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How SciFi and Fantasy Can Help Us Re-imagine the Lives of the Disabled

This post originally appeared on Galleywampus (Sept 2015); I ran into it again this morning, and it made me happy:

An accident before birth leaves Miles Vorkosigan deformed and rejected by his society and culture, though he proves himself a military genius.

Raistlin Majere, the greatest sorcerer ever to live in Krynn, performs his magics from within a shattered body that suffers chronic pain and fatigue.

Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever fights half-handed for the health of the Land, but on Earth, he is reviled as a leper.

River Tam, aboard Serenity, is possibly one of the smartest (and also most lethal) people in the ‘verse, though her mind is torn by post-traumatic stress.

Some of these characters are heroes; others, anti-heroes or trickster figures. What they share in common is that they are not Conan. Scifi and fantasy have often glorified the supremely able, the man of great sinews and strength who can stand against a thousand with his axe one-handed, with his ray-gun or phaser, or with his donkey’s jawbone.

But almost as often, scifi and fantasy have opened doors to looking at the least able in our own society. SF imagines the technologies that improve the lives of the disabled, and fantastic fiction grows the mental and heart muscles we use to place ourselves in the shoes of others – even in the shoes of those we don’t consider to be much like us. These are stories that bring us into inevitable collision with difference, and that demand, implicitly, that we face the extent to which we “other” others and create lepers in our communities.

Most of all, speculative fiction celebrates the potential of the human imagination. If you can imagine a thing, Miles Vorkosigan insists, you can do a thing. He drives his more able comrades to great deeds with the gleeful words, “If I can do it, you can do it!” Our ability to imagine – an ability to the able and the less able share alike — is actually the greatest ability, these genres suggest. Imagination takes us to the stars, permits us to solve problems, and, most importantly, sparks our empathy with those who do not look like us or cannot do some of the things we do or who do them differently.

This is something very important to me personally, as the father of two daughters, River and Inara, both of them intelligent and fiercely imaginative, but one of them physically disabled. My little Inara was born with crippling seizures that took some considerable medical panache to bring under control; these have left her with cortical blindness and delays in speech, motor function, and physical growth. Often in supermarkets or bookstores we are stopped by well-meaning bystanders who tell us how sorry they are for us, Inara’s parents.

We are not sorry. We are, every day, impressed. We see Inara paint amazing canvasses with her toes and glorious oil colors, painting all the poems she cannot write. We see her solving obstacles with a degree of ingenuity the more physically able are never required to develop. We see her reach out to other adults and children with deep empathy and kindness, though she must do so without words.

When I wrote my one-armed character Koach in No Lasting Burial, and wrote of his compassion and heroic defense of others who suffer, I found him speaking these words in that novel’s pages: “The only lasting impediments are those we shore up within our own hearts.”

To us – writers and readers alike – speculative fiction throws down the gauntlet of imagination, calling us into a duel with the least tolerant and accepting versions of ourselves, provoking us to questions like these:

  • Is ableism only a paucity of imagination? When our technology – a prosthetic, or a feat of genetic engineering – can serve as an equalizer, how significantly should we actually treat the line of division between the “able” and the “unable”? To a soldier in a full metal power-suit, everyone else – you and me included – are unable, less able.
  • How sensible is it to judge the people around us based on physical or mental ability when we might find ourselves tomorrow in the midst of a universe populated by sentient species with a stunning diversity of degrees and types of physical and mental ability? If the most breathtaking art in the galaxy is created by Lilliputians, then what does height mean as a standard of an individual’s merit? If we encounter an alien race with brains three times the size of our own, how do we then judge or measure our own intellect?

20100717223134!Frontispiece_to_Frankenstein_1831Often, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has been labeled the first work of “science fiction,” and it is the memorable and horrific tale of a ‘monster,’ a physically strong yet physically disfigured individual who initially has little command of language and is outcast from society. In Mary Shelley’s deft storytelling, the Creature learns language and confronts his parent, who was the first to exile him. As readers, we are caught, mesmerized, listening to the voice of that other who has been driven out. We recognize and then admire—perhaps to our shock, at first—the magnificence of his intellect and the depth of his yearning for human companionship.

From Victor Frankenstein’s creation to Jaxom’s time-traveling white dragon Ruth to Miles Vorkosigan’s crooked-legged dance across the stars, speculative fiction is uniquely able to help us imagine, re-imagine, what it means to be able. We learn in the pages of these stories that everyone we meet, regardless of their most immediately apparent level of ability, may have strengths and characteristics that we don’t expect but that might enlarge our own lives and our own experience of our world, if we only allow our first response to be curiosity and interest rather than violence or shunning, if we only take the time to get to know them, listen to them, or love them.

Stant Litore

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