So there I was last night, merrily reading a sci-fi romance (2016 release). The story introduced a secondary character, one who’d been seriously injured as an adult. In the scene, he revealed to the hero that he was receiving treatment to repair the injured area of his body. He was wearing a device akin to the Superflex suit. I’m thinking, cool, here’s a character of color with a disability using assistive technology in a futuristic SFR. Progress, right?
Then came his next line of dialogue. The character states, and I’m paraphrasing, that he’s looking forward to being almost “normal” again.
And I’m just, no.
No, no, no.
I was shocked and dismayed by the blatant ableism on display in that scene. The toxic message is clear: People with disabilities aren’t “normal.” The implication is they’re abnormal and that disability is a state of being to avoid at all costs. Compared to harmful narratives like the one in the recent film ME BEFORE YOU, this short SFR scene is small potatoes, but it still warrants an examination and discussion. It also bears repeating that able-bodied characters shouldn’t be the default in fiction.
One more time for those in the back: Able-bodied characters shouldn’t be the default in fiction.
Human beings exist on a spectrum of mobility and disability, ranging from people who are almost completely immobile to those who have complete freedom of movement. We are not a species of normal and non-normal people.
Another problematic element is that the assistive technology was presented as causing the character pain (as opposed to the character still experiencing pain from the injury). I found this extremely perplexing since even now things like prosthetics and braces don’t, as a rule, cause their users pain. In fact, the field has come a long way and technicians strive to make assistive tech as comfortable as possible. Discomfort is mainly a sign that the brace, prosthetic, or other device needs to be adjusted. Unless I’m missing something?
I’m embarrassed that SFR has contributed to the general ableist narrative and would like to extend my apologies to anyone negatively affected by this scene.
Instead of stigmatizing people with disabilities, this scene could have been so much more progressive and inclusive. How great it would have been to have a character in a futuristic time for whom medicine/technology wouldn’t lead to a magical cure and who had adjusted to his disability. In other words, a normalization of disability. That could have been a swell bit of representation as well as an opportunity to introduce some social commentary about one aspect of disability.
Mistakes are going to happen and believe me, I’ve been working on my own ableism shortcomings, but SFR doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Let’s use this occurrence as an opportunity to examine and chip away at our prejudices toward people with disabilities.
There are plenty of experts with disabilities giving away information and insight for free online about things like harmful ableist story narratives. I urge SFR authors to take advantage of those resources in order to minimize or even eliminate further contributions to stereotypes about characters with disabilities. You can start with filmmaker and activist Dominick Evans’ #AbleismExists.
Related Galaxy Express posts
What Can SFR Offer To Readers With Disabilities? (an in-depth post on the topic of characters with disabilities in SFR)
A.B. Gayle’s ISOLATION features a hero with a disability (double amputee who wears prosthetics) and as I recall it had a positive portrayal of a character with a disability. To learn more, you can read my interview with the author.
Misa Buckley’s TIN CAT features a heroine who uses a wheelchair and it won an SFR Galaxy Award in part for its positive portrayal.
In Search of…Handicapped Heroines explores the issue of heroine disability representation in SFR/SF and features many representative titles in a variety of SF and romance subgenres.
On The Ableist Portrayal of Female Villains: MINIONS’ Scarlet Overkill offers an example of how high-profile creators perpetuate ableist narratives in animated films aimed at children.