Let’s be honest here, science fiction and fantasy have always been the genres that misfits want to find themselves in. Growing up, I was a terrible student, but I was an avid reader. I loved randomly picking books off the shelf and discovering a good story, no matter the genre. Except I’d be lying if I pretended speculative fiction wasn’t my favorite section of the library.
Reading was always more than pure escapism to me. Books were my constant companions at school. I wasn’t supposed to carry heavy textbooks, but that didn’t stop me from hauling around hardback versions of tomes like The Lord of the Rings and the Foundation Trilogy in my book bag so I could sneak a few pages in between classes. Or during classes.
Back then, it gave me a lot of hope that given enough time even the most unlikely members of the fellowship could have their turn at being the heroes. Because in science fiction and fantasy, anything is possible.
And as a misfit kid, I needed to believe in improbable possibilities.
You see, I have cerebral palsy. It mostly affects my walking and balance, but my speech and dexterity also suffer. My disability is visible in the way that no one ever questions why I have a handicap tag. And yet, I’m incredibly lucky; it’s a mild case, I have the most supportive family anyone can ask for, and I’ve worked with some great physical therapists and teachers over the years.
The thing is, cerebral palsy is not a static condition. There’s room for improvement, especially as a kid, and over the years, I’ve had plenty of personal victories. Like mastering enough control and flexibility to tap my feet (the right one as a kid, the left one in my twenties.) And practicing and practicing and practicing until my fingers finally let me play piano. It was like a slow and unglamorous version of a training montage. But my victories are mine and I’m proud of them.
Trouble is, my progress supports a certain social mentality. People used to tell me regularly that if I just keep trying I could get better. And the stories I read supported this narrative too. I mean how many stories do we have where at the end the blind person’s sight is returned or the “wheelchair-bound” character gets up and walks at some point? Or a science fiction story where there’s a major medical breakthrough that magically fixes everything with no side effects?
But the hard truth about cerebral palsy is that there’s only so much control and flexibility your body will let you have.
These days, I’m not really “improving” anymore. On one hand, that bothers me. But on the other, more experienced hand, I know that’s okay. As of writing this, I’m turning thirty in a few weeks and I can still walk farther than most of my friends. I also know that I’d need to dedicate hundreds of hours of effort into getting an extra ten degrees of motion in my left foot. And honestly, I have better things to do. My biggest goal now is to retain my mobility and flexibility. And on the whole, I’m pretty happy with my body. I’m healthy and active and busy doing the things I want to do.
Lately, though, I’ve come to realize that it’s not just me who needs to re-orient my goals. The disability narrative in our stories needs to change too.
So, I’ll let you in on a secret, the thing I’ve learned about having a life-long disability, the thing that lots of stories never quite grasp: The real trick, the true solution to a disability, is to find a balance between your abilities and your goals.
The idea that you can “fix” cerebral palsy and disabilities like it with hard work and a good attitude is bullshit. But it’s what we are taught to expect. So, we writers need to start changing that narrative. We need tell stories that show a wider variety of abilities in characters. Stories that don’t pity the people who fall outside of the norms, or keep them in the house, or make them long for a “magic bullet” cure. We need to see more disabled characters in fiction, especially older ones, who’ve figured out what works for them and what doesn’t, and who are okay with that. Characters who embark on adventures, who make things and solve problems, just like their able-bodied companions. Because these are the types of stories that will change the way we view abilities and possibilities.
As a teenager, I needed to read more stories with disabled characters living healthy, productive existences.
Actually, I still do.
© 2018 by A. T. Greenblatt