Design a spaceship. Or a space station, if you prefer. Imagine an artificial planet, or a galaxy.
But start with a spaceship. Start from nothing except the vacuum of space. Sketch it with a freshly sharpened pencil across the blue-green lines of graph paper, or model it in three dimensions, dragging your mouse to shape components to your will. Research and make notes as you go, a form emerging from details and words. Picture it in your mind’s eye.
Now make it habitable.
Most people have similar ideas about how to make a spaceship habitable. Our designs usually start with oxygen. Then we add water and light and food. Most people stop there.
Or, at least, they think they stop there. In truth, nondisabled people assume everything else. They assume their hands will grip the controls easily. They assume the chairs will hold their bodies, that the noise levels will be tolerable for their ears and their brains, and that they will be able to move from one end of the ship to the other without barriers.
You cannot make those assumptions. You’ve never had the luxury of assuming everything will work for you, that you will always be welcome.
Maybe you’ve always imagined a world where all their assumptions are true for you as well, where each house and library and shop and bus—and yes, spaceship—is as welcoming to you as it is to anyone else.
Maybe you’ve never dared to imagine. But it’s time to start.
People will tell you it’s unrealistic. Ignore them. If faster-than-light travel is a given, then you can sure as hell have a corridor you can roll along smoothly with a wheelchair and never have to worry about being caught out by a flight of steps or someone having left the recycling out halfway across its width. If they can imagine a time when food comes from a protein synthesiser on request, you can absolutely have a world where you can be sure to find something to eat without needing to check or worry, without you have to tighten with anxiety and hear the frustration in their voices as you ask, again, are you sure. And if they can imagine environments for silicon-based life forms¹ and methane breathing aliens², ships filled with water to be crewed by sentient dolphins³, then they can imagine spaces for people like you.
It’s easy, when you start making these comparisons, to let this become an us-and-them game. Look at those aliens with their alien sector4 full of fancy atmospheres. How about a little less for the aliens and a little more for the hard-working, tax-paying humans, huh?
Ignore those sentiments. They’re designed to tear us apart, to pit us against each other. Only the powerful win when we start fighting. Learn from what you see instead. Learn that if space can be built for aliens, it can be built for disabled people like you, that this is not a zero-sum game, that your frustration is reasonable but that any advance made can help you get there faster.
Remember that if Sector 12 General Hospital5 could have been built to accommodate aliens who breathe chlorine, oxygen, or methane, who communicate through the production of sap or through ripples in their fur, who need different gravitational levels, who have two, four, or twenty eyes, then spaces can be build that accommodate us.
Remember that those who live in the Alien Sector of Babylon 5 call the rest of the ship the Alien Sector. Remember that you, the writer, get to choose the words here. Remember that normal is defined by the world you live in, and that it is not static or immutable, that it can be challenged.
Remember that right now you’re designing a new world to live in.
You don’t have much to go on. You don’t know much about spaceships, and you haven’t seen many people like you aboard the ones you have seen.
Maybe you caught a glimpse of a crewman using a wheelchair aboard the USS Discovery (for once, played by a disabled actor, George Alevizos). Maybe you have read your way through every book of the Vorkosigan saga, recommended to you every time as if there’s nothing else out there.
Mostly, if you see people at all like yourself, you see them with advanced technology. You see Geordi LaForge6, his visor providing superior, but nonidentical, vision to that of the other human characters. You see Luke and Anakin Skywalker with their prosthetic hands. Or, if they don’t use assistive technology themselves, then technology is used to rid them of their impairment, to grow replacement legs in days7 or to enable them to exist in a virtual space.8
Maybe you can imagine yourself using technology like that. You think about how it could enhance your senses, aid your mobility, calm your thoughts. You wonder who would have access to it in this future, perhaps, or if it’s really as good as it seems, but it seems a positive sign to you.
Maybe, instead, the thought worries and frustrates you. Assistive technology is a good thing, of course it is, but you’ve seen so many miracle solutions that are unusable, painful, or exhausting, that work no better than what you’ve learned, perfected, and shared with others, that you’re sceptical. How will they treat you if you can’t use this technology? What if you don’t want it? Is it all just a way to make them more comfortable with you?
You’re wary, too, of these people who can imagine the intricacies of hover chairs but can’t even give you accurate information as to whether there are steps into a building, who won’t turn the music down on request. How can they imagine what these futures will be like for you when they can’t understand what you experience now?
Otherwise, the stories are all about medicalised experiences. Disability arises from injury, intentional or otherwise, or from plague. It’s something to be fought and overcome. It’s something you experience alone, and the answers you look for are changes in your body, not changes in the world.
You probably like some of these stories, find they have edges you can tug at, find you can wrap them around yourself and they fit in more places than they don’t. Maybe some of these stories make you angry, and others you simply laugh at. Even the worst of them assure you that there will be a place for people like you in the future, that you will not be abandoned on a dying Earth, that you can live, that you can fight—for your government or against it—that you can work, that you can build new worlds. That you can explore ocean planets and desolate moons and caves of crystal, planets where the plants are sentient or the very world itself is alive and conscious, that you can fly through space itself, your hands clenched as you steer, or as a passenger, lying on your bunk, watching the stars through your tiny window.
It’s a low bar to aim for; simply being allowed to exist in the places other people do, and you hate that you feel you have to take consolation from the mere possibility of existing when others take it for granted. But right now that future is still open, and it is your future just as much as it is theirs.
You think about these stories when you design your ship. You think about the technology you will have available, and how those who use it will live in your ship. You think about the medical facilities you will have on board, wonder if they are equipped only for emergencies, for normative people facing an abnormal event, or if they will work for people like you.
