I’m working on a story about an early 20th-century carnival sideshow. The exhibits are not disabled humans. Rather, one’s a mermaid, one’s a highly sophisticated android, one’s a ten-foot-tall woman, etc.

Given that none of the exhibits are normal humans, disabled or otherwise, is ableism an issue here the way it would be if this were a real sideshow using real conditions?

Thank you,

Dave

Dave,

Thanks for your question! The ways that non-disabled non-humans represent disabled experiences, and the ways they don’t, is something I think about a lot, so I’m happy to share my thoughts. :)

The physical and mental differences between non-humans and humans can represent specific disabled experiences, even when the non-human characters are themselves non-disabled. Mermaids are a particularly good example of this. Mermaids that don’t transform into humans need mobility devices to get around on land, commonly using wheelchairs. While a wheelchair-using, non-disabled mermaid won’t represent the full range of disability experiences that a disabled character would, they do represent the specific experience of being a wheelchair user.

Any way that a non-human represents a disabled experience needs to be handled with care to avoid perpetuating myths and stereotypes. In addition, any way that the characteristics of a non-human are similar to a disability will create an association in the minds of the audience. For example, a ten-foot-tall woman has enough similarity to people with gigantism for associations to develop. As this previous Q&A suggests, I recommend researching any disabilities associated with non-human or fantastical characters to avoid negative representation.

In addition, non-humans living within a human society may encounter access barriers caused by the physical and social construction of that society. For example, the ten-foot-tall woman is going to find most human objects and spaces to be too small for her to easily use, causing her to experience certain aspects of disability within human spaces. The understanding that the physical and social structure of a society can cause disability is an important part of the social model of disability. Communicating this understanding to audience members is significant and often easily done through non-disabled, non-human characters.

While these non-disabled, non-human characters won’t have the same experiences as disabled humans or disabled members of their own species, they will have access needs caused by the structure of human society. The way their access needs are handled will either reinforce ableist ideas or it will teach people what it means to effectively meet someone’s access needs.

I recommend having at least some of your story’s protagonists model good ways to respond to access needs. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Look for access needs anywhere a character is struggling to function or fully participate in something.
  • The person with the access need should be centered in the decision-making process for meeting it. For example, they decide when their need is effectively met.
  • The best way to meet an access need is usually the option that gives the most agency to the person with the need.
  • Address conflicting access needs when they come up.
  • Characters should be proactive in meeting access needs. This means working to meet known access needs without being told to, such as making sure things are wheelchair accessible for a wheelchair user. It also means having proactive conversations about accessibility and asking people what they need, rather than forcing people to bring their access needs up.
  • Don’t make assistive devices do all the work of creating accessibility and meeting access needs. Assistive devices are just one piece of accessibility.
  • Treat accessibility as a work in progress, rather than a finished state that can be achieved. This means that people check in and make adjustments as needed.

While having non-disabled non-humans in this carnival sideshow does change things, there are definitely important elements of disability representation present. Representing them respectfully matters. In addition, whether or not the dynamics of the sideshow itself are stigmatizing depends on how these dynamics interact with the disabled experiences being represented.

I hope that this helps, and good luck with your story!

–Fay Onyx from Writing Alchemy

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