Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Disabilities Are Everywhere

Welcome to Special Needs in Strange Worlds, a column focusing on celebrating disabilities in SFF. This column will focus on book reviews, author interviews, and guest posts to highlight the beauty and importance of our flaws.

The other day I was finishing up The Assassini Trilogy by Jon Courtenay Grimwood when I ran across this quote from from Duke Marco in The Exiled Blade:

“You learn so m-much as an idiot. People t-talk in front of you. They s-scheme, p-plan, p-plot and lust. After a while you become invisible.” (p. 58)

This quote made me look at the trilogy differently. Duke Marco, also known as Marco the Simple throughout most of the series, was known for being, well, simple. He suffered an illness as a child, and overcame it, but lost his wits in the process. He was a Duke in name alone, but to the world, he was mentally handicapped and basically useless. Without going into detail, Marco starts to show the world how intelligent he truly is, despite his obvious setbacks. He uses the world’s perception of his disability to his advantage, turning it from a weakness into a very powerful strength.

However, it’s not just Marco that is disabled. The book is peppered with disabilities. Tycho is disabled, though not in a way most people would associate with disability. Tycho is afraid of the sunlight, and when he gets truly angry, he turns into something terrifying. His is so limited by his fear that his life is almost completely defined by it. Yet, in the face of all his paranoia, he still manages to accomplish the incredible.

Giulietta is another disabled character in these books. She has some true mental demons due to horrendous happenings in The Fallen Blade. While she largely overcomes them by the end of the series, Giulietta is a mentally broken woman with scars that will never fully heal.

The point of all of this isn’t to say that The Assassini Trilogy has the best disabled characters ever, but it’s to show that disabilities are sprinkled throughout speculative fiction, and are far more common than many of us realize. Disabilities fall on a sliding scale, some more severe than others, but many characters we read about are limited by some mental or physical condition. Some of these conditions are temporary, but many of them are permanent. How the author realistically deals with these limitations is what makes them realistic.

Miserere by Teresa Frohock is full of disabled characters, each of them different and unique. Yet Frohock somehow manages to make them all realistic despite their disabilities. For example, Lucian Negru has an injured leg that pains him and causes him to limp. Frohock ensures that readers are aware of his condition, but she also shows how Lucian would compensate for his bum leg. Despite his handicap, he is still a strong, memorable protagonist and Frohock’s accurate treatment of his limitation goes a long way toward making him an incredibly strong character that readers respect and relate to.

The word ‘disability’ means a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities. With that definition in mind, it’s a quick jump to realize that there are myriads of characters in books we’ve all read that are disabled. Often times, we just don’t realize it.

The interesting thing about disabilities in fiction is that they are everywhere, but for some reason we never talk about them. These characters are all strong despite their limitations, not because of them. Their limitations help them find strengths in other areas, like Duke Marco did. The world thought he was simple for so long, but no one really looked at him long enough to realize how intelligent he truly was. He used his limitations to his benefit and became an intellectual powerhouse while no one was watching. Tycho is so strong, fast, and fierce he’s feared by nearly everyone, despite the fact that he’s terrified of daylight and the water that surrounds the city. Giulietta’s mental and emotional scars just make her even more loyal to those she loves. Lucian is a fierce and capable protector, despite his bad leg.

Disabilities aren’t always obvious. In Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht, Liam is dyslexic. When I talked to Leicht about this, she was rather surprised that I picked up on that fact. In The Emperor’s Blade by Mazarkis Williams, readers aren’t ever quite sure if Sarmin is mad or not. In Wide Open and Deep Down by Deborah Coates, Hallie obviously struggles with some PTSD. None of Blake Charlton’s books would exist without dyslexia. Oree Shoth from The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin is blind. Most of Dan Wells’ books deal with mental disorders in one form or another. The list could go on. The point is that disabilities are far more prevalent in fiction than most people seem to think. Why there is so much radio silence regarding this issue is beyond me. This is nothing to be quiet about or ashamed of. Disabilities are humanizing and empowering, they tap into the reader’s emotions and make us care. Disabilities come a multitude of different types and span the gamut from subtle to strong.

When we look for disabilities in literature, we tend to focus on the stronger, more obvious ones, the physical and mental maladies that are incredibly limiting and fairly obvious. The truth is, there are disabilities everywhere, most of them are just subtler and less limiting than we expect. Many disabilities hide in plain sight, or are overlooked, though their impact on literature, characters, and plots is marked. It’s time to celebrate disabilities, all disabilities, and their place in literature. None of the books I’ve listed in this article would have been as incredible, or as memorable as they were without them. It is time to shed the light on disabilities, and celebrate them, even the unexpected, overlooked ones. They bring strength to characters, and empowerment to the readers, and are far more common in the books we read than any of us seem to realize.

30 thoughts on “Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Disabilities Are Everywhere”

  1. Perfect! Very enlightening and well written.

    With this article in mind I can think of dozens of SFF books I have read over the years that featured protagonists with various disabilities. Honestly, I never considered them in those terms. I always viewed them as added challenges the character had to work to overcome.

    I think the reason for this is that the word disability itself bothers me. It gives the impression that a person is not capable of or able to, do certain things. Or in some cases, anything at all.

    I feel that this is far from the truth. While it may be more difficult for them, it has been my experience that ways can often be found to compensate. Having the courage, and tenacity to succeed despite all odds, always gains my utmost respect and admiration, regardless of whether it is a character in a book, or a person I meet on the street.

    Great article!

    1. “I think the reason for this is that the word disability itself bothers me. It gives the impression that a person is not capable of or able to, do certain things. Or in some cases, anything at all.”

      What you describe is the medical model of disability, which says that disability is a result of clinical impairment, and therefore managing disability is handled by medical professionals.

