Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

17.43: Bodies. Why? (Depicting Disability)

Your Hosts: Mary Robinette and Howard Tayler, with special guests Fran WildeC.L. Polk, and William Alexander

Whether or not you’re writing from your own experience, depicting disability in fiction is fraught. In this episode we’ll talk about some of the dos and don’ts in order to provide you with guidelines for disability depiction.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson


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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Depicting disability. Pitfalls? Characters represented by, trapped in, or confined to their mobility devices. Disabled characters sacrificed or martyred to help the protagonist grow. Baby strollers in front of runaway buses. Disabled characters as evil or a burden. Disabled characters who are only there to inspire the protagonist by their efforts to overcome. Disability superpower — losing one sense makes others superhuman. How do you depict disability well? Don’t make the basic story, premise, plot, or structure, be about the disability. Make the disability part of who they are. Show us an abled character realizing that disability isn’t the problem, it’s the world around us that’s the problem. Think about the disability as it affects the character moving through the world, not as a plot point. Writing aliens can be a good warm up for writing about disabilities. 

[Season 17, Episode 43]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[Howard] Bodies. Why? (Depicting Disability)

[Chelsea] 15 minutes long.

[Fran] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Will] And we’re not very smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.


[Howard] I’m Howard. I’m late.

[Chelsea] I’m Chelsea, and on time.

[Fran] I’m Fran.

[Will] And I’m Will.

[Mary Robinette] Awesome. So today we’re going to be talking about depicting disability. Fran, why don’t you orient us a little bit about what we’re going to be talking about this week?

[Fran] Sure. If you were with us last week, we were talking about writing disability for all different kinds of genres and different age groups. Will brought into the mix some really important aspects of writing disability, which is not to be pejorative, not to talk down to your audience, not to talk inaccurately about representation. So we’re going to be diving into that a little bit more so that you can start to think about what the pros and cons are of disability representation in fiction, whether you’re writing from your own experience which is important and we want to support and encourage that, or if you are looking to deepen your narratives and make sure that you have more good-quality representation on the page.

[Mary Robinette] So why don’t we start off by talking about some of the pitfalls? Then we’ll get into the nuts and bolts of how to avoid those pitfalls. But let’s start out by warning of the dangers. How are some ways that depicting disability can go horribly, horribly wrong?

[Chelsea] Character is represented solely by their mobility device and no other way. Character is trapped in or confined to their mobility device and no other way. This goes for other types of disability as well. But that one is one that always jumps out at me.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Will?

[Will] Sacrificial characters? Characters sympathetically martyred for the journey of an able-bodied protagonist. Yeah. It happened like eight times in Star Wars: Rogue One. Which I very much enjoyed. But just over and over and over again, somebody with some sort of injury or robotic prosthesis would die horribly as a direct result of their immobility, so that our protagonist can feel things.

[Mary Robinette] Yes.

[Howard] The trope… The classic trope is the stroller in front of the runway bus. Where the baby stroller only exists to depict the inability of the baby to get out of the way of the bus. It’s not about… It’s just there to create tension, to create drama, it’s not… It’s a trope. We see it way too often.

[Chelsea] Character without agency trapped in front of bus, briefly, is that little bit.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Chelsea] Representations of disabled characters as either evil or a burden are also ones that jump out.

[Will] Richard the Third.

[Chelsea] I’m thinking of Dr. Poison in Wonder Woman, which has been written extensively about by writers including John Wiswell and Elsa Sjunneson, and really, really worth paying attention to. We’ll get back to that with body horror in a couple of weeks.

[Mary Robinette] The character who spends all of their time trying to get rid of their disability and exists for no other reason than to provide the protagonist with inspiration for how much they are overcoming.

[Chelsea] Can I sum up the disability superpower thing?

[Fran] Oh, yeah.

[Mary Robinette] Please do it.

[Chelsea] Okay. Okay. The thing where a person, usually their disability is about not being able to sense a certain thing, is like an acute super sensor in a different kind of way. I’m thinking of Hawkeye and I’m thinking Daredevil.

[Fran] Oh, my gosh, Daredevil.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Yeah.


[Will] There’s a very Daredevilish character in Rogue One, too.

[I mean, I like them. We do. I like them.]

[Chelsea] We all are sort of making an oh my gosh gesture in our hands.

[Fran] Yes.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Chelsea] I just…

[Will] I’m curious. Chelsea, you just said I like them. I want to know what… Say more about that like… The like that combines with the cringe.

