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.
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