Special Needs in Strange Worlds | Zachary Jernigan

About the Author

Yo! I’m Zack, a 33-year-old, quarter-Hungarian, typically shaven-headed male. I’ve lived in Northern Arizona, where the weather is nice and the political decisions are horrifying, since 1990, with occasional forays into the wetter and colder world.

My favorite activities include: listening to 70s-00s punk and post-punk music, cooking and then eating delicious and often unhealthy foods, riding human-powered vehicles of all varieties (though hardly well), talking and/or arguing about religion, watching sitcoms, night-swimming, and jumping on and off stuff.

During my depressingly rare periods of creative productivity, I write science fiction and fantasy. No Return, my first novel, came out in March of 2013 from Night Shade Books. My short stories have appeared in a variety of places, including Asimov’s Science FictionCrossed Genres, and Escape Pod.

You can find out more about the author on his website, as well as various ways to stalk him online.


“Disability is not a brave struggle or ‘courage in the face of adversity.’ Disability is an art. It’s an ingenious way to live.”

– Neil Marcus

I won’t be shy about it:

The people I admire most in life are those who have to put forth more effort for a similar result. Why? Because effort makes a person wise. It makes a person strong. Knowing the odds (physical, mental, societal) against you and refusing to sell yourself short — that is an admirable mindset, possibly the most admirable mindset.

No, I’m not overly impressed if you have every advantage the world could give you, because most of the people I know who are in that position are uninteresting as hell. They usually lack a sense of humor, because they don’t understand what makes people tick. Not knowing what makes people tick, they often lack compassion.

Of course, I don’t know what it’s like to think of myself as disabled — and to have others label me disabled — and yet I’d like to think that two decades of Obsessive Compulsive-related mental illness has taught me something about what it means to exist under the weight of abnormality. It’s made me question whether or not there even is a normal, but more than that it’s caused me to doubt that normal is a good thing to shoot for.

No, scratch that doubt.

Normal is objectively not a good thing.

Disability, different ability, knowing what you lack — every thing that inspires us to live ingeniously — is something we should all be grateful for. Now, I’m not saying that, given a choice, any of us would choose to be unable to walk, or solve a math problem any 9 out of 10 people could solve, or, hell, listen to the symphony, but…

The world benefits from the perspectives of individuals forced to take the unconventional approach. More than this (so, so, so much more than this), these individuals, often in the face of horrible prejudice, become creatures of rare insight — the kind of insight that approaches the alien to those of us who’ve never had occasion to view the world through such a unique lens.

There is immense value in disability. There is beauty that we should all learn to see.

Of course, it’s easy for me to say this, being abled in a way that resembles normal to the majority of human beings. I can act wise and sympathetic all day, but I don’t really know the challenges on a gut level. I’d crack, bust out in big alligator tears, to experience the pain — physical and emotional — that attends intense disability (whatever we decide that means). I won’t pretend I’m strong in that way, for I’ve never had an occasion to be strong in that way.

But I have eyes, goddammit.

And if I didn’t have eyes, I’d have ears, or some other way to know the world around me.

I’d see the obvious fact that we are a sad species when we view the differently abled as not abled, worthy of pity as opposed to sympathy and unity. We are a sad species when we fail to recognize how stagnant existence would be without long odds.

“Dis”ability defines our best moments far more than we realize. It is written into the very fabric of our existence. Only a fool fails to recognize this fact. Only a fool fails to see that we are a variegated and ungainly mass of imperfect, abnormal humanity, striving forward with missing hands and limbs and organs. Even if the bare fact of this changes — if we achieve a state of bodily “perfection” — we will continue living with the knowledge of our differences, our limitations.

That knowledge will inspire us.

Or it won’t.

If we someday forget that we once drew strength from exceeding our various limitations — if we all become one graceful mass of perfect, normal humanity — then we probably won’t be fit to call ourselves human any longer.