[Chelsea] I mean, the thing is that when you’re talking about Daredevil, when you’re talking about Hawkeye, one of the things that… Specifically, when I’m thinking about Hawkeye is that Clint Barton is really good at what he does, and he is a superhero, and he is deaf. Yeah, okay, that’s great. You know what, because why wouldn’t you be? Why couldn’t you be a superhero with a disability? Like, let’s do that. That sounds awesome. But, like, I kind of feel like particularly with blindness, this whole idea is like they can’t see, so they hear super well or they smell super well or all of their senses are completely hyped up and it makes them superhuman, which actually makes them inhuman.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Whereas I felt like, with Hawkeye, at least in the latest series, it was he’s deaf and…


[Mary Robinette] And it has no impact on his superheroing. He just is deaf. The most is… Like, he takes the hearing aid out when he’s tired of someone talking.


[Chelsea] It’s a real bonus, I can tell you, that one.


[Will] I also noted that he was kind of crap at ASL.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Yeah. Because an adult acquirer.

[Mary Robinette] So let’s go ahead and pause for the book of the week, and after we come back, we’re going to talk about how to do some good representation. So, Will, I think you’ve got our book.

[Will] Yes. This book is a realist middle grade novel, recently published, Air by Monica Roe. It is fantastic. I loved it. It’s about a kid in a wheelchair who is saving up for a stunt wheelchair in a community of well-meaning… That includes a lot of well-meaning adults who have no idea that stunt wheelchairs exist and think it’s a terrible idea. But she builds a ramp in her backyard. What brings her tremendous joy is catching air on that ramp. That flies in the face of how disability and the use of a wheelchair is constructed around her. Which is endlessly frustrating. But, of course it’s… It just beautifully scratches all of the misunderstood kid of tremendous talent that no one recognizes and that everyone is trying to [overpower?] with very good intentions. So there is overcoming in it, there is protagonist overcoming difficulty, but the difficulty is not that she uses a chair, that’s just fact. The difficulty is what that chair means to everyone around her versus what it means for her. So the construction of meaning and a mobility device as symbol or not, as harmful symbol or not. I really, really loved it. Monica is also a former student. Graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts where I teach and Fran also teaches.

[Mary Robinette] So that is Air by Monica Roe. Sounds amazing.

[Mary Robinette] It also sounds like it is a great example, from what you were saying, about how to do depict disability well. It’s because, as you say, the chair is just fact. It’s everything around her that is the problem. So let’s get into some of the nuts and bolts of how do you do depict disability well. So, for me, one of the things that I’ve found is very much along the lines of what Will is talking about, is that it’s in the… It begins in the story construction, that your basic story, premise, plot, structure, is not about the disability. It’s not about overcoming it necessarily, but it is about there is a person who has a disability and they are adventuring the same way everyone else adventures.

[Chelsea] I was kind of thinking about that positive depiction of disability. Mostly what I want, particularly, is a person who is [garbled arguing?] is I don’t want… I don’t want to be a brave little toaster about it, I just… I want a story in which like I get to read a character who is hard of hearing, and that it’s just part of who they are. Like, it might be that they want to be like basically run any part of their life where they have to hear or do substitutions for hearing the way they want to do it and it works. I’m writing a story in which I have a character who is hard of hearing who prefers not to speak and uses sign language, and that is okay because a sign language is an official language of the country that they’re in.

[Mary Robinette] Yep.

[Howard] One of the thoughts that I’ve had is we see so many ablest attitudes in the world we live in. It’s just everywhere. It’s the water that we swim in. In a story where we are depicting disability, having a character, an abled character undergo the journey where they recognize the disability isn’t the problem, the broken world around us is the problem. That doesn’t need to be the whole arc of the story, but that’s the sort of beautiful thing that I feel like ablest people need to read more of.

[Chelsea] Yeah. It’s more… I think it’s more like please don’t think of us as an inspiration. Please, just get your act together and build some ramps. Come on.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. So I… There’s an experience that I had when I was living… Or not living. I was traveling and I was in Brisbane and I thought, “Oh, I must be sharing the hotel with a medical conference, because there’s so many people in mobility devices.” When I went out for lunch around the hotel, it was just everywhere. I was like, “Well, it must be a bigger conference than I thought. They must be in multiple hotels.” Then I realized when I was talking to a friend who lives there, who’s a double amputee, and he’s like, “No, no. It’s just that Brisbane is a modern city.” It wasn’t built until the 80s, most of it. So it was built with ramps. There are older historic buildings that don’t, but most of it has ramps. The reason that I was seeing more people with mobility devices wasn’t because it was a larger population, it wasn’t because there was a medical conference, it’s just because they could get around the city.

