Accessibility / body celebration / Crafting characters / Represention

The Future Must Be Disabled

ID: A dark sky, teeming with stars and nubulae
Photo by Felix Mittermeier on

I loved Killjoys. It was one of my favourite science-fiction TV shows in recent years. I loved the character, the dialogue, and the worldbuilding. But one small thing always irked me.

One of the main settings is a ship named Lucy, after the AI. And it’s a nifty ship design. But it has two levels and the only way between them is by a slender metal ladder. Which, on the surface, is an efficient use of space (no pun intended).

Unless you’re like me, with reduced mobility in my legs. In which case, you’re stuck in the cargo hold below. Or you’re in the upper deck living quarters. For the rest of your life.

So, when the time came to design the hero ship in my books, the Maverick Heart, I designed it all on one level with access through a main ramp or side airlocks. Basically, I designed a space bungalow.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a writer of space opera myself. The main focus of my work has been integrating queer identities into the zippy, high-tech future adventures I was creating. As I’ve said before, in my worlds, “Queer is never the problem.”

But that has been branching out lately into disability representation and the possible ways accommodation can advance along with it. It started unintentionally, with the first draft of what would become my novel, Soul’s Blood. As I was creating one of the main characters, I was inspired, by a character I had seen in a comic, to give her a scar, bisecting one of her eyes. Mostly just because I thought it looked cool. And I took it further by adding that the eye had been replaced with a super-powered prosthetic replacement. Without meaning to, I had made Lexa-Blue a Spoonie.

As the series went on, I injured one of the other main characters, pulling out some fancy-schmancy medical tech to “fix” them. And I wrote the whole next novel with the idea that the character was now fine. But as I edited, I examined the idea that while the technology was amazing and advanced, it wasn’t perfect. And it left the character with recurrent pain and neuropathy that they had to manage.

With another character, it occurred to me that a piece of the underlying tech that was part of my world could be used as an assistive device for Deaf people, a sort of instantaneous translator between someone who speaks sign and someone who doesn’t. So a character became Deaf, changing nothing about their place in the story and who they were.

We read and/or hear the phrase “representation matters” a lot these days, and there’s a reason for that. It is incredibly important for marginalized people to find themselves in stories, music, television, and film. And when this happens in representations of the future, it is especially important. We as disabled people need to know we are a part of bright futures, of technological marvels. We need to know that as the human race expands its horizons, we are a part of that expansion. That when the future happens, we are along.

That doesn’t mean that the future is a place where all ills are cured, and all disabilities have been eliminated. While there may be value in some complex cure narratives, that cannot be the main focus of disability stories. It is important to remember that as diseases and disabilities have changed over that last few centuries, they will also change as we move into the far future. And as they change, so will our relationship to disability and the way we as a species relate to it. It is vital to show a future that is one of accommodation and adaption, not one focused on our elimination.

You’ve already imagined a world of the far future, or a world of magic. Take that a step further and imagine what those technical wonders could mean to someone who is blind or has low vision. Someone who is Deaf or hard-of-hearing. To someone with reduced mobility. Imagine what the spells or enchantments of the magic that suffuses your world could do to provide accommodations for these characters.

If you are disabled yourself, write the world you want to see yourself in. Write the world through your own eyes, the good, the bad, and the possible. If you are not disabled, don’t let that close you off from including disabled characters into your stories. But here’s the catch: do your research. Learn as much as you can about the disability you want to write. Listen to the voices of people who live that reality. Understand everything you can about that experience. Then write. And once you’ve written, use a sensitivity editor to vet what you’ve done, and then listen to them with a receptive mind, and act on the feedback they give you.

As you explore the possibilities of including disabled characters into your work, ask yourself this question: why are they there? Do they exist in the narrative just to be disabled? To show how amazing the abled characters are? To be objects of pity or derision? Do they exist just to inspire the abled characters with their pluck and persistence and gosh darned positive attitude?

Or are they just characters existing in your world? Who have skills and flaws and wants of their own? Are they there just to be? Do those skills and flaws and wants help move the story forward in way other than by being sad or inspiring or victims?

One of the best pieces of writing advice I have ever received was from Nalo Hopkinson, who told me that, when writing, “You can do whatever you want. As long as you know why you’re doing it.”

Include disability in your futures, and in your magic. Do your research. And know why. Know why you’re doing it, and know why it is essential to making your worlds more rounded, more real, and more relevant.

Born on the prairies, Stephen Graham King has since traded the big sky for the big city and now lives in Toronto. His first book, Just Breathe, tells the blunt, funny, and uncompromising story of his three-year battle with metastatic synovial sarcoma. Since then, his short fiction has appeared in the anthologies North of Infinity II (Pas de Deux), Desolate Places (Nor Winter’s Cold) and Ruins Metropolis (Burning Stone). His first space opera novel, Chasing Cold, was released in 2012, and the first book in the Maverick Heart series, Soul’s Blood, came out in 2016. The second, Gatecrasher, was released in 2017. Now the third book in the series, A Congress of Ships, is available from Renaissance!

Stephen can be found online on his websiteTwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

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