Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction will focus on making our work as disabled creators public. But what is it like to be disabled in public? In my experience it can be quite different from country to country, and also relate to how you present yourself, both online and offline.
I am autistic and also have mobility issues—some related to motor dyspraxia, others to a rare chronic illness. My mobility can vary quite a bit.
Last week I was trying to board a train home from a conference. This round trip was my first experience with trains in the US. The trains usually do not go where I need to go, but this time I got lucky.
There was a priority boarding lane for disabled people and seniors! I was really enthused, because I was in a lot of pain, my legs were stiff, and I was walking with a cane. I got in line… and promptly got shooed out by another passenger, an elderly white man in a cowboy hat, for not being a senior. I was trying to ask the person in charge of boarding if disabled people could in fact stand in this line. I am short and many tall Americans were standing in front of me. The person yelled “Seniors boarding!” She did not hear me.
I stood back and waited in the regular boarding line. And waited. And waited, leaning on my cane. When the line started moving, I lost my balance and fell. Another white man helped me up and then told me he absolutely must go in front of me because his kids are boarding.
I have a lot of experience falling due to dyspraxia, so I only scraped my elbow. I was still upset. To top it all off, the train company apologized to my spouse complaining on Twitter, but not to me. (My spouse is also disabled, but this was not apparent from context.) As a disabled person, I could readily be ignored—and this is what I experience when I talk online about being disabled as well.
When I say something about disability with sufficient confidence, I often get treated as an authority; especially since I’m in academia. Whenever I add that I myself am disabled, the conversation frequently veers off track. I get ignored, shunted aside, even when I’m not explicitly dismissed. In my experience, this happens especially frequently related to autism, but it can definitely apply to other kinds of disabilities or chronic illnesses as well.
This kind of ignoring feels as if a sound-blocking (tweet-blocking? social-media-post-blocking?) cone of invisibility has suddenly descended on my head. I can say what I want, but the other side will not listen. I can wave my arms, but they will not see me. I am no longer that pristine authority; I am unfavorably biased by virtue of my existence. Instant demotion in respectability.
It’s not just about a train ride. I get this muffling experience in SF/F spaces too, which are where I primarily hang out online and occasionally offline. I get it when it comes to my writing, which is varied and sometimes about disability, sometimes not—sometimes about my other minority groups, sometimes not. Often, the only people who respond to disability-related tweets, blog posts, and stories are themselves also disabled. Disability inspires aversion from the non-disabled population. It elicits a turning away. When I want to promote something disability-relevant in SF/F spaces, it feels quite similar to standing at the back of the boarding line and waving and yelling to get attention. Sometimes I give up, at least until the next “I’ve never heard a disabled person mention this!” How could we be easier to notice?
It’s not just about positive versus negative experiences—at first, I guessed that maybe because, for example, when I talk about queerness as a queer person, the topic is something fluffy and cheerful, whereas disability is usually annoying or painful? But even when I talk about the negative aspects of queerness, like institutional discrimination, I feel that outsiders and majority people listen more than when I talk about disability. Even the positive aspects of disability. I have multiple marginalizations, and people can react to me quite differently based on which of them are foregrounded at any given moment. In my experience, disability ranks quite low on the respectability scale.
Now that a whole bunch of disabled people are going to vehemently destroy science fiction, maybe there is going to be some kind of interruption. Maybe the muffling cone will lift for a bit. At the very least, we will be able to have more discussions about disability where disabled people are going to set the tone, the topics, and the context.
I don’t think the muffling will end. It is on every single person to stop it. Communication is a choice that is recreated in every moment, every interaction. The best I can hope for is a slow, slow improvement—both inside SF/F and outside it. And then maybe one day I will get through a train ride without having to choose between yelling or falling on my face.
© 2018 by Bogi Takács