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[GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Nalini Haynes on The 3 Ways People Deal with Disability

NOTE: This installment of Special Needs In Strange Worlds features a guest post from author Nalini Haynes! – Sarah Chorn

Nalini Haynes‘s first memory of reading was whining at her father who wanted her to read the same non-fiction book AGAIN (how many times can you read about logging trees without becoming bored, even aged four?). One day Nalini was tagging along and discovered a large hardcover book of poetry in a corner store; imagine her surprise when her father bought it for her! Her most-loved poem was ‘Triantiwontigongolope’ by C J Dennis, probably triggering a love of the fantastical.

Nalini’s earliest memory of SF was hiding behind her uncle’s chair terrified but unable to look away from the TV during Dr Who, aged about 3. By the time she was ten yeas old, her mother lent her adult SF books to stave off boredom. Nothing much has changed since then, except gaining a few kilos and a few wrinkles.

She hold three degrees including a Master of Social Science. Passionate about social justice issues, she has worked with disadvantaged people as a counsellor and educator. Nalini currently works her butt off for Dark Matter Zine, as well as studying Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT.

Nalini Haynes’s interviews, reviews and other writings can be found here. The ones she remembered to categorise, anyway.

The 3 Ways People Deal with Disability

by Nalini Haynes

Sarah invited me as a guest blogger, suggesting that I enlarge upon a comment I made as a response to another post. I’ve spent my mid-semester break thinking about writing my guest blog while life has been in the way of actually writing something. However, eventually I managed to put pen to paper, so to speak, and jotted a few thoughts down.

I started high school when I was 11. In first term the school nurse tested everyone’s eyesight; she was really impressed with mine (not). Mum had pushed for Clarence High School to accept me as an out-of-area student but didn’t tell them about my disability. She returned to her soapie-character lifestyle, leaving me in Grandma’s care. Grandma worked full-time and cared for her husband and her disabled son (he had a brain tumor when he was 12), so she was very busy.

Shortly after failing the eye test, I was assigned to the school guidance counselor, given a ‘monocular’ (a telescope) to read the blackboard, a magnifying glass and some other items. I was offered a cane. I freaked out.

‘What would I do with a cane?’

‘You’d use it to find your way around.’

‘I don’t know how to use one.’

‘We’d teach you.’


Which was pretty much my attitude my whole life. Cope. Get by. Cover up as much as possible. Only ask for help when you’re really desperate.

Maybe I have more accidents than some people BUT SOME PEOPLE HAVE MORE ACCIDENTS THAN ME. So what if I’ve broken about 8 of my toes, some of them multiple times? (I’ve never broken my big toes but I think I’ve broken all the others. Some toes have broken multiple times.) Last time I broke a toe before the previous break was healed, I had X-rays. There was a significant pause before a sideways look and a pointed comment about ‘old breaks’. My response? ‘I’m vision impaired.’

Since starting study at a university in the city I developed bruises along both arms. Mysteriously, these bruises tended to fade during holidays. Bruising would peak during the latter half of every semester.

Stress and fatigue reduce my functional vision and my capacity for hyper-vigilance so I’m more likely to walk into things (like door frames) or trip over steps I don’t notice or trip because I expect a step where there’s a change in the sidewalk. Anyone who’s walked in Melbourne’s CBD knows it’s like dodgem cars with pedestrians expecting you to leap in front of traffic so they can walk side-by-side with their friends. It’s hell, especially when all I can see is a sea of people, a tidal wave of foot traffic heading towards me.

After a lifetime of being isolated from my own kind, I met two albinos. They took one look at me walking while watching my feet, trying not to trip or bump into people. They told me to get a cane. Repeatedly. My partner ganged up on me with them.

Vision Australia gave me a cane. I’ve had my cane for 7 weeks.

Currently I only have a couple of bruises on my legs. AC (After Cane) I haven’t sprained either ankle. I have no bruises on my arms. I haven’t broken any toes lately but that’s not a cane thing: my last broken toe was about 5 years ago when I re-broke the already broken toe.

Today when people collided with me, it was more of a ‘bump’ instead of a bruising ‘crash’. A woman cut across in front of me, trapping my cane under her wheelie bag. She didn’t stop or let her bag roll backwards off the cane so she dragged the cane a short distance. Other people kicked the cane or stepped over it saying ‘I’m sorry’ when they meant ‘Apologizing for being a dick makes it ok.’

The difference between having the cane and not having the cane? My cane is taking a hammering, not me. This is huge. I am not being assaulted. My cane is getting damaged but that’s ok.

Another difference is people’s attitude. I will digress to illustrate my point.

When I was 18 years old I had a baby. Actually, I had the baby when I was 17 but this took place when I was 18.

