I Am Not Broken: The Language of Disability

I was at work yesterday talking to a coworker about my upcoming surgery when I mentioned, laughing, “I’m broken,” with a shrug. My coworker laughed, and I laughed and she moved on and I stayed right there, rooted to the floor, thinking about the words that had just slipped into my dialogue. I meant them as a joke, and that’s how they were received, but in that moment while I was watching her walk away, I realized just how profoundly I had degraded my own situation.

Perhaps I am feeling particularly touchy about this topic because earlier this week I had the absolutely horrible experience of watching an elderly woman reduce a teenager with Down syndrome to tears by calling him a “retard” in a public, crowded store (don’t worry, I yelled at her). Days later, I’m still moved to tears thinking about that teenager, who was telling jokes and laughing, absolutely shattered by one woman’s thoughtless remarks.

These words, these horrible, degrading words, slip into our dialogues at the worst possible times, and often we don’t even notice them. I’m not broken. I’m not bent. I’m not incapable. I might not work the same way everyone else does, but that doesn’t mean I’m unable to accomplish those things others can accomplish.

We seem to live in a world where the able-bodied among us are considered normal, and everyone else must strive to attain that level. That thinking floods the books we read, the way we view others, how we talk to each other, and the words we use. This mindset sets a ridiculous bar for people who, for whatever reason, might require an atypical way to get from point A to point B.

The thing about ableism is that it’s everywhere, and it’s incredibly common, and we don’t even realize it. It’s in the books we read, and in our daily lives. Ableism is that belief that everyone who is able-bodied is “normal” and everyone else is abnormal. Abelism is probably one of the most common kinds of –ism’s, and it rarely gets talked about. (Fun fact: Ableism has historical significance, and it is pretty tragic. This way of thinking is imbedded so deeply into our history, no wonder changing the mindset is hard.)

Simple questions like, “So what’s wrong with you? Are you blind? Deaf? Did a car accident paralyze you? Do you need help with everything?” draw dividing lines between ‘normal’ and ‘other’. Admittedly, most of these questions are asked innocently, and with good intentions, but part of the reason why they are so powerful, so divisive and frustrating is because we don’t realize how they draw lines between that person asking the questions, and the person who is obviously not like them. It sets camps, and makes groups. One person is more ‘normal’ than the other. We don’t think about those innocent, well meant words in that way because we are so used to them.

We are not broken; we’re just a different kind of normal. We are not incapable or unable; we just get things done a little differently.

That is, probably, why miracle cures and flimsy excuses for disabilities in literature bother me so much. It hasn’t been until fairly recently that a protagonist could be blind because that’s how they were. When I started reading books in speculative fiction when I was a teenager, the blind protagonist always had to have some sort of second sight to excuse away the disability. One couldn’t just be blind because that’s how things worked out for them. The maimed farmer had to be an incredible archer (or something else). The heart of those authors is in the right place. I can see the (flawed) logic there; I can tell that they aren’t trying to offend. In their own way they are trying to show that disabled characters are just as cool as the abled characters, just in a different way.

The thing is, blind people don’t need second sight to be cool. We don’t need to fix what isn’t broken, and we don’t need to imply that someone needs an extra compensating boost to reach the level of badassitude all those sighted people naturally attain by virtue of fully functioning eyes. It’s demeaning.

In a lot of ways speculative fiction is making leaps and bounds in the regard. Authors are starting to realize the right that disabled characters have to be in the stories they write. We are starting to realize that those characters do not require a reason or some magical explanation/second sight/whatever nifty thing to excuse away or compensate for said disability. These disabilities don’t limit characters, or make them any less cool or powerful. In fact, in most cases disabilities seem to make characters more memorable and emotionally powerful, realistic, and compelling.

It’s also pretty neat to read a book about someone in a wheelchair who can shoot better than just about anyone ever, and is one of the biggest badasses in speculative fiction. Susanna Odetta Holmes Dean is not a badass because she’s in a wheelchair. She’s a badass because that’s who she is on a fundamental level. The wheelchair is just an accessory, a different way to function that doesn’t make her any less normal or any more weird – just beautifully different. She isn’t incapable or unable. She isn’t unable, incapable or limited. There is no real reason to see her as different or less powerful and able than you or me.

And heaven forbid anyone call Odetta Holmes broken. That’s just about the last thing she is.

The world we live in isn’t defined by two versions of reality. There isn’t the “normal” reality for all the normal people, and the slightly skewed reality for all of the rest of us who yearn for normalcy. Our fiction should reflect that. King George VI wasn’t any less of a powerful speaker or ruler for all of his stuttering. Odetta Holmes wasn’t slowed down by her wheelchair.

I’m not broken and neither are you.

There is real power in the words we use, and the way we convey ideas. Speculative fiction is a genre of the imagination. It’s progressive and plays with ideas and themes that aren’t always commonplace in our world yet. We like to think of ourselves as cutting edge, ahead of the times. We are unafraid to ask “What if?” and then find out just what would be if that “what if” was a reality. We take incredible ideas and make them bite size. We get thoughts brewing, and progress rolling. We dare to look at the world we live in differently.

Isn’t it wonderful? There is so much to love about this genre. So very much.

Despite all of this progress, why are we so behind on disabilities? We talk about women and race and religion in our genre (as we should), but the topic of disabilities is pretty quiet. Why aren’t there any huge and evolved discussions about these ableist assumptions and how absolutely disempowering, degrading, and completely frustrating they are? While the prevalence of disabilities in books seems to be improving in both quality and quantity, there is a distinct lack of discussion that concerns me. We need to talk about how ableist thinking doesn’t reflect the world we live in. We need less of it in the books we read and the media we are tuned to. We need to look at our history, at the popular mindset, and dare it to change. Isn’t that what speculative fiction is all about?

Reading helps us become more empathic, more tuned in to those around us. I want my daughter to love literature, regardless of what genre(s) she ends up enjoying, but I want her to learn from it. Ableism is history. We deserve the books we read to reflect this. We owe it to ourselves, to our society, and to our progeny. We owe it to this progressive, fantastic genre. The way we think and talk about disabilities needs to change. Period.

We are not broken. We are not bent.

We are powerful, capable, beautiful people. We are important. We are normal. Our normal might be a little different than yours, but it is still normal. We’re no better or worse, more capable or incapable than anyone else. Just different, and shouldn’t we celebrate that?

We belong in your books, and in your discussions about diversity. We deserve language that uplifts and equals rather than divides and demeans.

Words are such small things that are so incredibly powerful.