Writing Fantasy Lets Me Show the Whole Truth of Disability
In speculative fiction, I can center the disabled experience in a way that feels more real than realism
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
The first time I saw deaf people in mainstream storytelling was in the Freeform family drama Switched at Birth. Switched at Birth is a TV show where two young women learn that, as babies, they went home and grew up with the other’s family. Almost two decades after the switch, they meet their biological families and get to know them.
One of the women, Daphne, is deaf. When we meet her in the pilot episode, she both signs and speaks, “it’s nice to meet you.” She wears hearing aids.
The show aired in 2011, when I was on the cusp of entering my senior year of high school. I devoured the first season—it was a lifeline for me. I was the only deaf person both in my family and my school district. My deafness felt like a veil between me and everyone else, one I couldn’t tear down. I found solace in the existence of a TV show that featured deaf people, people like me.
When the second season came around, I wasn’t the only deaf person in school anymore. There were other deaf students at my university, and we’d found each other. My signing had improved. I had learned the difference between Deaf (a cultural label) and deaf (a medical label), and I was starting to claim my Deaf identity and affirm myself under that label, within that community.
I stopped watching Switched at Birth because I was preoccupied with the Deaf people I met in real life. But there was talk about the ninth episode in the second season, “Uprising,” which would be presented in only sign language. We all decided to watch.
When I watched that all-signed episode, I felt my heart plunge into disappointment. It was no longer the lifeline it was in high school. The signing is stiff, the characters are stereotypical. Apart from the presentation, the episode is standard teenage drama, the plot of a Deaf school’s shutdown buoying romantic conflicts. It felt like a faint shadow of a culture and a community that I now knew was richer than what was on the screen. I was disappointed.
I tried to find a replacement for a show I’d outgrown. I wanted to find representation, something that could comfort and validate me as I move through a world that doesn’t accommodate me. I couldn’t find anything that reflected my real experience.
What I found instead was horror and fantasy.
Instead of real-world dramas like Switched at Birth, I started watching darker fare like Hannibal and Teen Wolf. Even though I couldn’t relate specifically to lycanthropy or hyper-empathy that borders on telepathy, I related with the emotional arcs these shows presented; both shows follow their protagonist trying to find their place in a world that either persecuted them or paid them little attention. I found myself rapt at the way they presented identity and community. Both Hannibal’s blood-soaked surrealism and Teen Wolf’s paranormal fantasy hit harder—and felt more relevant to my experience—than any realistic portrayal of deafness I found.
Horror and fantasy let me see my struggle when I couldn’t find any other representation. Teen Wolf, in particular, has moments where the protagonist, Scott McCall, struggles with the demands that being a werewolf places on him; he is asked to be responsible, to assimilate, to go through the world without causing trouble. He clings to human friendships and resents the werewolf bonds he builds. He claims his identity as a creature of the night while struggling with a werewolf’s bloodlust. I understood his frustration, because I wanted to be part of a community without losing parts of myself that aren’t directly tied to Deafness. When I watched Teen Wolf, I almost felt like Scott too, part of a community that was both visible and yet hidden to the world at large.
Whenever I read disabled characters in literary fiction, I feel the same thrill of validation I initially felt with Switched at Birth, often followed by the same kind of disappointment. Often, authors sideline disabled people in literary fiction. Narrators or authority figures see them as unfulfilled, powerless, or saints. They are in need of saving either by God or by another person who might move through society with fewer barriers. This viewpoint upon disabled characters persists in work from decades past to contemporary work today, from novels like Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter to Lara Vapnyar’s story “Deaf and Blind.” Seeing people like me with little agency or autonomy tells me that fiction does not recognize that disabled people can gain, wield, and enact power in a narrative. As a result, I don’t feel represented in those stories, even if the characters are superficially like me.
