Hello, Reader! Here’s a blog post I wrote for the Future Fire upon the release of Accessing the Future, all about the sticky issue (for me) of disability in fiction, and why it matters. Enjoy.
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Access the Future
by Nicolette Barischoff
As a writer living with Cerebral Palsy, I’ve always been wary… no, squeamish, when it comes to writing about disability. Why? Who exactly knows. There’s the old standby paranoia of not wanting to be told what I “ought” to be writing, not wanting to be used as some able-bodied person’s Teaching Moment or inspiration blow-up doll. There’s my stubbornly held belief that a writer who can only write with honesty and empathy about their own experiences (or characters whose experiences are similar to their own) is not a particularly good or useful writer.
But I suspect that most of my aversion to disability-themed fiction stems from the fact that a good portion of it is just not very much fun.
So many bad stories that feature disability (sometimes written by the well-meaning able-bodied, but just as often perpetrated by writers with disabilities intent on fictionalizing a particular kind of experience they think might be dramatically interesting) treat disability as a source of social isolation, misunderstanding, and physical limitation. Very often, their goal as stories is to show that the disabled person’s reality comes with a particular set of hardships–usually brought upon them by an ignorant, inaccessible, or prejudicial society–that is separate from the set of hardships experienced by most human beings. As one narrative about disability, this has value. As the only narrative about disability, it is tedious, divisive, unrealistic, and unhelpful.
What so appealed to me about Accessing the Future was not only how much fun it promised to be (The Future, as we know, is chock full of giant robot battles, generation ships, designer creatures, fancy holographic limbs, and hot sex in zero gravity) but how naturally and effortlessly its premise promotes an alternative narrative about disability.
By merely depicting futures that include people with disabilities, futures in which disabilities have not “gone away” or “got better,” Accessing the Future takes disability out of its Otherized position as a special group with special problems for able-bodied people to feel things about, and puts it back where it belongs, squarely within the spectrum of Humanity.
As long as there have been humans, there have been humans of varying ability, aptitude, and strength. And guess what? They have all found uniquely human ways of surviving and thriving.
The relative concept of “disability,” just like the relative concept of “poverty,” has always existed, of course, and always will exist, even as, especially as, the human landscape of ability is radically altered.
But by suggesting to us what that disability might look like in the future (what technologies might be at its disposal, what spaces it might share) ATF reminds us that Disabled People are not an anomaly, engaged in their own separate, alien struggle, but simply another example of humans doing what humans have always done when they have found their environment to be inhospitable: Adapting.
Humans at all levels of ability have always adapted, facing down incredible physical inequity with a combination of clever tools, innovative solutions, and sheer bullheadedness. Once we understand that, humans with disabilities become simply humans, neither special objects of inspiration nor of pity, but participators in the collective human struggle: bucking the system, searching for meaning, spitting in Natural Selection’s eye, and just generally being an irrepressible pain in the ass.
In writing “Pirate Songs,” I wanted to speak to our adaptability as a species, and our ability to adjust when our own particular worldview has been shattered. Thus, I divested my protagonist Margo of her wheelchair before I put her aboard a shipful of outlaws who would have no idea what to do with her. I trusted she would grit her teeth and hold her own. And she did.
In Margo, I sought to create a protagonist that behaved like a protagonist. Another important thing this anthology has done for the de-Otherization of disability is allowed people with disabilities to be at the center of their own stories. In generating such a dynamic space for characters with disabilities to play, ATF practically demands protagonists that are a fully-realized and active driver of the story they’re in.
Disability in fiction is so often objectified, there to be reacted to, or to be acted upon. Even when a disabled character is purportedly the Main Character of a story that is about her, it is often other people in the story who do the majority of the growing and the changing and the driving that defines a protagonist. She remains emotionally (and oftentimes physically) static, while those around her become inspired, learn to be more inclusive, have their expectations challenged, change the rules of their favorite sport, etc, etc.
In part, people with disabilities are kept from occupying the role of true Protagonist because there are so many bad stories designating them as a special group with special problems. The perceived otherness of what are assumed to be their concerns makes it difficult for a less-than-imaginative writer to imagine those concerns growing or changing or being shattered as the story progresses.
But the ability to imagine someone growing, changing, learning, is nothing more or less than the ability to imagine them as a fully complete and complex human being. The ability to envision another person as the full-fledged hero of their own story, with their own hard lessons to learn, their own disappointments and victories and tragic flaws, is nothing more or less than empathy. One reason it becomes so important to give disabled children a protagonist they might see themselves in, is quite simply that Protagonist is the opposite of Other.
Are you a writer currently at work on a character with a disability? Wondering if you’re doing all right? Let me start by saying I believe in you. You are a clever, resourceful, empathetic human (most likely) and if you do your job as a writer and really try to understand the humans you write as complicated (if imaginary) individuals, you’ll do just fine.
However, Writer, if you’d like to run your work by a real, honest-to-goodness Person With a Disability, you have this one’s open offer. Hit me up on the twitter-thing! Tell me a little about yourself or your project. If I like the cut of your jib, I’ll be at your disposal to answer any PWD -related question you could possibly want to ask. Lay ’em on me! I’m here to fill in your knowledge gaps, or just to provide those little bits of texture or realism you might be seeking.
I’ve had writers ask me questions straight-up. I’ve had writers send me completed work for feedback. I’ve met writers who wanted a combination of the two. It’s all good research!
If you think I could help with your story, send me a private message @NBarischoff.
3 thoughts on “A Blog Post, and a Not Particularly Exclusive Special Offer”
I did do this. The story was nominated for a Nebula Award in 2002. Our publishing company has published a novella written by the story’s inspiration, Julie M. Jones, who has spinal muscular atrophy.
If I’d had the company in 2002, I am pretty sure I would have won the award. If you get what I am saying.
That sounds like a story I’d be very interested in reading. But we’re not done. I’m sure you’ll agree that there are many, many stories left to be told about protagonists of diverse abilities and backgrounds, and many writers who’d do much for the world of stories by writing them. This post was to encourage all writers (including myself) to take risks in writing experiences that are not our own, without feeling a need to make them “issue-oriented” stories. As I said to you on twitter, this isn’t about what one writer is or isn’t doing in their work. It’s about the stories that we all could be writing.
Hi Nicole, I’m sorry if I was harsh to you. The problem, as you will soon discover if you have not already, is it isn’t the writers NOT WRITING the work which tells stories with protagonists with diverse abilities and backgrounds. It’s that this work is not considered commercially viable in a very distressed/dysfunctional publishing environment. I believe it *is* commercially viable and will be moreso every day which is why we are doing Chameleon Publishing as we are. Again, sorry to be harsh with you. I support 110% what you are doing, writing and saying. We as a company are fully committed to publishing creative work that is truly from people’s hearts. As people are diverse, so shall too be the stories told.