It’s time for my first Disabled Representation Tip! This tip is going to be about creating (physical) disabled representation for science-fiction and fantasy worlds. I’m going to do three things: teach you how to make a disabled representation for such a world, tell you some things to watch out for, and then show you some cool examples. Today, I’m focusing mainly on some of the ‘disability superpower’ tropes such as Super Wheelchair and Cyborg Prosthetic Limbs (which are mainly used in sci-fi) and the Blind Seer (which appears a lot in fantasy).
1. How do you Interweave Disabilities into Sci-Fi and Fantasy Worlds?
One of my favourite places to see disabled representation is in fantasy and sci-fi – I love seeing all of the creative ways authors and screenwriters include disabilities in their worlds. My main advice on how to do this is simply: be creative! But to help you build a strong, realistic, and relatable disabled representation, I created this simple three-step plan. Obviously, it’s not always necessary to follow this plan, but it will help you to know the basics if you have no idea where to start. You can create a mind-map or a list for each step if you’re more of a visual person (like me).
- Think about the disability that you want to include in your story: think about all of the items that someone of your chosen disability may need to get around, and how that disability would affect their day-to-day life.
- Now think about the world that you’ve created: think about the parameters, rules, and inventions of your world. Also, consider the society of your world and how different people get treated there.
- Then put both of these side-by-side: how would this disability look considering the parameters and rules of your world? Take all of the items that someone of your chosen disability may need to get around and think about how the inventions of your world would re-create them. Also consider how elements of their everyday life with their disability would look like if they lived in your world, and think about how people in the society of your world would treat them and why.
Basically, it just takes some imagination, a little research, and some rationalisation. If you view real life with a disability as English, and the fantasy or sci-fi world that you’ve created as another language: then the process of interweaving a disability into a sci-fi or fantasy world is like translating English into a different language – You take everything from an ordinary life with the disability and then ‘translate’ it to fit within the rules of your world.
Don’t forget that creativity is the most important part of this process: think up clever and creative alternatives that will make your representation special. The only reason that I created this three-step plan is because it’s the best way to ensure that your representation is still realistic and relatable, to help you make sure that it’s not problematic, and to help you avoid erasing your character’s disability.
2. Something to Watch Out For
The most important thing that you should try to avoid when creating this type of disabled representation is accidentally erasing your character’s disability. This is often done by Giving Character’s Powers That Cancel Out Their Disability:
I already talked about this a little bit in My 5 Tips to Authors Who Write Disabled Characters post. Basically, if you give a cyborg arm that works even better than an ordinary arm to a character with a missing limb, or if you give a blind character enhanced senses which makes them able to technically ‘see’ the world better than others, then you run the risk of potentially erasing that character’s disability. This shouldn’t be your goal because characters who have their disabilities cancelled out by technology or superpowers are difficult for disabled readers to relate to (because they no longer experience any of the same things that someone in real life with their disability would experience).
Imagine being disabled and trying to relate to a character like Victor Stone as Cyborg from Teen Titans. How could you? The guy’s practically superhuman. This doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with Cyborg or any other character with an erased disability, I just personally wouldn’t count them as examples of disabled representation. Remember, the way that you choose to interweave disabilities into your world shouldn’t be a means to cure them, but merely a means for your world to be able to include them.
How to Avoid This
Following the plan that I showed you is a good way to avoid erasing a character’s disability. This is why I included the step of considering what the everyday life of someone with the disability that you chose would be like – because their life in your world should still contain many of the same elements.
I once wrote a fantasy story with a character that couldn’t walk. She had magical powers and therefore she simply sat on a small wooden plank and levitated it to get around. However, it took a lot of effort for her to levitate, much more effort than walking (like pushing a manual wheelchair) and she’d often have to stop for breaks if they were walking far so that she could re-charge her powers (like stopping to plug in an electric wheelchair). She also still experienced things that people who sit down all day experience such as pressure sores and leg pains. The story is quite rubbish since I wrote it when I was only thirteen, but I was still already starting to grasp the concept of ‘interweaving’ instead of ‘erasing’ disabilities.
