I am writing a non-magical fantasy story set in a low-tech world that is primarily composed of city-states with limited regional authority. I am trying to work out what kinds of seemingly realistic accommodations could/would be in place for disabled people. Culturally, I am trying to craft a world whose prejudices are very distinct from Earthly ones: no sexuality, gender-related, disability-related, or “race”-related discrimination exists. I am not trying to be “realistic” in terms of portraying the accommodations that the real past or the real present offers; I am trying to be realistic in a very optimistic, yet low-tech way, when it comes to accommodations. Do you have any advice for me?

– Kiera

Hi Kiera,

A lot of the time when people think about accessibility, they think about adaptive equipment such as wheelchairs and prosthetics. While adaptive equipment matters, it is important to keep in mind that the structure of the society plays a big role in shaping people’s accessibility needs. For example, cities with lots of stairs, but few ramps or elevators, create a need for wheelchairs that can climb stairs. In contrast, there isn’t a need for wheelchairs that can climb stairs in a city where all of the buildings have ramps and elevators. This is why it is helpful to start with broader aspects of social structure, such as architecture and social norms, when designing an accessible society.

I recommend researching accessible architecture. Many aspects of accessible architecture can be achieved at lower technology levels, like using ramps instead of stairs and using curves instead of sharp corners. On the smaller scale, things like using round tables and diverse seating options are also very achievable. Keep in mind that different people have different accessibility needs, so it helps to avoid uniformity and instead provide multiple options.

It’s also worth thinking about how ancient technology could be used by a society that cared more about accessibility. For example, while electric elevators are a relatively recent invention, humans have been using crane technology since ancient times. A society that wanted to could adapt this crane technology into something like an elevator.

The social structure of the society also has a big impact on accessibility. It is important to avoid situations where there is only one way to participate in something. Instead, create social situations where either the behavior of the group adjusts to meet individual needs or where there is a range of ways for people to participate. For example, having quiet spaces at large community celebrations provides space for those people who are overwhelmed by crowds. Another important behavior is open communication where people set expectations and ask about accessibility needs while events are being planned.

When it comes to adaptive equipment, devices like wheelchairs and prosthetics have been around in some form for a long time. A little research into this history should provide a reasonable starting point for deciding what form these items will take in your setting. Keep in mind that a society that cares more about accessibility will put more effort into developing adaptive equipment, so it makes sense to err on the side of optimism and make sure that the accessibility needs of the characters are being met.

Best wishes,

Fay from Writing Alchemy

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