Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Diversity and Disability.

More thoughts from Balticon, mostly because it hasn't percolated yet.

One of the panels I was on was one on diversity in genre fiction...gender, GLBT status, race, disability, etc.

The driving force behind this panel was the wonderful Day Al-Mohamed. My only prior contact with her was submitting to an anthology she was doing - a diversity-based one. Despite going out of her way to seek out female writers, only 12% of the 400 subs she received came from women.

I tried my best not to be surprised when she walked in, but I was. I didn't expect to be sharing the table with a very cute bit of "durable medical equipment." Al-Mohamed is the only speculative fiction writer I know of who is legally blind.

Disability is not something we tend to include in science fiction. Fantasy, it's more common. (George R.R. Martin does a great job with a character who becomes disabled during the books). Science fiction? We tend to assume that in "the future" nobody becomes disabled. Everything can be cured.

Or, most often of all, we ignore the issue. In fact, most people don't want to think about disability. Heck, these days, we euphemise the word into "differently abled" or similar. When disabled characters are included, they tend to have something "special" or "magical" going on - I admit to being guilty of that in Transpecial. The most classic example of this in science fiction is, of course, Geordi LaForge. Another, older, example would be Anne McCaffrey's "The Ship Who Sang" (Which I personally think is her best work).

True, a science fiction future likely will find a way to cure everything. We're getting closer all the time. Prosthetic limbs become better and cheaper all the time. Visual prosthetics are likely to be one of the next great things. Stem cell therapy shows promise of being able to cure spinal injuries. It might well be that the future won't have disabled people in it...or, at least, being disabled will be a temporary thing that can be fixed. (There's lots of stories in the idea that everything can be cured...for a price). But science fiction is, as somebody at the con said, set in three times - the time it's set in, the time it's written, and the time it's read.

Science fiction reflects our own society, and disability is an issue of our society. Fantasy might have the same note - you could argue that you don't see disabled people because of healing magic. Which again, has the same counter.

I'm not saying everyone should go out right now and write a story with a disabled MC (I'm considering trying a blind one as an exercise in learning how to write other senses). But maybe, just maybe, it's something we should think about.