Over the last few weeks I’ve been struggling with a possible design flaw in my invented universe’s lore. Simply put, it’s a universe in which reincarnation is not only a core ideology, but also proven to the extent that it’s just a part of life for those who live there. However, souls are also able to design what kind of physical form they want, right down to the fine details, before they incarnate, and can plan small details about their lives in advance. My question is: how do I make this work when it comes to disabilities? I feel stuck in a Catch-22: if I don’t include, then that’s really not great and definitely not what I want, but if I do, that raises the obvious questions of why would anyone choose that and might even promote harmful ideas.
Thank you for bringing up this question. “Why would anyone choose that?” is a question that I’ve heard before and it is connected to the myth that, if given a choice, no one would choose to be disabled. But this isn’t true. For example, if I had access to a magical cure, I would happily take that cure for my back condition, but I would not change how my brain works. For me, being neurodivergent is a core part of who I am, and I would not be me if I had a neurotypical mind.
Let’s step back a bit and talk about why this is so. There are two main ways that people experience disability: as a limitation and as a neutral difference. My chronic back condition is an example of experiencing disability as a limitation. It limits how much I can carry, how long I can stand, and what chairs are comfortable. Accessibility barriers can make things worse for me, but even when they are absent, I experience limitations. This is the mainstream understanding of disability, and it is worth noting that it is connected with the medical view of disability (also called the medical model of disability) where disability is thought of as a problem with an individual person’s body.
Disability can also be experienced as a neutral difference, where it is simply different from what is typical, but neither better nor worse. The way my brain works is a good example of this. My brain is great at handling both the big picture and the details simultaneously. I can quickly think through many possibilities and I’m great at planning and analyzing things. The fact that my brain does this is one of my greatest strengths. However, it is not something I can turn off, and thinking through so many possibilities and consequences at once can easily become overwhelming, which leads to anxiety. While living with anxiety is challenging, it isn’t something that can be separated from my strengths. Taken as a whole, the way my brain works is neither better nor worse than being neurotypical.
For disabilities that are neutral differences, many of the limitations that people encounter come from the access barriers in society, like stressful and inflexible social structures, buildings without ramps, and negative stereotypes. In fact, for these disabilities, it can be said that society creates the experience of being disabled by creating access barriers. This understanding of disability is an important part of the social model of disability. Members of the Deaf and Autistic communities, in particular, have done a lot of work to lead the way in this understanding.
In real life, these two ways to experience disability are more of a spectrum, with different people having different experiences. Two people can have drastically different experiences of the same disability. A person with multiple disabilities can have different experiences of each of their disabilities, as I do. In addition, a person can also have different experiences of the same disability depending on the day or the circumstances.
Regardless of this complexity, any experience of disability that mostly falls into the neutral difference category is something some souls would choose. Given the nature of your setting, it seems like an important form of representation to have some souls choosing disabilities that are neutral differences. If your story has a low-oppression setting, then there really is no reason for a soul to prefer being non-disabled over having a neutral disability. In contrast, a high-oppression setting could create an incentive for souls to avoid taking on marginalized traits, but I recommend against this. It has all kinds of negative implications, and it quickly leads to a setting where the majority of people are straight, white, non-disabled, cisgender men.
Also, please keep in mind that just because a disability is a neutral difference, that doesn’t mean that accommodations, assistive devices, and medical care aren’t needed. For example, I get medical care for my anxiety. I take medication that tweaks how my brain works and that makes daily life more manageable. In addition, I regularly do therapy where I learn techniques for interrupting negative thought patterns, like self-judgment, that are part of anxiety. Realistic depictions of things like accommodations, assistive devices, and medical care are an important part of respectfully depicting disability.
As for disabilities primarily experienced as a limitation, just because a person experiences their disability as a limitation doesn’t inherently mean that they want to get rid of it. They might, but they might not. For many folks, our disabilities are part of what makes us who we are and we wouldn’t be the same without them. This means that some souls might choose disabilities that are primarily experienced as a limitation.
Also, do souls only choose traits that are considered desirable by mainstream society? Do they only want the easiest possible lives? Is everyone super perfect, without any variation or flaws? If so, there is probably a major problem with genetic diversity in this setting. However, if this is a world full of diversity where souls choose all sorts of traits that are considered non-optimal by mainstream society, you don’t have to explain why some souls choose to be disabled. Just don’t make disabilities punishments or learning experiences for souls. Treat disability as normal, like any other trait a soul could choose. Who knows why souls make the choices they do? Why does a soul choose anything?
In addition to being born with disabilities, accidents and other major life events can cause physical and mental disabilities. They cause disability in the real world, and it makes sense for them to cause disability in your setting (assuming your setting includes free will). I wouldn’t call these major events one of the “small details about their lives” that a soul could plan, so these types of disabilities aren’t something a soul has the power to choose or not choose.
Because many chronic illnesses are a combination of things people are born with (genetics) and life circumstances, they might be a bit tricky to handle. One approach that might help is to use a simplified understanding of genetics. While genes do have a big effect on someone’s life, genes aren’t destiny and they don’t operate in isolation. For example, genes alone don’t determine someone’s height—environmental factors, like nutrition, also play an important role. So, if a soul is choosing a specific gene, that gene could have multiple effects, one of which is an increased risk of getting a specific chronic illness. It won’t be until the circumstances of that specific life unfold that it will be determined whether they actually get that illness or not. Handling things this way gives souls less control over whether or not they get certain disabilities. Whether that is desirable for your story depends on how you are using this specific type of reincarnation.
I hope this helps. Good luck with your storytelling project!
Fay Onyx from Writing Alchemy