I carried Celina in a baby backpack. She loved pulling my hair. I’d stand in the aisle in the supermarket trying to find what I need while she pulled my hair, wrenching my head back. ‘Don’t do that, let go.’

People walked into the aisle then backed out and vanished.

Other people approached cautiously, edging past crab-wise as far away as possible, their heads down and shoulders hunched up, casting furtive glances at me. When they saw the backpack on my back with the baby pulling my hair, they straightened with audible sighs and relaxed into a normal space in the aisle.

Without the cane, people treat me like they did the ‘crazy woman’ in the supermarket when I do things that aren’t quite normal.

At a Women of Letters event there were few seats left so ushers directed me to the balcony. The stairs to the balcony were uneven, which I discovered when my foot caught on a step. A full glass of wine flew out of my hand and shattered as I crashed half onto the top steps and half onto the floor, bruising my legs and wrenching my wrist. People made comments, expressing their disgust of me.

In the city streets, people slammed into me or edged around me if I did something not-quite-normal like pausing to look around in an attempt to orient myself. If I tripped over an obstacle, people usually walked around me, sometimes even muttering comments about alcohol or drugs. (While I was stone-cold sober.)

With the cane, people fall into three camps

  1. Those who kick the cane because THEY ARE ENTITLED. They cut across the cane, expecting me get out of their way. They cut queues like the guy who kicked the cane to get on the train first, taking the last disabled seat. In the street people without obvious mobility impairments have told me to get out of their way. They’re usually men in suits.
  2. Those who ignore me. I like this group. Once a lot of these people were edging around me or swearing at me to get out of their way. Now they’re like ‘Nothing to see here so I’m moving along normally or moving around the inconvenient vision-impaired person’.
  3. Those who make my day. There are helpful people like the guy in the elevator lobby who points to the elevator that has just opened its doors. There’s the Big Issue seller who yells out ‘You’re coming up on the Collins St intersection, dear’. I’m not so blind I need her help but her thoughtfulness puts a smile on my face every time. I have been surprised at how many people will do something that, for them, may seem small, but for me is like finding gold-dust in the dross.

People in the science fiction community fall into these three categories too.

Kick The Cane

I love The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. Emiko experiences what many women with disabilities experience: she’s a second-class citizen, disempowered and subject to violence. Emiko experiences the hero’s journey.

In a panel on Cultural Misappropriation another speaker didn’t like The Windup Girl. I explained my thoughts on the subject. The response: ‘I didn’t interpret it that way. Did anyone else interpret it that way? No. So YOU’RE WRONG.’ That speaker tried to take The Windup Girl — one of the few books with a good representation of disability — away from me while also dismissing my interpretation because it wasn’t sufficiently mainstream. In a panel on Cultural Misappropriation. Kick the cane.

Recently I read Queen of the Tearling; it has an underlying social justice framework except for those with disabilities. The albino character appears in just one scene so she can twiddle her nipple in sexual excitement while someone is poisoned. There’s also a ‘gnome of a man’ who builds cages for evil undertakings. All the white hats are normal people. All the people with disabilities are black hats. Kick the cane.

Middle Ground

Akata Witch purports to have a magical albino as a protagonist, Sunny. Disabilities are a source of power for other magical people whose disabilities are not healed nor is their suffering alleviated. Sunny, however, is cured of sunburn. Sunny has excellent eyesight. Sunny is not an albino. Albinos BY DEFINITION have bad eyesight. Albinism is caused by lack of pigmentation: macula and fovea — bits of your retina with which you see — are made from pigmentation. Albinos either don’t have those bits (and are completely blind) or they have missing bits (apparently I don’t have fovea) or they have under-developed bits (my maculae are under-developed). In short, Akata Witch‘s author didn’t do her homework.

And yet, here we have an albino-type protagonist instead of an evil albino.

Akata Witch is really hard to pigeonhole. Is it kicking the cane by spreading damaging misinformation? Is it good because, although it is spreading damaging misinformation, at least it has an albino-type protagonist? I think Akata Witch falls into the middle category: this novel causes some harm with some good, balancing each other out. Nothing to see here; ignore the lost albino.

The Extraordinaires by Michael Pryor features a kick-ass albino. I both admire her and am deeply saddened. She’s a ‘real’ albino: she has pale skin, gets sunburnt and has bad eyesight. I’m saddened because she has magical glasses that fix her eyesight. If I had one dollar for everyone who assumed that my glasses fix my eyesight or that surgery could fix my eyesight I could retire.

Make My Day

Obviously The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi rocks.

Lock In by John Scalzi has the best discussion of disability that I’ve read since Bareback by Kit Whitfield. Scalzi and Whitfield both debate disability, what it means to be disabled and how society constructs notions of disability. Scalzi took an unrealistic idealist view in an almost utopian society: his disabled people have good jobs and live fulfilled lives that the government subsidizes. He threw in potential for healing alongside some people choosing disability over healing; personally, I’d prefer he omitted this because his simplistic view detracted from the story. Whitfield’s more complex discussion of disability left me wondering if she has a disability and, if not, how she managed to write so perceptively.

