Fears and Dragons and the Thoughts of a Disabled Writer

I write fiction; specifically, I write fantasy, and I have a disability. I love visiting other worlds full of magic and sorcery, populated with paladins and rogues, ghosts and princesses, and, of course, dragons. Never forget the dragons. But what I struggle with, and what I think many authors with identities that are “other” struggle with, is that we can never present characters like ourselves without worrying about how they will be perceived. And because of that, how we will be perceived. Not only do our characters carry the weight of societal prejudices, stereotypes, and a myriad of -isms (racism, sexism, ableism etc.), but so do we. These are our dragons.

For years there was no “me” in fantasy. No “me” as a fierce independent woman, no “me” as a person of color, and perhaps most importantly, no “me” as a person with a disability. I don’t want to get sidetracked into a discussion of representation. Many wonderful writers have already tackled that problem in this Uncanny issue. What I want to talk about is disabled writers and how we include ourselves in our writing life. It isn’t about one character or one book, but in a world where creators are increasingly engaging with our audience, there is a desire—no, a demand—for connection. We are selling ourselves as much as we are selling our work. Perhaps that is what makes this essay so painful. Because I didn’t. I purposefully hid a part of myself.

I didn’t want to be the “disabled author.” I just wanted to be the writer. I’ve been writing for almost ten years, but it is only in the last two years that I have openly included characters with disabilities. In fact, I only realized this week that other than the author photo that includes my guide dog, there is nothing in my bio or on my website that indicates I have a disability. The recent choice to include more of my truth in my fiction was intentional. The fact that I had elided disability from my entire online presence was evidence of a startling and much more insidious ableism. And I am not alone.

Over and over we hear the statistic that one in five Americans has a disability. When it comes to writers, that number is no different; it might be even higher. My visual impairment is very noticeable. So is the guide dog. I have a disability that is “out there” for all the world to see. My ADHD less so. I am always surprised and thrilled, and saddened, by the number of writers who will catch me privately and talk about their anxiety or ADHD or fibromyalgia or any number of chronic conditions and ailments. But they say it in hushed whispers, just to me, like we’re part of a secret club. I smile and try to be encouraging and say, “Hey, that’s a disability too.” And then they demur and blush and sidestep, claiming it isn’t the same. “No, it isn’t like folks with real disabilities.” Real disabilities. Like mine.

What makes these same people stutter and stumble and worry about claiming a disability identity? The problem isn’t just about equal representation within fiction. This is us erasing disability from ourselves in the real world.

Fantasy has a long history of scarred heroes and bitter, one-eyed villains. The genre’s disabled heroes, when they crop up, have tended to be inspirational and valiant, sometimes a little bit pitiable. Just enough that the reader can proudly proclaim, “They overcame their limitations,” or breathe a sigh of relief and murmur, “Thank goodness that’s not me.” And I wonder, are these reactions the dragons that chase disabled authors? Are we afraid that we will find our real-life selves reduced to these same tired stereotypes? Our disabled bodies shoved into boxes and labelled by our audience?

We are all a part of our society and our culture and as such, we absorb the perceptions and prejudices of that culture, including those that surround disability. Is there an internalized ableism that causes us to fear that if we claim this identity openly and freely, we will lose something, some status? What if the public acknowledgement of this identity skews how people not only see us, but how they see our fiction? People with disabilities are less capable; people with disabilities are less successful; people with disabilities don’t create, and therefore our creations must be lesser.

Let’s examine the issue of the disabled author identity from another angle. White cishet able-bodied men are free to represent characters like themselves without the influence of negative societal stereotypes or prejudices. They can write tall men or short men, heroes, anti-heroes; soldiers, accountants, ne’er-do-wells, and lovers. Those are all perceived as “normal,” valid choices. There is no expectation that the authors speak (and write) for all white cishet able-bodied men. For authors with an “other” identity—people of color, queer writers, disabled writers, and others, including multiply-marginalized individuals—there is always the low-key apprehension that we will be perceived as representing our entire race, or gender, or as representing all people with disabilities. A not unfounded apprehension.

Consider some of today’s identity-based expectations: You’re a disabled author, of course you must include disability in your writing! Isn’t it always in your characters and themes? Just like the expectation that women directors always promote more women-centric stories. And this then connects to some of the not-so-nice comments and remarks about #ownvoices. These expectations are found again in the ugly belief that if a disabled writer’s work is crafted around their identity then the only reason their work has value is because of “disability.” It erases the craft and skill of writers with disabilities. It creates an atmosphere of fear. Fear that one’s writing will never be judged on its merits, only on its ability to “educate.” Is this another dragon to slay?

Does the physical reality of our disabilities actually shape our prose styles, or influence the types of scenes authors with disabilities write? Do writers, like me, who cannot see, tend to write descriptive prose that utilizes other senses more effectively in the overly visual worlds of fantasy? Could limited or assisted mobility lead to more internally focused, emotionally complex action scenes in a genre that is focused on the run-and-hack-and-slash part of adventuring? Or is this also part of our idea of what a disabled writer is rather than the reality? I don’t know that there is an easy answer.

For some authors with disabilities, that disability is a part of their voice as writers. They center disabled characters within fantasy and they allow themes surrounding disability to live in their universe. It informs their writing but may not necessarily be what they write about. At its heart, disability in fantasy isn’t just about the craft of writing or the inclusion of disability in the content of the work, but an acknowledgement of ourselves. We can write about knights or knaves, princesses or monsters, but our disability, as a part of our identity, goes with us wherever we may journey on the page. And as for the dragons—the societal labels and stigma—to win, to slay them, is to be accountable to who we are wholly and completely.

Day Al-Mohamed

Day Al-Mohamed is an author, filmmaker, and disability advisor. She is co-author of the novel Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn, is a regular host on Idobi Radio’s Geek Girl Riot with an audience of more than 80,000 listeners, and her most recent novella, The Labyrinth’s Archivist, was published July 2019. She is a member of Women in Film and Video, a Docs in Progress Film Fellowship alumna, and a graduate of the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop. However, she is most proud of being invited to teach a workshop on storytelling at the White House in February 2016.

Day is a disability policy executive with more than fifteen years of experience. She presents often on the representation of disability in media, most recently at the American Bar Association, SXSW, and New York ComiCon. A proud member of Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 24-01 (5th District Southern Region), she lives in Washington DC with her wife, N.R. Brown and guide dog, Gamma. You can find her online at DayAlMohamed.com and @dayalmohamed.

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