Maybe the discussions of medical ethics resonate with you. Maybe you dream of that speed and ease of diagnosis, of being believed even when you report symptoms they haven’t heard of before, symptoms that don’t even seem to come from this world. Maybe you would do anything for a cure, maybe you would fight against it with everything you have. Maybe, like for most of us, perhaps, the truth is much more complicated.
Tell these stories with your spaceship, on board your spaceship. But don’t accept that these are the only stories to be told about us.
It’s a lot of work, designing a spaceship. And maybe you love it, feel like it’s what you were born to do; maybe once you start the ideas flow fast, each answer producing three more questions. But maybe you have other things you’d rather be doing; maybe you stumble over the shapes and the numbers, and you see how other people just have the spaceships designed for them, without needing to do all of this work, and you’re already so tired.
You may still have to design this spaceship, even though you shouldn’t have to, but do not let them make you think you have to be grateful for being allocated this patch of emptiness, for being permitted to find a way to exist. Don’t think, when I said to design your own spaceship, I meant you must think it is okay that you have to use every last piece of your precious energy to cobble together a ship from old parts. Don’t think that this means you must carve out your own space because you will never belong in theirs, that you have the right—grudgingly offered—to fly and breathe and eat, but not to pilot and explore and maintain and repair and upgrade.
You can fly alone if you like, and you can fly alone if you have to. But we’re not just designing spaceships here, we’re designing whole universes. Universes where you make that choice rather than it being made for you.
There are people who have looked for this spaceship before. There are people who have designed this sort of spaceship before, or something that comes closer to it. You are not starting with nothing after all.
Sylvia Tilly9 is allocated single quarters and nonstandard bedding to enable her to serve aboard the Discovery with a respiratory condition. These low-tech, entirely realistic accommodations are refreshing (though you could be forgiven for wondering if they would have made the effort had she not been the best theoretical engineer at Starfleet Academy).
Xandri Corelel10 thinks to build a relationship with the spaceship she serves aboard (and is rewarded with coffee!) because she is autistic, not despite it. The ship is not so much designed to meet her needs as chooses to. There are strips of satin sewn inside her sleeves, making even the smallest of spaces well designed for her needs.
The Guildhall on Tiananmen Station11 is described as spartan with heavy use of contrasting colours and precisely spaced chairs because many of the Guild’s members have “visual handicaps or other sensory distortions.” It’s noted that assistive technology is available, but many choose not to use it.
Starting from nothing doesn’t mean bringing nothing with you. Your spaceship can take you to new planets, but you’ll always remember this one. It’s a planet that may be cold and inaccessible, sometimes violent, but you cannot separate yourself from it entirely, and perhaps you don’t want to. You can bring your pain and anger or leave them behind. It’s your choice. But bring your communities. Bring your lessons hard learned. Bring the love they told you that you couldn’t feel, and the art they told you that you could never create.
Do not think you cannot live in new worlds just because you bear the scars of the one you came from.
You’ve designed spaceships before. Or if not spaceships, then wide-open planets with space and clear air and firm ground beneath your wheels. You’ve redesigned your house so you don’t fall climbing out of the shower, you’ve redesigned the train network that takes you to work. You’ve been imagining them all your life, asking over and over: how could this be better?
You’ve realised before now that the social model of disability carries a promise within it: there could be other worlds than this one. A promise that how things are is not how things will always be. It invites us to imagine not merely the removal of specific barriers, but whole other worlds. What would a world look like that did not disable you? What would a world look like that did not disable anyone?
You think about how the Hani12 ships are designed to be operated by those with claws, how when humans pilot them they have to use prosthetics. You think about disability as a product of our society and environment, the implication that different societies would disable different people in different ways, or not at all.
So often, when you look at the spaceships designed by others, you find yourself there only by metaphor. You find experiences that skate so close to your own that you clutch the edges of the book, emotions you didn’t know you had rising inside you, and yet they will not name them, they do not show people like you. Your humanity is stripped away in the worlds you’d love to go to. You exist as alien, you are identified with robots and telepaths, you are locked away inside analogies. You find representation of yourself and the worlds you could inhabit, dissections of how you live in the world you do inhabit, so often in science fiction, and yet you are so rarely there directly.
You’re torn in how you feel about it. These are the works you love the most, those that saved you, those that helped you understand both yourself and the world around you, that gave you words and stories for experiences you could not put into words and stories—and yet you’re most invisible where you find yourself the most.
It might be because they hate you. It might be because your stories bore them. But perhaps it’s because you’re dangerous. Perhaps it’s because if you can imagine a different world, if you can design a spaceship, you’re not just going to accept how things are here.
You’re going to believe, instead, that this is not the end of history. That this is not the way it’s always been, and it is not the way it always will be. That it is not the only way it can be.
Even to people like you and I, who have so much to gain, that’s a terrifying thought. But it’s a beautiful kind of terrifying.
So: design a spaceship. Design yourself a spaceship.
You have the vacuum of space. Everything else is up to you.
¹ Doctor Who (television series): Season 14, Story 2 “The Hand of Fear” (1976).
² The Gaim from Babylon 5 (television series), among many others.
3 Startide Rising. David Brin. New York: Bantam, 1983.
4 Babylon 5 (1994-1998).
5 Hospital Station. James White. New York: Ballantine, 1962.
6 Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994).
7 The Orville: Season 1, Episode 5, “Pria” (2017).
8 Star Trek: Season 1, Episode 16, “The Menagerie, Part II” (1966).
9 Star Trek: Discovery. Season 1, Episode 3, “Context is for Kings” (2017).
10 Failure to Communicate. Kaia Sønderby. Going To Mars, 2017.
11 This Alien Shore. C.S. Friedman. New York: DAW, 1998.
12 The Pride of Chanur. C.J. Cherryh. New York: DAW, 1981.
© 2018 by Andi C. Buchanan