I was at Capclave this weekend, where I got to (briefly) hang out with the wonderful Day Al-Mohamad. (If you ever get the chance to go to a panel she's on, at any con, on any subject, take it. I also highly recommend Sherin Nicole).
Day Al-Mohamad has made it a bit of a personal quest to increase the diversity of characters in speculative fiction - and on one of her panels she challenged all the writers present to write at least one story with a main character who is non-white, GLBT, or disabled.
I've written quite a few stories with GLBT main characters (and a lot with straight MCs too - I don't set out to write GLBT stories, I consider it nothing more than another aspect of the character). Transpecial has a fairly prominent black character and an autistic main character. So in some ways I think I'm doing fine, but part of me wants to take up her challenge to do something I haven't done.
I have not written a story in which the main character was physically disabled. Which got me to thinking about physical disabilities and science fiction.
Here's the problem. Unless you are writing contemporary or very near future science fiction (Transpecial is fairly near future, but it doesn't count as "contemporary") then there is a real problem with physically disabled characters.
They may not exist.
Our medical technology is advancing in leaps and bounds. Visual prosthetics are coming along well; the technology of replacement limbs is approaching maturity even as new techniques involving bone printers and stem cells promise that in the future we may be able to regrow a missing arm or leg. Similar techniques are already being used to replace some parts of the body - including teeth, ears, and windpipes.
I personally find it hard to believe that there will still be physically disabled people (long term, that is) fifty years from now. Severed spinal cord? Here's your stem cell injection. Your kid's blind - let's discuss treatment options.
At the same time, Day's right. The physically disabled need their role models too. They need characters who show that being blind, or deaf, or in a wheelchair doesn't prevent you from being somebody. Even from being the hero.
How do you address this dichotomy? I'm still thinking on it - maybe I will have to make a character from a poor background, who can't afford the medical treatment needed to correct her problems (but how do I do that without preaching about healthcare?).
So, opening this up to thoughts. I'm specifically thinking of science fiction here - fantasy is a lot easier. (In fact, the portrayal of Jaime Lannister learning to deal with being disabled and compensate for it in ASOIAF is amazing). Science fiction - that's tough.