disability is a major part of the story, the way this premise is set up undermines those efforts.
Another important aspect of this premise is that it touches on some sensitive topics for the disability community. Neo-eugenics (or new eugenics, newgenics, or liberal eugenics), is currently happening. “Newgenics describes a broad range of medical, political and social practices related to ‘improving’ human kind on the one hand, and erasing disability and difference on the other.” This includes things like testing for and aborting disabled fetuses. It also includes systemic barriers that control the sexuality, reproduction, and child rearing of disabled people. In particular, it seems like social barriers and control over reproduction are issues that are being brought up by this premise.
While it isn’t wrong to bring up these complicated issues, the way they are brought up makes a big difference. To help explain, I’m going to pull out some points that will serve as context and a basis of comparison. The first point is that it is good for pregnant people to limit or avoid drinking alcohol as it can harm fetuses. One of the potential effects of that harm is disability. At the same time, it is completely fine for disabled people to have kids, regardless of whether or not those kids will inherit disabilities. The premise that certain races having kids together causes disability lands in an uncomfortable space between these two things, evoking the behavior-control aspects of neo-eugenics in a way that mixes badly with the harmful racial implications of the premise.
Now that we have discussed key ways that this premise causes problems, it is time to explore ways to fix the setting. The first step is figuring out what role this premise serves in the story so that we can find other ways of meeting those story needs. What does creating disability in this way do for this story? Why not have disability happen the way it does in the real world? Is it the opportunity to create a large group of houseless disabled people with the same intersecting racial identity? If so, what are other ways of doing that? (I suggest looking into the intersection between race, disability, and houselessness in the real world.) Is there something about magic that you are exploring? If so, what are other ways you can explore those aspects of magic? Is it the opportunity to create a magic-based disability? If so, what are other ways to create disability with magic that don’t involve race?
I suggest taking your answers to these questions and working out some possibilities. You can use the key points from the discussion above to identify possible solutions that create similar problems and ones that don’t.
One thing to keep in mind is that it is usually best to avoid adding a bunch of extra layers and twists onto the way real forms of oppression work. This is because adding extra things makes it harder to accurately represent the complicated dynamics of real oppression. Those times I have seen people add in extra things successfully, it is because the extra twist or layer was intentionally designed to highlight specific dynamics of real-world oppression. Generally speaking, this is something best done by people who have lived experience with those forms of oppression.
A related issue to consider as you think about options for changing this part of the setting, is that racial essentialism is deeply embedded in the way race is usually constructed in speculative fiction, especially in fantasy. While many people of color have been talking about this problem for a while, this conversation has finally gained more attention and momentum over the past year. Currently, the construction of race in Dungeons and Dragons is the focal point of this conversation, but much of it applies broadly. I strongly suggest reading more about this issue. As a place to start, I have a collection of links on this topic in my Decolonizing Games Resource List.
In addition, as you move forward, I suggest thinking about the use of the term “race” for populations that have distinct biological differences. In the real world, race is a social construct. There is a long history of racist arguments about the biology of race, but the truth is that race does not have a biological basis and it is important to represent this fact. From what I’ve seen, people are moving toward using species for situations where there are big biological differences between groups, and using lineages, ancestry, and cultures to represent differences that are smaller or more flexible.
Given how deeply both race and disability are intertwined in this topic, I strongly suggest hiring a disabled multiracial consultant, if at all possible. As a white person, I got a disabled multiracial consult to help me write this response. Based on her feedback, I made significant changes to how I was presenting things. A lot of people feel intimidated by hiring a consultant, but it is actually just getting someone who you can talk to, share your thoughts with, and get feedback from.
I hope that this gives you a good starting point for moving forward.
P.S. A quick note on language for disability: Terms like “deformed” are stigmatizing. “Atypical” is the most common neutral term that I’ve come across. To learn more about respectful language use, I suggest Ableism/Language by Lydia X. Z. Brown.