So, if you’re thinking of creating a character with a Super Wheelchair with rocket-power speed and a built-in microwave – that’s awesome! But maybe the wheelchair still can’t go upstairs and needs to be plugged in to charge every day. Maybe instead of a guide dog, your blind character has an IA robot that helps them to navigate their everyday life? Maybe instead of reading lips, your society has futuristic glasses for deaf people that can scan people’s lips and generate subtitles for the user? But the user has to be looking at the lips of the person speaking for them to work. Be creative and realistic – a strong representation will contain a fine balance of both.
A Cool Example
Say what you will about the character Mimori Togo from the anime Yuki Yuna is a Hero, but I absolutely love how the creators of the show interweaved her disability into her magical transformation. Mimori has no use of her legs and has to use a wheelchair to get around. Yet, when she transforms into her magical battle form, her legs are still immobile. Instead, her suit uses long tentacles that keep her above the ground and help her to move around and jump without using her legs:
Mimori’s suit helping her to jump and lower herself into shooting position:
3. Some More Cool Examples for Inspiration
I’m now going to show you some more examples of wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs, and blind characters in sci-fi and fantasy for inspiration. I’m only showing these three because I wanted to stick to the subject of the Super Wheelchair, Enhanced Limbs, and Blind Seer ‘disability superpower’ tropes which I’ve been discussing.
Here are some examples of fantasy and sci-fi wheelchairs:
(Sorry that most of these are animated examples, I’m quite a big fan of animation. Professor X’s hoverchair in X-Men: Days of Future Past and the children’s grandfather’s helicopter chair from Spy Kids are some live-action examples)
These wheelchairs range from old wooden or metal chairs to technologically-advanced ones with rocket boosters. A quick tip: If your fantasy is set in medieval times, I would recommend doing some research on how early wheelchairs looked, or how disabled people in the past used to get around. Avatar: The Last Airbender is a show set in the past, so Teo’s wheelchair is made out of wood in a sort of wheelbarrow style. Mayor John’s wheelchair is also an example of an era-appropriate chair since it is made out of rusty metal and styled in the same way as most of the town’s mechanisms.
I especially like the ingenuity of the character Finnegan: Finnegan comes from a world of monsters and creatures. Since he has a mermaid tail, he’s not able to walk around like the rest of his friends and therefore uses a wheelchair. Even though he doesn’t have a real-life disability, he’s often underestimated, and his classmates don’t trust him enough to know the limits of his own abilities. So, they fuss over him and don’t allow him to do the potentially-dangerous extreme wheelchair sports that he loves. Even though Finnegan is not your average example of disabled representation, as a child, I found that I could relate to him and the way that he was treated a lot. He is a good example of both realistic and creative representation.
There are MANY examples of enhanced limbs from all sorts of media. But I wanted to stay away from cyborg limbs because of what I explained earlier, but also just because it’s something that’s been done so many times before. Instead, I wanted to talk about Hiccup and Amberlily. I wanted to mention Hiccup because he’s another example of an era-appropriate disabled character from fantasy because of his metal prosthetic limb.
On the other hand, Amberlily is from an underwater fantasy world where everyone needs to swim to get around. However, she was born without arms and struggles to swim with just the use of her legs. Therefore, she uses an underwater wheelchair with a propeller to move about. She controls the chair with a joystick that she moves with her left foot. Amberlily is a reminder that cyborg limbs don’t always have to be the only option, and she’s also a creative way to have a wheelchair character in a fantasy underwater world.
If you’re still rather keen on using cyborg limbs – that’s perfectly fine. Just make sure to think of ways to keep it realistic and relatable. Maybe the user still has to remove them before they go to sleep? Or maybe the limb occasionally runs out of charge and performs like a normal prosthetic until it’s able to be charged again.
There are many different ways to do blind characters other than giving them enhanced senses, but I still thought that I’d give you examples of some Blind Seers. Toph (also from Avatar: The Last Airbender) can ‘see’ by feeling the vibrations in the ground with her earth powers, but she can’t use this ability in water or on sand which makes sense of course. Even though Ray Charles from the film Ray isn’t a fantasy character, I think that he’s still a rather accurate description of how real-life blind people use their other senses to navigate the world. He’s a good example of a real-life ‘Blind Seer’ and he even explains the technicalities of how this works in reality. I hope that these examples were able to inspire you.
That’s it for this tip! I hope that you enjoyed the first post of this series. Please tell me if it was useful or if you have any other questions, suggestions or queries. My next Nugget of Wisdom post will be a review based on your recommendations. I can’t wait until then. Good luck with being creative!
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