Special Needs in Strange Worlds | Erin Hill-Dowdle

Erin is a close personal friend of mine. We met a few years ago when we were both managing a few of the campus computer labs and I was automatically taken in with her humor. Erin is, honestly, one of the most hilarious, snarky and wonderfully sarcastic people I’ve ever met. She’s amazingly intelligent and incredibly passionate. About a year and a bit ago, her husband got a job on a military base in Germany so she moved from Utah and is now living out in Europe and I’ll never, ever, forgive her for it. I’m SO jealous and I honestly miss her a ton and her stories about her dog, Dexter.

Erin is a voracious reader. I think she reads everything that anyone puts in her hands, and she doesn’t just read it, but she’s an expert at analyzing all of it’s various literary elements. Thus, she’s very well read in every form of fiction, including fantasy and graphic novels. It’s really fascinating to talk books with her because she always has an insight to talk about that I would have never, in a million years, been deep enough to think of. That’s just who Erin is. She adds new dimension to everything and seems to leave it all a bit brighter than it was when she found it.

I asked Erin to be part of this event even though she’s not a blogger or an author. The reason why is because out of all the people I know, Erin is probably the smartest in more ways than I can count (and I’m not flattering here, I’m being completely honest). Her passion for the written word is incredible and the fact that she has a Master’s of Arts degree in English just backs her up. I asked if Erin would be willing to talk about disabilities in broader literature and she agreed.

I hope she is warmly welcomed. As always, her insights are priceless.

About the author

Erin Hill-Dowdle is a life-long bibliophile who has a Master’s of Arts in English degree to back it up. She will read just about anything, but prefers fiction.

She is also a confirmed nerd with a fairly recent but ever increasing love of comic books. Normally, her passion is sharing her love of the English language by teaching, but since moving to Germany a year ago she now works as a test examiner at an army base. She is attempting, very slowly, to complete a dissertation of the role of visual elements in both traditional and graphic novels. She has an awesome husband and a super cute fluffy spoiled rotten dog.

Disability in literature

“Images of disability are often appropriated to express the attitudes and agendas of social institutions and practices such as family, education, citizenship, and gender and sexuality. Thus, images of disability and technology frequently carry a message for the non-disabled even more than for the disabled audience.”

-Alicia Verlager “Decloaking Disability: Images of Disability and Technology in Science Fiction Media.”

On some level there has always been disability combined with extraordinary ability in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres (when I speak about disability, I am speaking of physical disabilities, such as deafness, mental disabilities, such as depression or madness, and social or societal disabilities, such as being an illegitimate child or an orphan). Professor X has always been in a wheelchair, Geordi LaForge was blind without his visor, and Dracula’s henchman, Renfrew, is confined to an insane asylum. However, they all possess power as well. Professor X has both telepathic and telekinetic power, Geordi LaForge’s visor enables him to see much of the electromagnetic spectrum, and Renfrew is intimately connected to the abilities of his master Dracula. He is able to predict Dracula’s movements and his coming before any of the “regular” humans are able to do so. However, we tend to over look these characters’ disabilities because we are so used to them or because their other abilities compensate. Furthermore, disability is a topic that has been generally ignored in the world of Sci-Fi and Fantasy criticism with so much focus on character and plot. It was not until Elspeth Cooper, author of Songs of the Earth, wrote a guest post on my dear friend Sarah Chorn’s blog (Bookworm Blues) that I began to look at the subject of disability in this genre more seriously.

The first serious “literary” treatment of disability in a science fiction novel, which I can think of, is that of Diana’s son in Richard Power’s novel Galatea 2.2. Galatea 2.2 is the story of a writer moving back to his college town to work on an artificial intelligence project. Richard Powers writes about the character “Richard Powers” who becomes involved with Diana while he is working on developing artificial intelligence at a university. Diana’s son has Down’s Syndrome and Richard is simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by the boy. He is fully cognizant of his own fears regarding producing an offspring of this nature since Diana, like Richard himself, is a brilliant thinker and researcher. To Richard, it seems that if she is capable of giving birth to a disabled child than anyone is. Amid his fears about the new technology he is working on lie his fears about the little boy. Thus the technology and the disability are intimately linked. Richard cannot penetrate either one of the children he is associating with—Diana’s son, or his own creation, the artificial intelligence known as Helen.