Jo Spurrier’s Children of the Black Sun trilogy has a character with an acquired disability who is neither healed nor left on the sidelines. Isidro’s disability was so authentic that I was not overly surprised to learn Jo Spurrier has a physical disability herself.

Books I have enjoyed that feature characters with disabilities include A New Kind of Death by Alison Goodman; Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar; Game of Thrones (the books, not the TV series: Tyrion is more intelligent and tragic in the books). I’m currently reading Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy. The Fool is obviously an albino. He is intelligent, loyal, caring, vulnerable and powerful in his own way. Robin Hobb’s Rain Wilds Chronicles feature disabled dragons and So. Much. Social Comment. [Spoiler alert] I forgave Hobb the dragons’ healing because those dragons work for their healing, just like someone after a stroke has to work to regain their mobility. [Spoiler ends]

Authentic main characters with a disability are usually written by authors with experience of disability.

If you’re a writer, please either omit disabled characters or write them well.

Never write disabled characters as evil because there is so much poison that needs purging. Misinformation slathered on readers’ fairy bread under the pretty sprinkles causes societal cholesterol problems, hardening of arteries and hearts, leading to untimely deaths. In this case the untimely deaths are not those in the privileged mainstream.

When writing diverse characters, write them well. Do your research. If you’re writing a character from a minority, ask representatives of that group to beta-read your work. Ask medical professionals too, but always ask someone with personal experience who feels safe enough to give honest feedback. Also remember that one person cannot speak for an entire people group.

The disadvantaged will be with us always but the degree of disadvantage is determined by the privileged. I beg you: do no harm.

5 Comments on [GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Nalini Haynes on The 3 Ways People Deal with Disability

  1. Honey Anne // November 4, 2014 at 12:39 pm //

    I enjoyed this installment very much!

    As a side note, if you search for “Extraordinaires” on amazon, what you get is a no doubt fascinating adult series. Not at all the book you’re recommending, unless you add the author’s name.

  2. I have a confession to make. After 11 weeks and 2 days I killed my cane. I put it down to LOTS of times where it was caught on uneven sidewalks but also the number of times it was, for example, trapped under someone’s wheelie bag because they decided to cut ACROSS my cane, because OF COURSE I can see well enough to get my cane out of the way. And the day a 4WD ran slightly over my cane — I came away from that with jitters but I was really lucky. Another few centimetres forward, another inch, and the roller ball would have shattered. If it had, my only hope is that the resulting spiky metal end would have punctured… Let’s not go there. I can think “Mikado” (Let the punishment fit the crime) but non-disabled people might think ‘psycho’. Let’s just say that my cane has suffered, repeatedly, taking the punishment, the assaults, that I previously took myself.

    And in the next 15 minutes after the tragic demise of my trusty companion cane I sprained my ankle and copped a few bruises. BUT I MADE IT TO THE GRAEME SIMSION INTERVIEW. Yep, Graeme Simsion, who wrote the AWESOME novel THE ROSIE PROJECT about an academic, Don Tillman, who probably had Aspergers, THAT Graeme Simsion, hunted me down and arranged an interview, and, in spite of cane breakage and personal injury, I made it and the interview happened and now we’re just waiting on the editing minion…

    @Honey Anne — you have the author name. Michael Pryor’s albino is good, just not quite authentic.

  3. Thank you for this wonderful guest post. Just having bought The Windup Girl, I’ve decided to move it up in my TBR based in your comments. I’m curious what you think of Lena in Peter Liney’s The Detainee and Oree in Nora Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms, if you’ve read either of them.

    • @Margo

      I have a confession to make. I haven’t read either. Nora’s books have been on my TBR pile for a while but I acquired them before I had the desktop magnifier. The publisher sent me mass market paperbacks which were simply impossible to read without magnification even back then; I couldn’t even manage short stints of reading because the print was is so small. Now I have a desktop magnifier* I haven’t returned to Nora’s books because I’m drowning in books, slowly sinking beneath the rising tide of paper and ebooks.

      Now you’ve reminded me, I’ll find Nora’s books and put them near the magnifier. I deserve a break, right? So I can prioritise something important to me to read instead of only focusing on the latest books for publishers?

      I don’t have the Detainee, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it before.

      *at least at the moment: my desktop magnifier broke under warranty when the company was trying to repair a minor fault. I temporarily have a faulty demo model while slogging it out with the company. They’re keen to fob me off with an obviously already damaged model, which would mean I’d have to replace it again soon. As it’s about $4,500 to replace I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to do this reviewing gig.

    • You’re welcome. I hope you love Windup Girl as much as I did.

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