Hi there! I’ve been working on a science fantasy story idea, with one of my main/POV characters being visually impaired. While the level of the technology is pretty high (think magitek androids that are advanced enough to pass as human), I don’t want to just go with him getting cybernetic eyes. Instead, I wanted him to use some of my story’s tech to assist himself in various ways (I probably worded that wonky, apologies in advance). As an engineer who’s read up here and here on disability theory, though, I’m well aware of the issues with people over-engineering “solutions” to problems disabled people can handle themselves. Do you have some advice on designing fictional assistive devices in ways that neither ignore a person’s own capabilities nor sidestep the disability entirely?Leota
A note on language: Some people, including prominent organizations, use the term “visually impaired,” but others consider its use to be offensive. In order to be respectful to as many people as possible, I recommend using terms like “low-vision” and “limited-sight.”
Thanks for the question! This is a topic I think about a lot and I’ve been wanting to write more about it, so thanks for the opportunity. ;)
Before I get started, I do need to say that, while I have a lot of general advice for creating assistive devices, I am not blind, and this is a situation where consulting with someone with lived experience is particularly important.
When crafting assistive devices it is tempting to focus in on the details of possible devices right away, but assistive devices are only one piece of the larger access puzzle. Other factors, like what activities are important for everyday life in this society, what resources are abundant, and how accessible the architecture is, all affect what assistive devices need to be able to do. For example, a person doesn’t need a wheelchair that can climb stairs if there are no stairs.
Start by deciding how ableist vs accessible your fictional society is. Ableist societies put the burden of access onto disabled people. In contrast, accessible societies take on a lot of the burden of creating access by building accessible physical and social environments and providing resources. That is why this choice has a big impact on everything else. Generally speaking, unless a disabled storyteller wants to explore ableism as a significant part of their story, I recommend reducing or removing ableism. Based on your premise, it sounds like you have chosen to depict a more accessible society, which is great!
Next, get a general picture of what the physical environment in this setting is like, what kinds of tasks people in this society are expected to perform in day to day life, and what resources people have access to. Together, these will help define what people’s needs are and what resources are available to meet them. For example, three tasks that are important in modern US society are getting information from computers, navigating through a city, and getting food. Tasks depend a lot on the speculative fiction elements of the setting.
Meanwhile, the physical environment will depend a lot on both the speculative fiction elements and how accessible the society is. If this is an accessible culture, then accessibility should be built into the physical and social environment. Other resources people might have access to are accommodations, assistance animals, service workers, and medical care.
Examining these factors together gives more information on what tasks assistive devices in this setting need to be able to do, and what is already being done. We are now ready to begin working on the assistive devices themselves. I recommend starting by researching assistive devices and techniques from the real world, like the different tools for orienting and mobility.
The more your technology is grounded in real-world things, the more likely it is to relate to the real experiences and needs of disabled people. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have advanced technology or magic, but starting from real things (even if a lot of changes are made) makes it easier to connect with what people actually need, which is one of your concerns. Of course, this approach isn’t perfect, and problems can still come up. Getting feedback and advice from a blind consultant is essential!
The next step is to focus on function and usability. A lot of non-disabled people go wrong by focusing on what they perceive as “missing” function, with the goal of making a disabled person as much like a non-disabled person as possible. This leads to over-engineered, flashy devices that aren’t practical, as described by Britt H Young in “I have one of the most advanced prosthetic arms in the world — and I hate it.” What actually matters is focusing on what the disabled person actually wants to accomplish and keeping practicality and usability central to the solution. Making function and usability the goal shifts the design process away from those flashy fictional devices that solve “problems” disabled people don’t really have.
Finally, be sure to define what each of your assistive devices can and can’t do, and any trade-offs that come with using it. What are its limitations? Are there harmful effects from overuse? Does it have a limited power supply that needs to be recharged? What situations make it difficult to use? How reliable is it? Is it fragile? How easy is it to repair? What maintenance does it need? Is it costly?
These trade-offs are an important part of disabled experience. Even when all of someone’s access needs are met, there usually are trade-offs. You are rightly concerned about erasing disability, and trade-offs are a key way to avoid doing that, because they are one of the things that makes being a disabled person whose access needs are met different than being non-disabled.
I hope that this answer gives you some ideas. I am actually working on an article on this topic called, “Crafting Assistive Devices for Speculative Fiction.” When this Q & A comes out, you should be able to find a draft of that article on the Writing Alchemy website.
Good luck with your storytelling project. It sounds fun!
–Fay Onyx from Writing Alchemy