Q&A

Is It Okay for My Disabled Character to Use Futuristic Assistive Devices?

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Greetings Mythcreants,

I recently listened to your episode about disability tropes and I’m worried about the way I wrote one of the characters in my novel. She’s disabled and uses a wheelchair. However, since my setting is futuristic with advanced technology, the way her disability impacts her life is different from the real world. She hasn’t “fixed” herself even though the technology exists; part of the reason is that it’s an expensive treatment, and the other part is because she doesn’t really need it. She has access to a wheelchair that can climb stairs and also an exoskeleton to walk when she wants to. She built them both with the help of her friends and family; the materials and knowledge were provided by the freeware movement (free software and materials exchange community from the net.)

My objective is to show the potential that future technology has to help disabled people, but not to “fix” them or force them to accept the solution that the rest of society sees as acceptable. I want to show how future tech gives my character the power to create her own tools and decide for herself how she handles her situation. My question is this: do you think there’s anything wrong with this approach? Are there any mistakes you think I should avoid? Do you have any tips?

Thank you for your time.

— Fernando

Hi Fernando,

It sounds like you have some really neat ideas for your setting, and it’s great that you’d like to have a disabled character who is empowered to choose their own treatments and accommodations.

The first thing you may want to do is educate yourself a bit on what kind of language feels respectful and disrespectful for disabled people. Fay recommends Ableism/Language by Lydia X. Z. Brown (Autistic Hoya). This is a comprehensive glossary of ableist language that includes a lengthy list of respectful alternatives. Plus, it’s a living document that incorporates feedback from disabled community members.

For instance, it’s common for people to use the phrase “forced to live in a wheelchair” to describe someone like your character. But this suggests often-liberating assistive devices like wheelchairs are somehow confining, and it reduces a disabled person’s experience to one of suffering or limitation –  reinforcing negative stereotypes. Avoiding language like this in your work is important for creating a positive experience for your disabled readers.

It’s great that you want to show how your character isn’t interested in being “fixed” – that’s an underrepresented experience of disability. It is, however, one that has a lot of nuance that is difficult to get right – we recommend hiring a consultant if you can afford it. Having the character’s decision based on practicalities like the treatment being expensive and unnecessary is a good direction to go in overall.

An important part of this experience of disability is identifying accessibility barriers as something created by society. That means either showing how your society has improved accessibility or calling attention to existing accessibility barriers. For instance, why does she need a wheelchair that can climb stairs? Because of the ADA and other similar legislation, new public buildings should have ramps and elevators. As time goes on, our infrastructure should become more wheelchair accessible. If your goal is to create a future setting that’s optimistic, having buildings that are only accessible by stairs will seem backward and make disabled readers feel left out of the setting’s wish fulfillment.

As for the tech your character builds to assist her, it sounds like it’s bordering on erasing her disability. You can fix that just by thinking through how the experience of using this tech is different than what an able-bodied person experiences. What strengths and constraints does it have? Does it have a battery that runs out, requiring it to be plugged in for a while every day? Is there terrain that it’s better or worse at navigating? Does she get sore after using it for a while?

The last thing is just to make sure she’s a full person, not just an avatar for disability. It’s great that you want to show how tech can be used to empower disabled people to make their own choices, but don’t reduce her to a vehicle for that message. Make sure she has a multifaceted personality with quirks and interests that don’t have anything to do with her disability, and give her character issues and story arcs that don’t revolve around her disability.

Thanks for giving this character such deep thought. Happy writing!

Fay (from Writing Alchemy) & Chris

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Comments

  1. Dave L

    >why does she need a wheelchair that can climb stairs?
    Public buildings have ramps, but (at least where I live) many private homes have steps, including my own place

    Since the OP didn’t say how far in the future, many modern homes might still be in use. Unless EVERY private home is renovated w/ ramps she’ll be forced to renovate the entrance of her home or live somewhere already accessible, limiting her options. Not to mention most small homes don’t have elevators, so the entire second floor is all but off-limits. And forget living on the second floor of a duplex, or a finished basement. Again, there are a lot of these in our area, and none have elevators. Since “expensive” is part of the reason she still uses a wheelchair money is obviously an issue, so she’d want to find a good place in her price range that she doesn’t have to spend a fortune to renovate. “No stairs” reduces her options

    Even if her home is accessible, what if she wants to go over a friend’s house? Or a party in a private home? Anything from a RPG session to a wild orgy (or a combination of the two)?

    And the OP didn’t mention the plot, the characterization, or her occupation. Maybe going into older houses is important to the story or the character

    Yes, there are ways, even nowadays, for wheelchair users to conquer stairs. But none of them are easy

  2. Brigitta M.

    While the buildings of the future will be ADA compliant…nature still won’t be. So, if the OP still wants to have the “wheelchair that climbs stairs” just alter the ability to cover a variety of difficult terrain such as caves, mountains, and even swampland where the modern wheelchair would get stuck in the muck and perhaps even sink (yikes!) this futuristic version could more or less schlup through.

