Thursday 4 February 2016

Anatomy of a Car Crash, or We are not 'all disabled'.

ETA: Amy Sterling Casil has apologised for "We Are All Disabled". It's one of those apologies that spends all its time saying "You're reading it wrong, and being nasty to me." Judge for yourself here, I'll be responding when I've calmed down enough from the analogy she appear to draw between the people criticising her and the man who raped her. 



A few people may have noticed a tweet from SF Signal last night:

The post went up without any context, but after suitable prodding by those of us who had seen it, they admitted it was about disability.


The post went up in their 'Special Needs in Strange Worlds' column (which incidentally is a title I loathe with a fury) and it was titled 'We are all Disabled'. I knew from the moment I saw that title it was going to be a car crash, I just didn't realise how bad a one. SF Signal did pull it, but I think that lost us an opportunity, it cost us the chance to explain to people why the view of disability it gave out is so wrong it's actually dangerous.


And worse, it's a view of disability that is a common narrative within SF/F


Fortunately I snagged a copy.


I'm not going to tell you who wrote it, they need to learn where they went wrong, not face a witch hunt. But their bio identified them as a Nebula winning author. That's the professionals awarding professionals award in SF/F, the nearest we have to the Oscars in structure (the Hugos being closer to the Oscars in scale). And you would hope a Nebula winner would have a pretty good idea of what is acceptable in a story and what isn't, and flowing out from that, what is appropriate to say in a factual article, and what isn't.


Apparently not.


They opened by claiming 'a severe, lifelong disability' that 'could have cost (their) life on several occasions'. Then explain that their disability is that they are 'empathetic'.


I'm sorry, what? Empathetic? Can you point to the page covering that in the ICD-10? (That's the International Classification of Diseases, 10th Edn) Or any other definition of disability?


Now in general I have a distinct problem with people being challenged on their disability, but when it's no disability anyone has ever heard of? It's just possible it's a clumsy attempt to dress up a better known disability in some kind of metaphor, but it's definitely problematical when combined with everything that comes later. If it is metaphor, then it was absolutely the worst possible time to use it.

They then segued into a tale about being on a con panel, talking about genetic manipulation, and being approached afterwards by someone who asked: "Do you think they'll come up with a cure for autism?"

And they respond "It's possible."

I'm sorry, but when did eugenics become socially acceptable? When did the erasure of a disability group, a disability group which is especially vocal in its rejection of any need to be cured, become something that can be calmly talked about in the pages of an SF site?

Well, forever, I guess. Cure narratives (also called erasure) sometimes seem like the only stories about disability that SF/F ever publishes (barring honourable exceptions like Accessing the Future). And autism is a disability* that has been a target time and again. Weber did it for autism in the Honor Harrington books, and as an example of how the good guys are 'better' at medical ethics than the evil slave-trading eugenicists.  *headdesk*

Full disclosure, I've been told by a medical professional that I'm somewhere in the vicinity of the Autism Spectrum. I can't (and shouldn't) claim the status without the formal diagnosis, but I'm certainly neurodiverse via other disabilities (dyspraxia), so I should declare an interest here. I might not think entirely like the neurotypical majority, but I'm certainly not eager to be cured of being me - I rather like being me, even if the world is occasionally perplexing and difficult. But apparently there are a lot of authors and editors out there who see that as being something that should be fixed at the first opportunity (a bit like taking the dog to be 'fixed?').

Imagine that. Pick some facet of yourself that's a little bit uncommon, and imagine picking up a book by your favourite author and finding it says that people like yourself shouldn't be allowed to live, that they are so broken they need to be fixed. Unpleasant, right? But that's what a lot of SF/F is like when you're disabled, especially if you happen to have multiple disabilities (says the neurodiverse  wheelchair user with anxiety issues).

There's another term that probably gets the intent across more clearly: ethnic cleansing.

Our author then mentions being parent of a child with Down's Syndrome. Now that's disability ally status all on its own. Then they blow it.