Maybe we’ll become like the women and men of Cordwainer Smith’s Instrumentality, so bleached of any sense of wonder by our deathless existence that we force ourselves to re-introduce imperfection and risk back into the world. Or perhaps we’ll become like the denizens of Iain M. Banks’ The Culture, who live in a galaxy of unlimited resources and therefore recognize how beautiful being unlike your neighbor is.

Now, I’m aware that a great many things I’ve written might come across as — or might in all actuality be — ableist. As I stated previously, I’ve never been put in the position of being thought of as disabled. Though I’ve had to admit on occasion that I have (gasp!) a special need due to my OCD-related issues (which have, now and then, produced anxiety in school settings), I’m likely as blind to my ableism as most people who consider themselves “fully” abled.

But, like I said, I observe the world. Sometimes I write fiction based on these observations. It’s my hope that, now and in my fiction, my admiration for those living with limitations is clear. If I in fact end up fetishizing the fact of someone’s ingenuity in the face of long odds, then I’ll always apologize. I don’t want to displace my own sense of entitlement, or minimize another’s pain by calling it noble, or “courage in the face of adversity.”

Disability, different ability — it simply is. It makes no one automatically a hero.

But, you must admit, it gives one immense potential.

5 Responses

  • rob

    first sorry about the spelling I normaly send thing to sahar to check to make sure they make a little sense but shes a little busy

    I agree with what you say completely although I see it from a different angel I grow up with Asperger and c-acc but didn’t know ether till I was 26 ive had lots of people go to great effort to avoid me even teachers and some of my own family so ive watched rather than participate in lots of things and I can say one thing being normal is boring as sarah has mentioned in both openings to this special needs I was a read-a-holic before the head trauma and I brought this whole idea up to sarah because ive read everything from classic greak to todays classics in both si-fi and other and for some reason other writers have included handicap a lot but not si-fi I will not restate the post of mine sarah put on her opening page but I go into greater depth about this but I will add si-fi is a young stile of writing but like I said before normal is boring and I know its easier to write geneticly perfect super human heros but its not real its easier to write relatively one dementional super heros I know but its easier to bring deapth to a caricter if people can relate better to them

    I hope my bad spelling makes sense

    • No worries, Rob! It came out perfectly clear. Thanks for replying.

      I too have watched an awful lot of life rather than praticipating, so I get some of where you’re coming from. I’ve found it’s helped in the long haul, however, the observing. It’s heightened my awareness of other people, and allowed me to read them in a different way. I bet you’re the same, in many ways. There is, despite what anyone says, a strength in knowing how to cope without the “usual” tools.

      I did read the opening where she talked about you, and I sympathize without *really* being able to understand. I hear your frustration and feelings of isolation. If disability is touched upon, it’s often superficially and (seemingly) without true compassion. More than anything, it’s untapped potential. Imagine how inspiring we can be as readers and writers with such content!

      I want authors to build compassion through writing, to make their worlds reflect the strength I see in people with different abilities. A limitation is an opportunity to be greater in certain areas, to build tools that other (ahem) “normal” people do not have access to. When we ignore these people — when we marginalize them, as I’ve admittedly done on many occasions in my own fiction — we do not show such individuals how important they are in defining humanity.

      Being able to relate = increasing reader’s compassion = building truly representative fiction

      Thanks again for replying, Rob. What you’ve said has definitely spurred my thinking on this subject.

  • Thanks, Zachary.

    So, it seems you are arguing for disability as a spur to innovation, yes? Limitations as a spur to creativity (which sounds like writing, to me).

    • Thank you for commenting, Paul!

      I’m definitely arguing that, as problematic as it can be to view any group’s perspective as a “tool” to innovation. Living with a disability, as Neil Marcus argues, is itself a method of innovating. I can’t imagine that art created from that perspective doesn’t have a higher chance of achieving innovation.

  • Thank you for commenting, Paul!

    I’m definitely arguing that, as problematic as it can be to view any group’s perspective as a “tool” to innovation. Living with a disability, as Neil Marcus argues, is itself a method of innovating. I can’t imagine that art created from that perspective doesn’t have a higher chance of achieving innovation.

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