As I’d mentioned a while ago, I was able to sit on a panel about diversity in science fiction at the beginning of oh, JULY. I’m great with ideas, not so much with plans. That could be another entry in and of itself.
Anyway, the panel itself went well, and although disability couldn’t be the only topic we covered, we still discussed it. It’s understandable, as diversity is such a broad field, that not everything could be covered in one hour. My fellow panelists, Justin Grays, Lana Rosario, Peregrine Johnson, and Gregory Parks, represented a great crosshatch of diverse groups in need of better representation.
Since it was geared towards science fiction, I made a point to bring up how accommodative technology has become mainstreamed in the real world. If you were to exclude disability from your science fiction, you’d be missing out on fundamental ideas for whole classes of technology.
In Star Trek, for instance, voice commands are the default. In our world, voice to text stemmed from accommodation for blind and dyslexic computer users. That, in combination with accommodation for folks with dexterity challenges, brought on the voice command tech that’s been growing in popularity in recent years. That got quite a few “Ah-hah!” reactions. It’s always great getting a response from the audience when you inform them of something like that. Disability is a part of every day life for everyone, especially anyone who uses modern technology. Furthermore, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
My primary take away from the panel, though, is just how important intersectionality is. We look to our stories to find hope, inspiration, and, of course, entertainment. When you see and hear someone who looks and/or acts like you, it helps you feel as if have a place in this world.
Science fiction in particular is a reflection of our aspirations for the future. I grew up with Star Trek, so it will always have a special place in my heart. However, I discovered many problematic elements as I matured. Even in a world that supposedly evolved past hatred and discrimination, there was still sexism and ableism woven throughout the story tapestries. Those elements are very much products of their time. While those aspects must be acknowledged, we still need to examine discriminatory tropes, so we can hopefully minimize them in our own work.
Although the Star Trek franchise has made various attempts at becoming more inclusive with series like Deep Space 9 and Voyager (both of which I greatly enjoy), it is still a good example of how far we as creators have to go in nurturing more realistic, inclusive worlds and casts of characters.
While writers made an effort to incorporate more skin colors and genders into their characters, you still need to look awful hard for any sort of decent disability representation. That’s not to say they haven’t tried, though. One of the main characters in The Next Generation, Geordie Laforge, is a blind black man. Writers fell into the pity trap in the first season a couple of times, but in later episodes, they do a better job of portraying disability in a more balanced manner.
There’s also an episode in Voyager involving a woman with some sort of learning disability. It was never stated outright, but the character was a low academic performer, with novel her creative thinking skills. That unique way of solving problems was great enough to capture Captain Janeway’s attention, and recruit her to the Voyager crew. If I recall correctly, that character saved the day during the particular episode. In the media I’ve consumed, that was one of the only good adult representations of learning disabilities in a woman I’ve seen to date.
Because there was just so much to cover in that particular panel, I didn’t get to bring up those elements, but I, along with my co-panelists, was still able to at least plant the seed of including disability in their efforts for diversity.
The best thing about taking part in these panels and speaking openly about my neurodivergence, though, comes afterwards. While I’m never particularly popular, as I am something of a nobody, one or two people do approach me afterwards for information, often in relation to dyslexia. This time, a young man asked for advice about his little sister who had been diagnosed and is struggling with reading. I hope the ideas and book recommendations I gave him will help her.
Being given the chance to become literate was the best gift anyone could have given me, and it has saved my life in more ways than one. Hopefully, I can help pass that gift along to others who are having a hard time with the written word, as well.
While, in my case, my struggles stemmed mostly from disability, gender, and socioeconomic status, other individuals face challenges from differing elements. Race is still a huge issue in our society, as is sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, and too many other factors to list here. The only way any of us can make headway towards creating a more balanced, healthy, and successful world is to listen to others’ stories without judgment or defensiveness, and work together to find real world solutions.