[Howard] They’ve always been there. You just happened to be in a place where you can see them, because now they get to go everywhere.

[Mary Robinette] Right. So this is the thing that I think about with my own fiction. It’s like, “Okay. Well, which of my characters has a disability, and which of them are invisible disabilities that they don’t share with other people, and which of them are ones that they… That are visible, that they have to deal with other people’s reactions?” Then, also thinking about how that affects how they move through the world. For me, that is the piece, the nut and bolt, is thinking about how it affects the way the character moves through the world, but not thinking of it as a plot point.

[Will] I think what’s a very important way of practicing this that I’m almost reluctant to bring up, because it can go so horribly wrong, but so can everything. But, I mean, especially in genre, especially in science fiction and fantasy, especially… There are opportunities to work with metaphor, if only in practice. A lot of the ways that I worked up to addressing disability in my own work, I sort of like gradually acquired the courage to do it. Initially, indirectly, in side ways and metaphors. Writing about bodies and writing about different bodies moving through space. Like, okay, I’m going to write about aliens. Wildly different aliens. Just different bodies means different relationships to setting and surroundings. If one of your characters is 20 feet tall, that changes a fair bit about the scene. None of these differences were coded as disability. But they all significantly affect the way the characters move through space and interact with their surroundings. It’s just… I don’t know what the experience was as a reader, but just as a writer, I found it as a first step, I found it very freeing towards a destigmatizing and sapping the pejorative meaning out of certain kinds of embodied differences by making up new ones. As a warm up towards writing about differences and bodies moving through space. Often, literally outerspace. Because it’s great, because, I mean, weight matters differently, and sometimes sign language is really important when no one can hear you because there’s no air. So that was… Yeah, that was a warm up.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. That’s great. What are some other ways that people can depict disability in ways that are good representation, but also good storytelling? I mean, I would argue that good representation is good storytelling, so I should probably rephrase that question, but…


[Howard] The challenge, for me, is that… And I’m going to come… I’m a cartoonist. One of the things that my people, the cartoonists, hate above all things is the crowd scene. If I’m drawing a crowd scene, the fastest way to do it is uniform little head ovals and some silhouette lines that indicate that there is a crowd. If I nudge some of the ovals up and some of the ovals down, I can show that there is a height difference. What I have not done is depicted the parting of the crowd that will occur if there’s someone with a mobility device. Or if there’s someone holding children. Because I’m a lazy cartoonist. Sorry, that’s an oxymoron. No, that’s redundant.


[Howard] It’s… We hate drawing crowd scenes for this exact reason. If you want to populate it and have it be realistic, you have to populate it with a realistic diversity of people. It’s hard to draw. So doing it right means, for artists, looking at photographs of places where it is done right. Where everybody is out. Looking at photographs of Brisbane, and looking at what a crowd looks like there, and rewiring my mental map so that I have a scribble-y shorthand that says, “This crowd includes people in mobility devices. It includes tall people and short people. And whatever.” It’s a broad crowd. In prose, I don’t know what that looks like. Because the moment you wrap words around a description of who is in the crowd, you call our attention to them in ways that the background scribbles don’t. So I’m answering the question with another question. I want to be diverse in the population that I put in the book. But I don’t want to inappropriately call attention to something… I say inappropriately. I don’t want to accidentally make a promise to the reader that this story is going to be about the fact that there’s a person in the wheelchair in the background.

[Mary Robinette] I think that a lot of times those promises are implicit, and promises that the reader brings with them. You can just like not worry about it.

[Mary Robinette] All right. I have a story that I will tell about an editorial note. I’ll tell that in a later episode. Right now, I think we should probably go ahead and wrap up. For those of you who are paying attention, you may have noticed that Fran has not been with us for the back part of this episode. The computer kicked her out, and she hasn’t been able to get back in at all. So the Internet is its own environment, and presenting its own challenges. So we’re going to go ahead and go on to our homework assignment, which Chelsea has for us.

[Chelsea] Hello, I have homework for you. What I want you to do is I want you to write a scene with two characters. One person has a disability, and the other person does not. What I want you to do is I want you to write that scene from each character’s POV, paying particular attention to the setting.

[Mary Robinette] That sounds great. So, you are out of excuses. Now go write.