"This young chap would never know that, nor would he care if he knew."

Oh! My! God! They did not just say that. The worst cliche about autism, the worst Urban Legend about autism, that people with autism have no feelings, and they went there. The irony is, the most empathetic people I know, because yes, empathy is a thing, though not a disability, are my friends who have Autism Spectrum diagnoses.

It gets worse. The person talking to them says both they and their partner have autism, and don't want their kids to have it. Now if our author had actually done even minimal research (more on that soon), they would have realised this was a spectacularly atypical opinion in the neurodiversity community, and in any case not one that should have an allegedly pro-disability anecdote built about it.

"Uncharacteristically for someone with autism, he touched my arm. He was so very frightened!"

Uncharacteristically for someone with autism, if you happen to believe every cliche ever written rather than going out and doing the due diligence, a.k.a. the research!

“'There’s a reason God made autism,' I said"

*Headdesk* *Headdesk* *Headdesk*

You know those motivational posters that show a disabled person and say "The only disability in is a bad attitude!" well, disabled people hate them, we call them inspiration-porn. A friend of mine rewords them as "The only disability in life is a bad platitude!", and that's what our author is pulling here - God put disabled people on the planet so the rest of us can feel good about ourselves.

Anecdotal flashback over, they inform us that "Autistic people have massive gifts."

Ah, no, you're thinking of Rainman and autistic savants. Mostly people with autism are just normal people who don't quite think like you do.

"One of my favorite films is The Temple Grandin Story. Temple’s wonderful teacher, tells her mother (also wonderful), that Temple is different from other children. Both mother and teacher agree that Temple is: 'Different, not less.'"

Wow, close escape, I thought Temple Grandin was about to be branded 'special'. But note how the disabled person is defined in terms of the non-disabled people around them. In fact our author never mentions that Temple Grandin went on to become a prominent autism activist and noted professor of animal behaviour.

"It was then that I realized my perceptions really were different from most others. I had the opposite of autism."

Sigh, they went there. "I'm empathetic, I'm the antithesis of autistic"

Only if you don't know the first thing about autism. (I actually wonder if what the author is trying to describe by 'empathetic'  isn't something on the autism spectrum).

After a bizarre little aside on sociopaths we get "Why am I writing in this manner?"

Damned good question!

"Why am I not giving examples of how I’ve included those with “special needs” in fiction I’ve written? Why am I not extolling my virtues as a writer and how important it is to tell stories about those with special needs?"

Okay, I can't take it any more, I know the column is called "Special Needs in Strange Worlds", I know a lot of non-disabled people think it's an appropriate term to use. But do the damned research! A significant part of the disability community finds "Special Needs" offensive.  Think about what it's actually saying. It's saying that our needs as disabled people aren't normal, that we aren't normal. And when people don't think we're normal, they don't see us as really human. "Special Needs" actively denormalizes disability, and justifies treating us differently to everyone else.

As for that thing they aren't talking about? I think they mean tokenism.

"We have today’s technology, tomorrow’s, and the very idea of going to the stars and a great deal of the means to get it done, in large part because of the work of those on the Autism spectrum. Our lives have changed and grown because of the FLK’s (Funny-Looking Kids) and FAK’s (Funny-Acting Kids). They are precious, valuable, essential."

Please, make them stop!

"But making and doing and living are three different things. Humanity will deserve to leave this planet and go to the stars, and we’ll be able to survive and thrive—because of people like me."

Modest much!

"How can I possibly say we are all cripples?"

Okay, brief aside on disability history and the reclamation of terms of abuse. 'Cripple' is an unacceptable term, it is a historically pejorative term for disability predicated on inability, and blaming that inability on the disabled person, rather than on society's failure to remove barriers. Much as with the N-word in the Civil Rights Movement, 'cripple' has been reclaimed by the Disability Rights Movement. It is a term whose use is only acceptable in-group, and then only if it is known to be acceptable to the person involved. I use it, I call myself a crip. I'm permitted to use it, because I'm disabled. I absolutely cannot use it as a general term of address. Out-group members may not use it as a matter of basic manners. Do the damned research!