    This could create some interesting scenarios of what to do when the battery power runs low in deep caverns where even solar power isn’t available. That said, it may require manual alternatives which would create that lovely tension and stress for your protag as she sorts it out.

    –Bri

  3. Disa J Marnesdottr

    “For instance, why does she need a wheelchair that can climb stairs?”

    I think you might be guilty of one of the things you’re telling the writer to avoid. That question presumes a disabled person would only ever move from building to modern accessible building. No climbing or hiking or flying kites, no trips to scenic lookouts or walks on the beach. No games of frisbee in the park.

    The idea that a disabled person only belongs in carefully prescribed areas reduces them to their disability. It’s a problem I face every day as I make my way through the world using a white cane. Someone is always certain that I’m not where I belong, despite the hyper-specialized navigation software talking in my ear. My favorite is when I’m on a street corner waiting for the light to change and someone sprints up to me, yelling “You’re standing by the street!” Yes. Yes, I am.

    My advice to the writer is this: Begin by researching adaptive technology that exists right now and extrapolate. Given that a powered exoskeleton is already available and being refined all the time, it may have replaced the wheelchair as the default adaptive device for disabilities that impact movement. As a consequence, building codes might no longer require ramps. The question, then, is what makes your exoskeleton different. It’s a hack, right? A custom device. What advantages or disadvantages does it have compared to the standard exoskeleton? How has exoskeleton technology progressed? Currently, it’s bulky and expensive, but it has the potential to not only make a disability disappear but to enhance human function beyond normal. If that’s true, is it legal for general use or just as adaptive tech? Do you need a license to operate it? How do people in the world view the use of an exoskeleton? Is there prejudice? If so, why? Are they just scary and different or have there been catastrophic malfunctions? Every technology, even the coolest ones, has pros and cons. Dig in.

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6153133/

  4. Bubbles

    While this is interesting, I’m not sure how you can avoid “erasing” physical disability if you have technology that can grow organs and limbs from the patients’ own cells (so avoiding issues of immune rejection). The thing is, such technology is already being developed now, and in the future, it is reasonable to assume it will be far better than that of today. If it isn’t available as an option even when so many other technologies are more advanced than those of today, it doesn’t really make much sense.

    Even more speculatively, if you have mind uploading to transfer a mind into a new body (and many sci-fi writers feature such technology), similar issues apply. (Although note that there is debate about whether the uploaded being would actually be you, so I wouldn’t expect everyone to want to do it). But, I believe, the organ/limb growing thing I mentioned earlier seems to be much easier and more likely, so it needs to be taken into account.

    • Cay Reet

      Re-growing or re-connecting nerves would also be a topic. The same goes for the rate at which artificial limbs are developing. There might come a time when a healthy person might ‘trade’ their limbs or other parts (eyes for instance) for artificial ones which give benefits, providing the surgery is safe enough to risk it.

      I think humans will always try to have the best body and mind they can have with the means available, so if there’s technology, it’s going to be used. A topic for a story might rather be how accessible the technology is and how accepted it is within society (cue the Deus Ex series – I’m still not sure whether enhanced humans would be the ones shunned and oppressed in such a setting).

      • Leon

        Even if you have technology that can erase almost any disability and make people into their perfect selves you can still do interesting things.

        A while ago I read a Webtoons comic by an artist called Walking North called Always Human. It’s about a girl who has an immune system that rejects the “mods” that allow people to become anything they want.

        It’s mostly about her girlfriend learning to see ‘her’ and not her “disability”.

    • Leon

      I think I have the solution to questions about weather a clone with a mind upload is it’s own person and weather or not the original person is still alive as the clone or now dead.

      If Adam created clones; Brian, Brett and Ben, and designed them with a life span of 30 years so that they will die and be amalgamated into a forth clone of Adam; Charlie. Has Adam murdered Brian, Brett and Ben?

  5. Chakat Firepaw

    “Because of the ADA and other similar legislation, new public buildings should have ramps and elevators. As time goes on, our infrastructure should become more wheelchair accessible.”

    To add to the reasons already given I have two:

    It may not be possible to retrofit historic buildings for full accessibility. Either due to structural limitations, (there simply isn’t anywhere to put a ramp/elevator), or historic preservation.

    Even with “full” accessibility a stair-climbing wheelchair may allow for more convenient navigation. You can simply use the stairs that are here, rather than heading back to the elevator lobby. Plus you can use the entrance on Elm rather than the main one on Yonge.

  6. Sophie the Jedi Knight

    I have a question about a graphic novel series I read recently (Skyward), and I was wondering if a certain character’s presentation is ableist.

    The way the world works is that on a day twenty years ago, all gravity just stopped working. People have now made devices and found ways to adapt to this world. It’s deadly if you accidentally float too high into the atmosphere, but you can fly everywhere else, so that’s cool.

    The character I’m talking about is a side character. He doesn’t have legs from the knees down. However, because this world has no gravity, he doesn’t need a wheelchair or other assisting device and can just float around like everyone else.

    His disability is brought up from time to time. However, since this is a graphic novel, it’s clear in every shot he’s in that he’s physically different. You don’t really forget how he is.

    Would his literary treatment be ableist?

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