In my fictional world, a disease (possibly affecting the nervous system) was discovered that causes various degrees of physical and mental disabilities. However, rogue scientists find out that certain patients carry no visible sign of the syndrome (they can only be detected with medical tests), and instead develop superhuman abilities. A party sets out to suppress these “superpowers,” fueled by “public safety” concerns, and another one to exploit them, fueled by greed; in both cases the patients are kept unaware of their true abilities. My protagonist and a few other people will fight both parties to create a better future for affected people (both superhuman and suffering).Diseases are a common part of life and have been featured in a lot of literary works, but certain conditions (especially those related to mental health) have often caused discrimination and social suffering, and I don’t want my story to hurt readers. I’m afraid that presenting a disabling syndrome as a “may give you superpowers” condition could be offensive towards people with an actual disability. I think that shaping my fictional disease so that it is reasonably different from real, existing health issues should be enough, but I would really like to hear your opinion on this matter.-Simone
Thanks for your question! It is great that you are putting a lot of thought into these complex issues.
Avoiding stereotypes of similar real-world disabilities is a good start, but respectful disability representation also includes thinking about the overall way that disability is portrayed in this story. Is disability being represented as a fact of some people’s lives or as a life-destroying tragedy? Are disabled characters presented as full people with their own interests and goals, or are they being reduced to their disabilities? Do disabled characters have agency, or are they burdens and victims for other characters to save?
Here are some questions to help you examine the way that disability is being used here: Why is disability an important part of this story? What parts of the plot depend on this disease that causes disabilities? For example, if disability was removed from this story, what parts of the plot would need to change? Also, why does this disease give people disabilities or superpowers, but never both? For example, is this separation between disability and superpowers important to the plot?
The answers to these questions will help determine whether the story is being set up to be a positive or negative representation of disability. For example, if the reason why this disease causes a range of disabilities is that it allows the villains to use “public health” as a reason to suppress superpowers because they are afraid that people who want superpowers will seek out the disease and become disabled instead, then this is a negative portrayal of disability. This also touches on painful and ongoing real-world ableism that disabled people are currently struggling with, such as the myth that vaccines cause autism. Having a disease that sometimes kills people is enough of a reason for people to be concerned about it spreading – disability doesn’t need to be brought into it.
Alternatively, if the reason that disability is part of this story is because fighting ableism is going to be an important part of the plot, then that’s a good start. However, the key to making this a good representation is having disabled characters lead the struggle against ableism. If non-disabled people lead this struggle, then it turns into the harmful pattern of privileged people rescuing marginalized people from oppression – a pattern that reinforces the idea that the marginalized people are helpless victims. Also, remember that non-disabled characters can’t contradict ableist stereotypes, only disabled characters can do that.
In addition, I am concerned about the separation between disability and superpowers. In this case, singling out a group of disabled people as the only group that never gets superpowers creates an unequal dynamic. I strongly recommend against this. It can be rare for people with this disease to get superpowers (whether or not they show symptoms), but disabled people deserve to be included in having superpowers.
If you created the separation between disabilities and superpowers to avoid the harmful disability superpower pattern, then be assured that you can avoid it without using this separation. The disability superpower pattern happens when a character gets a superpower to “make up for” their disability. As long as the character’s superpower isn’t set up to compensate for their disability, it is fine for a disabled character to have a superpower, especially in stories with multiple superpowered characters.
Finally, to answer your question about whether it is okay for a fictional disease to give characters superpowers, it depends on how it is done. Your instinct to make sure that this fictional disease is different than any real-world disease is right on. Having it be too similar to a real disease creates strange implications and could also be uncomfortable for people with that disease. To help with this, I recommend creating a symptom for this disease that is different from any real-world diseases. The goal of this is to create more distance between this and real diseases. As a side benefit, it may also make it more believable that this new fictional disease is giving people superpowers.
I hope this answers your questions. Good luck with your storytelling project!
—Fay from Writing Alchemy