 "When a physically able person sees someone in a wheelchair and feels “sorry” for them, they should consider the different perceptions that wheelchair enables them to have. They see and hear things those who stand and walk do not."

Wheelchair user here. The only thing I see different is people's belt-buckles up close. The only thing I hear different is people ignoring me, or treating me as though I have an intellectual disability, rather than being a rocket scientist.

(Okay, I'm not a rocket scientist, I'm a flight controls engineer, close enough for government work, and not that there's anything wrong with having an intellectual disability - in fact technically I do).

ETA: I realised later that this is an invocation of the magical crip trope, which I normally see applied to my neurodiverse side, not the side of me that is a wheelchair user. The magical crip trope is loathed because it says 'living with disability must be so horrible they should get special powers to balance things out." Let's get things straight, I like being me, I like being disabled, I am a better person because I am disabled and no longer a straight white middle-class male oblivious to the privilege in which I exist. And these views of disability are widespread among disabled people. But you would never know that from reading SF (with a single honourable exception for Scalzi's brilliant Lock In).

"They get to live a different life. Different, not less."

I think the phrase you're looking for is patronised more!

"I wrote one well-known story called “X,” about a young woman named Y, wheelchair-bound, blind and spastic with a heart defect. Y won the lottery to be housed in a hardened spaceship —to get a perfect, near-immortal cyberbody—and travel to the stars. Hot damn! Y doesn’t want to go. She’s in love with John, a handsome young man who’s been visiting her out of a partially misguided idea of charity. John’s been lying to Y, as people will do. By the end of the story, it’s clear who the real cripple is. Not Y – she can and will go to the stars.

Oh, dear god, make them stop!

(I've removed the name of the story and character because, as I said, I don't want to make this about the author.)

This is basically a reworking of Anne McCaffery's The Ship Who Sang, where Helva is locked away in a shell, and then doubly locked away in the controls of a spaceship (and so many people miss that all the other disabled kids who don't get shells are killed - eugenics in action). McCaffery should never have written this, it says the best place for disabled people is locked away in the attic (those we don't shoot, anyway). But McCaffery had an excuse, she wrote Ship Who Sang in the '60s, (just) before the disability rights movement broke us all out of the asylums and nursing homes. But our esteemed author isn't writing in the 1960s, they're writing now, and there is no excuse for not knowing how offensive this is apart from the fact no one ever listens to disabled people when we tell you. And damn, Y doesn't even get the guy at the end!

Note also the piling together of disabilities, apparently with the intent of making it clear that life as a spaceship is better. Which part of treating disability as equally valid to non-disability did our author miss?

And language points. Wheelchair bound - not acceptable, it implies we are limited by our chairs (or bondage fetishists). My chair doesn't limit me, society does that, my chair is incredibly liberating. The appropriate term is Wheelchair User. The author also uses in a wheelchair which is less offensive, but also disparaged. Spastic - slightly more complex because US usage doesn't recognise the pejorative origins of spastic in disability, but it's considered grossly offensive in the UK, and it is thoroughly disparaged as a medical term. Use Cerebal Palsy or CP instead, please. The author also used differently-abled a line or two later, which is similarly despised by disabled people**, because the only reason for using differently-abled is if you think there is something wrong with being called disabled.

"Now, after writing this, I understand why I am so little satisfied – these days, even disgusted – with fictional stereotypes. These stereotypes are an imposition of a limited, false image or idea on others."

You said it!

"Viewed with the strongest perception that we can have at any given time, there is not one of us who is not a 'cripple.'"

That's it. They managed to erase the entirety of disability.

I'm sure this isn't deliberate, but the degree of ignorance of disability, the sheer lack of clue, is breathtaking in its extent. The author manages to erase autism, claim wheelchair uses are 'special', and then produces an example story for us to mimic whose entire plot revolves around locking the disabled person away in the attic, because god forbid we might have to look at them. And for an encore they erase disability in its entirety.