      This model is falling out of favour, particularly with us in the disability community. We prefer the social model of disability. “In our view it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society.” (Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation)

      The fact is that although our culture glorifies health, most people will experience a period of temporary or permanent disability in their lives. As our population ages, there will be more and more of us who need curb cuts, wheelchair ramps, and other adaptations in order to fully participate in society.

      1. Great point.

        I love this, “The fact is that although our culture glorifies health, most people will experience a period of temporary or permanent disability in their lives.”

        That’s so true, which is why I think “disabilities” or the “differently abled” – whichever you prefer – is something to celebrate and talk about, rather than avoid.

  2. Nice post. Sometimes I think disabilities are used in fiction to exaggerate the greatness of a different trait. When disabilities afflict everyday heroes, it can make for a rich character. One we can empathize with.

    1. When characters are “perfect” I tend to almost completely detach from the book because I find it absolutely unable to relate to them. We are all flawed, and I tend to think it’s those flaws that make us strong, interesting, and beautiful. I love it when characters in books reflect that.

    1. I forgot about that one! That’s a great series, and it features a disability I’ve never heard of before I read it. I love books where I learn a lot while I read.

    1. I just got this one from the publisher last week and started reading it. Koyanagi is on my list of authors to bug for this column. :)

  3. Awesome post, and so true. Not just in fiction, but in real life.They’re everywhere, and it’s about time we started paying some good attention to them, and the people who live with them.

    It’s funny that you mention things like dyslexia, phobias, all the myriad things that don’t really show on the surface, because I was just thinking the other day that as much as I suffer from many mental challenges, part of me still scoffs at thinking of some of them as disabilities. I don’t even like to call a lot of my own issues disabilities, even though they flat out disable me from doing some things, because there’s a knee-jerk reaction in me that says if I call them disabilities, I’m putting myself on par with people who are paraplegic or agoraphobic or any number of other very serious conditions that are far worse than my own, and then I feel like I’m malingering and fishing for attention. Years of conditioning, I suspect. But I am still limited in many daily functions, and that can’t be denied.

    And I think that giving attention to characters who experience many of the same issues will go a long way to helping me come to grips with some things instead of continuing and trying to deny them, the way I usually do. Me, and many others like me.

    I’m really looking forward to all the posts in this series. Thanks for running it.

    1. You know, during my cancer battle, and all the subsequent health issues that went with it, I had such a hard time coming to grips with the fact that I was disabled. I couldn’t walk for the better part of a year, and for a few months, I stayed in my apartment and refused to leave because I was afraid of how people would look at me. I think it’s HORRIBLE that people feel that way, which is one huge reason why I want to throw myself into this column… because it’s nothing to be ashamed of, or hide. We should be proud of who we are.

  4. Great post, Sarah! Having a disability myself, I’ve become more aware of the fact that in the real world, no one talks about disabilities. If you have one, people tend to ignore you or the complete opposite and try VERY hard to understand and accommodate. I think it tends to be the same when reading fiction. Even with a disability, I am guilty of overlooking those in fiction with disabilities, when in fact, they can be quite intriguing characters.

    I’m looking forward to reading your column in the future!

    1. Disabilities in literature is a topic near and dear to my heart. My oldest brother was born with part of his brain missing, so he has a very hard time distinguishing between reality and fantasy. He’s high functioning autistic and also has seizures. He is the one who got me into SFF, and he got me to love reading. I still think that books were his way to communicate with people when he couldn’t figure out how to communicate, or tell people how he felt. A few years ago he had a HUGE seizure and a temp of 107. It fried something in his brain. He survived despite the fact that no one thought he would, but he can’t read anymore.

      As for me, I spent the better part of a year unable to walk. I remember the looks I’d get when I was in the store in a motorized cart. It was the most embarrassing thing ever, and I remember being so offended because it was like I could help it. I also just came out of a 2.5 year battle against cancer, which was disabling in a ton of way. I’m out of all of that now, trying to find my new version of “normal” but experiencing it has permanently changed how I look at things. I’m like my brother in some ways, now. I read books and look for the flawed people because I can relate to them. I appreciate their struggles. I love how “real” they are. I love it when authors don’t ignore our imperfections, but make our imperfections beautiful. In a truly good book the “imperfect” appear “perfect” and I love that. It is so incredibly empowering.

  5. Sarah, great post. I think we need to embrace more characters who are, as one of the other fantastic commenters said, differently abled. It puts them at a disadvantage from the start, but how much more glorious are their successes?

  6. Great post, Sarah. Thank you.

    My own condition; attention deficit disorder, and its relative, ADHD, can both prove assets, once an ongoing course of treatment can be hammered out and kept to.

    1. I’ve always associated ADHD and the like with intense creativity. I also think that the course of treatment issue is true with pretty much anything. Everything is a struggle until you learn YOUR unique method of dealing with it.

      Thank you for the comment. :)

  7. I’m very happy to see the topic getting some serious attention. I’m looking forward to reading and sharing the column.

    @Max – From my own experiences, I’d say that one of the reasons people don’t like to talk about disabilities is that there is a lot of fear around them. It is uncomfortable to discuss them in real life or even to identify too closely with characters who have them because, unlike personal characteristics like race or gender or ethnic heritage, a person’s disability status often isn’t something they were born with, and it can change without warning; tomorrow the professor could be the aphasic person with the head injury and the athlete could be in a wheelchair. It is very disturbing for many people to confront the potentially temporary nature of their own abilities.

    1. Someone above mentioned that our society is so focused on health, which is true. I think admitting disabilities or struggles, to many people, feels like they are admitting weakness. I fervently hope that mindset changes.

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