Both of these relationships fail. Helen shuts herself down because Richard is unable to provide the environment she needs to grow in. Richard severs his relationship with Diana because of his fear of her child. In both cases he is still too emotionally immature to handle both the implications of the disability and the technology. He is trapped by his fear. Jane Frances says in her article “Mixing Fantasy and Reality” “When we happen upon a person with a disfigurement in erstwhile ordinary surroundings, I surmise that we are fleetingly assailed by similarly remobilized phantasy [sic] material from deep in our unconscious. For a moment we must struggle to sort out what’s real here? Who are they? Who am I?” (4). Richard experiences all of these emotions on a grand scale. He cannot answer these questions and is forced to remain a lesser version of himself. It is only in losing both women, Helen and Diana, that he begins to see the error of his ways.

Of course disabilities are not always treated as repulsions. In George R.R. Martin’s epic Song of Fire and Ice series, disabilities both social and physical often indicate that a character is actually a good person. John Snow, while a bastard, frequently displays both intelligence and courage. Tyroin Lannister, a dwarf, while cunning and often times a real asshole, is actually a extremely intelligent and often sticks up for those who cannot themselves. Sandor Clegane, nicknamed “The Hound,” whose scarred visage regularly terrifies almost everyone he meets, regularly saves those around him who are too weak. All of these characters are physically or societally disabled; yet prove to be better than the high borne and beautiful Cersei or Joffery Lannister, who are cruel to everyone.

This brings me to my final point. Disability often provides something that those of us who are fully abled lack. Carrie Sandahl puts it thusly in her article “Considering Disability: Disability Phenomenology’s Role in Revolutionizing Theatrical Space,” “…disability is a vantage point, a perspective, a way of experiencing the world” (18). John Snow, Tyrion Lannister and Gregor Clegane are better people because they have been treated as worse and know how that feels. Cersei and Joffery Lannister are too beautiful and have only been treated with deference, thus they come to expect such treatment. In fact it is only after Cersei’s gorgeous twin brother Jaime loses his hand and is disfigured that he changes from cold and uncaring to a loyal friend who can look past others ugliness and see the beauty underneath.

In other words, disability offers a way of viewing the world that those who are able bodied lack. Those who are not blind often take for granted sight. Those who are the same as everyone else often don’t see how they injure those that are different. This discrimination often leads to greater insight personally and emotionally. Those who are disabled are better equipped to appreciate. So often we forget that most of the Superheroes we know are disabled. Daredevil is blind, Beast is trapped in an animal form, and Dr. Bruce Banner has anger management issues, to say the least. Yet it is because, rather than in spite of, these disabilities that these characters are heroes. In this way I think that Science Fiction and Fantasy, by being a genre that does not confine itself to real world limitations, is able to more accurately reflect the true nature of disability. Human beings are superheroes because of all of the physical, spiritual, social and mental limitations we have, and because we create, write and grow with them.

This brings me around to my opening quote. These characters are not written for the disabled reader, but rather for everyone. The disabled reader will recognize pieces of themselves in them. However, it is the normal reader that these characters will have the biggest impact upon. After all they are the ones that the message is being carried for. We see that a disability does not a whole person make.

Works Cited

Frances, Jane. “Mixing fantasy and reality: what happens at the interface between disfigurement stereotypes in entertainment media and the lived experience of people with disfiguring injuries, conditions and illnesses?.” http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/francesfpaper.pdf.

Sandahl, Carrie. “Considering Disability: Disability Phenomenology’s Role in Revolutionizing Theatrical Space.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism. Spring 2002: 17-32. U of Kansas Publications. https://journals.ku.edu/index.php/jdtc/article/viewPDFInterstitial/3394/3323

Verlager, Alicia. “Decloaking Disability: Images of Disability and Technology in Science Fiction Media.” MIT. http://dspace.mit.edu/bitstream/handle/1721.1/39143/123289784.pdf?sequence=1


You can find Erin on twitter here.

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