You're probably thinking 'Wow, he's angry!" Damn straight I am, and shouldn't I be? This is the standard of post we get supporting us? If someone can't be bothered to do the basic research to work out what terms and views of disability are acceptable, then isn't that just a little bit contemptuous of us? And if it isn't just an individual, but an entire genre? Well, it's a pretty good explanation of why SF/F doesn't get a passing grade when it comes to #WeNeedDiverseBooks.

I've just taken an urban fantasy novel with two diverse protagonists, one neurodivergent, one a wheelchair user, through #Pitchwars (and I should be shopping it to agents, but brain weasels are getting in the way), because it doesn't look like anyone else is going to produce an SF/F novel that handles disability realistically, that doesn't portray it as a negative, so seems like I'll have to do it myself. And I know I'm not the only disabled author who is doing that.

But it shouldn't be down to us. Fiction should reflect diversity, and somewhere between one person in six and one person in four is disabled in some way. Think about that. If you have six people in your novel, at least one of them should be disabled. It isn't difficult to write disabled characters, there are disabled people out there who will help you get it right. But we can only help if you put us in the books, and if you DO THE DAMNED RESEARCH!


* Quite a few neurodiverse people hold that autism isn't a disability, that it's the co-morbid stuff like sensory hypersensitivity that's an issue. I agree.

** Note that when I say 'disabled people' it isn't because I'm unaware of person-first language. It's because I actively reject person-first language in favour of the Social Model of Disability, which defines disability as the discrimination I face as a result of my impairment, making 'disabled person' a political statement of membership in an oppressed minority.


  1. I've just taken an urban fantasy novel with two diverse protagonists, one neurodivergent, one a wheelchair user, through #Pitchwars

    Go, you! *Beats back weasels with a broom*

    You know, I never considered writing disabled characters until I got to grad school. It turns out I don't base my characters on myself, but on those around me, and I was mainstreamed... but I was the only one, all through school, until then.

  2. Thanks for this response. I'm one of the people who wasn't keen on the post you're talking about but didn't understand why it was so offensive. Education is the best way to combat a lot of things. So thanks for putting this out there and helping people like me become more aware.

    Question: Can you think of a better column name for the posts? Perhaps a name change to something less offensive would be a good start should SF Signal continue with it.

    1. A better column name? The one that springs immediately to mind is "Diverse Worlds" (or ye olde "Divers Worlds").

      If SF Signal did drop the column, I would consider that even more of a problem than the original post.

    2. Sarah's put up a new blog post with some news regarding what happened at SF Signal. She's closing down the SF Signal column and starting up a new website that will have a committee okaying posts.

    3. Mixed feelings over that. She clearly has aims she wants to follow outside of SF Signal, but I think the advantage of the SF Signal column was it put those views right in the mainstream.

  3. i've never considered this point of view when reading. This has really got me thinking in a new way. I don't write myself, but I do read a lot of books and articles. I now realise that people with disabilities are not represented in the majority of literature.
    I am disabled and I have faced prejudice due to this, but I just get on with life as best I can.

  4. I became disabled in a very politicised environment, with guidance from people who had been fighting this fight for decades. But not every disabled person needs to be politicised, or should be politicised. We're a symptom of the problem, rather than something people should aspire to.

    But when literature erases us from existence, that's something that has consequences in our daily lives, because it teaches everyone else to ignore us, and that's not good.

  5. Excellent post! Thanks for the time you put in to it.

  6. Thank you so much for this. I found it because a Tweet led me to the apology led me to here - I don't read much science fiction or fantasy so this is all new to me. My grandma was disabled for most of her adult life and she never had an issue with the term disabled but she died in 2007 and I've only started hearing terms like "differently abled" more recently. It's really good to hear what terms you prefer and why and it makes a lot of sense. This has been very educational, thank you.

  7. Reading this, Sterling Casil seems to have deleted the fauxpology. How's the book going, hon?