Okay so this week the very excellent Ms.WendyDarling posed a very interesting question to Twitter:
The answer is, frankly, not many. And the fact that the "magical cure" button exists is the reason I usually refuse to read books with disabled protags, because I find this type of plot device to be offensive.
Does every book do this? No, but the rate at which I see it occur puts me off these titles.
There are even fewer protagonists who are born with disabilities rather than acquire them throughout their life. It's a very different role in your life. As a person who is born with a disability, I have no feeling of loss of "normalcy." Having nine fingers is normal for me, I can't imagine what you people do with ten... That's just one too many.
(Yes, that was a joke. Please chuckle)
For me there is no urgency to return to a normal state. There is simply a wish to accept that my normal-ness will never be the universal normal. It's not easy, and sometimes it's not fun. Although sometimes you tango up and down hospital hallways, and that my friends IS fun.
On the flip side, from my understanding--and I would like to be clear that it is my understanding and in no way fact, the journey of someone who gains a disability is different. Many of my friends do have a desire to return to their previous state. A desire which I get, and I understand, but is not something I want for myself. I will even admit that there are friends I have who were born disabled and want to attain this "universal normal."
The one thing I think both struggles encompass is that is it a daily question. It's not something that you magically accept one day and poof you're happy with who you are forever and always. There are good days, when I'm like 'yeah I rule the world!' and there are days where I am like 'it really sucks to be labeled disabled. I'm going back to bed.'
Now back to the "magical cure" plot-line. This plot devices proposes two things that at there are core are offensive:
One, it supposes that I need to be fixed and am somehow not like the rest of the world and thus am bad/wrong/unlikely to succeed without being like everyone else...
Not true. I am perfectly happy (most days) with where I am in life. All of my "cures" if you will, aka the 40 some odd surgeries that have kept my original parts in working order, were great and have kept me going. They were, however, not a cure.
I will also say this: there is no need for a cure because there is nothing wrong with me.
For most people with disabilities, whether acquired or not, this is the truth. There is no cure. Supposing there is a cure, means that somehow, I am a lower class of citizen without it. The "magical cure" automatically assumes there is something wrong with me and that I must be in want of fixing.
Two, a "magical cure" can often take the form of the protagonist accepting themselves and their different state and then they are "magiced" into a perfect "universal normal" version of themselves. The reward for accepting yourself as "different" is getting to be like everyone else.
I would like to say that the perpetuation that this kind of acceptance exists is mean. I grew up on many stories who used this and it took me years to realize there was never going to be that one magic moment of acceptance and then, poof, I would never have to worry about it again.
Acceptance of ones body is like everything else a spectrum of good days and bad days. Somedays, I am totally a ten. I have no qualms with whatever I am doing. Life is great. Then there are days where I'll admit it, I am not so accepting of myself. I get angry and frustrated, I'm at like a two those days. And sure there are days in there where I'm mildly aware but mostly don't care because I am too busy with my life. Those are my five days or if the classification exists on this spectrum: N/A.
Acceptance is a road that like life doesn't end. It continues and there will be ups and downs along the way.
Now, I will make this final mention, as a writer and a reader, I understand the reason this literary device works. These are stories and at their ends, we want our characters to feel happy and like they've achieved something tangible. Acceptance is emotional. As a filmmaker, I am always trying to find new ways of outwardly showing the interior problems/emotions/beats. So yes, the "magical cure" is in itself a great way to express that happy acceptance-filled ending. It's the fairytale sort of end that everyone wants.
But when you start to think about what the ending really says, it's not that nice. It's not inclusive. It's deceiving. It's letting people believe that people who are different need to be "fixed."
Now, I am a writer and I can soap-box about this topic all day. The typical follow up question I get to my conversations, is: Then Gretchen, you clearly have passion for this, why don't you write a book/a TV show about a disabled person. You could fix this!
Well, that would be really cool. Sure. I mean I am all for more people with disabilities in the media--and if its televised, it'd really be cool if those characters were actually played by people with disabilities. If that happened, I might not soap-box as often as I do on the subject.
Yes, I've considered it. Yes, I've tried it. But what it comes down to is this: disabled characters become bounded by the disability to which they have. Very rarely, if ever, are they free to run around in stories or live lives, that have nothing at all to do with their disability.
Since they are disabled, their journey and story must be about their journey to over-come it. Their journey is always a desire to return to a "universal normal" which is not my desire at all. They can't just exist autonomously from what they are. I've spent my entire life being told exactly what I am, and what I have, and what that means for me. I do not want to create a character, set them in a story, and then proceed to be all doctor like and tell them what they are.
Especially in SF/F, characters with disabilities are typically born on planets or exist in societies that look down on people who are disabled. They ara then set on a path to prove the world wrong.
Now do I think the world we live in is perfect in regards to people with disabilities? No. I mean please my civil rights are younger than I am. Do I face discrimination? Have I faced it? Yup. So can these stories be relevant? Sure. Absolutely, they can be. But so often, disabled characters become touch stones for a larger audience and fail to be real characters/ real people. They are completely defined by what the author has chosen they have. They do not exist without being disabled.
Trust me, when I say if you ask me to describe myself, the last thing I will say is disabled. The last thing I will mention is that I have nine fingers, am missing parts of my spine, have had over 40 surgeries, and could go on listing the "disabilities" that I have. But as you can see that is not me. That is what I am, that is not who I am. It is in answering the "who are you" question that drives literature.
Shakespeare even drove an entire play with that question. "Who's there?/Stand and unfold yourself." That's Hamlet people, a question of who is there and who are you? Will you be will you not?
But so rarely is the "who are you" question answered without using disability for characters who just so happen to have them.
I think it's time to abandon the idea that disabled characters can only exist within stories where they serve to enlighten the world of their attitudes toward disability. Because that is the change we want to see in the world. That people of all races, abilities, sexual orientations, and I am forgetting some so everyone, can be seen for who they are and not what they. They are not defined by pre-existing ideas of what that person should be.
Stop using characters with disabilities as a means to an end. Stop defining a character with a disability by their disability. Because as long as I am not in the hospital, I do not live my life being defined by what I am, because I am too busy defining who I am to be bothered by what I am.