As someone who wants to write about deafness and disability, reading weak disabled characters frustrates me. It’s a trope that just doesn’t match my experience; I’ve never met a disabled person who hasn’t clawed their way past ableist gatekeepers and barriers alike to get to where they are. When we face ableist barrier after barrier and work harder than our abled counterparts, we don’t deserve to be represented in literature as just weak.
When I transferred my loyalties from Switched at Birth to Teen Wolf, I already wanted to write disabled characters without this conventional weakness. But writing away from the traditional tropes of disability both excited and scared me. I didn’t know what to write—I only knew what I didn’t want to write. There were more touchstones to avoid than there were destinations to journey toward.
I found a new direction in speculative fiction. I read Karen Russell’s story “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” in a fiction workshop, and the story stayed in my consciousness long after I’d moved to other readings. In that story, a group of werewolves are brought to a school to learn how to be human women. The werewolves felt pressure from the human nuns to erase their werewolf selves; the pressure to assimilate from the overseeing class, even as it was wrapped up in metaphor, resonated with me. I had read speculative fiction before, but never stories that negotiated ideas of identity so urgently and efficiently.
There has been plenty of speculative fiction that shows systematic oppression in all its different forms, or, alternatively, that makes the invisible visible. Modern writers like Rivers Solomon and Helen Oyeyemi have highlighted systemic racism through science-fiction and fairy tales, respectively; Carmen Maria Machado and Leni Zumas have explored gender equality and gender expectations using surrealist and dystopian frameworks. In years past, writers like Octavia Butler and Angela Carter snuck revolutionary ideas and sensibilities about race and gender into science fiction, fantasy, and fairy tales.
When I read those writers, I saw ways to center disability in speculative fiction. I saw frameworks and tropes that could springboard conversations I wanted to have about disability. I felt the same emotional tug to “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” as I did to Teen Wolf years ago. I could connect to these stories because speculative fiction allowed main characters to not only be human beings, but also otherworldly creatures. In speculative fiction, humans and creatures alike are given the same space to feel a wide range of emotions and to struggle against limiting decrees and ideas—instead of being weak or helpless. As with Teen Wolf, the struggles and emotions the werewolves face in Russell’s story were feelings I felt as someone trying to fit in a hearing society. Even today, I struggle with hearing people’s expectations of a Deaf person. Speculative fiction allows me to parallel my experiences in a hearing, ableist society with a werewolf’s struggle to fit in a human world. Speculative fiction gave me insight on how to write disability in ways that defied the convention of the weak disabled person.
When I write about disability, I want to show the real experiences of people like me without having to lay out all the societal pressures and oppressions. I want that situation to be accessible to anyone. I don’t want to explain disabled experiences. I want to show them.
If speculative fiction let me, as a reader, overlay Deafness onto werewolf characters, I wondered if the reverse could work as well. Instead of lycanthropy in a human world, we could talk about disability in an ableist society, rendered with the same doubt and uncertainty. Deaf people could be seen as ghosts and aliens, existing outside of our current reality and following a separate kind of logic.
By borrowing those genre tropes in my discussion of disability, I could give disabled people power with more efficiency and impact than was possible in realism. I could see disabled people haunting abled people or demanding correspondence with an abled leader. This use of horror and fantasy felt like a way of occupying a disabled experience without exploiting it, without making the disabled characters weak or ashamed.
Speculative fiction gives me an efficient route in showing disabled frustration and struggle, without lengthy set-up and exposition. When we use speculative fiction to talk about disability, we allow the reader, regardless of their ability status, to feel the frustration a disabled person feels, rather than just intellectually understanding that ableism exists. Instead of explaining, we can go to another world or reality and show how an apparition or an alien can be equivalent to disability and struggle. We can talk about our situations within speculative fiction frameworks with more urgency and efficiency than most realistic situations allow.
If we can highlight the systems of oppression within speculative fiction, then we should also be highlighting change. We can show disabled characters in our reality, but there is only so much power in showing how ableism wears people down. If there is an acknowledgment of ableism, there should be an undermining of it too. Otherwise, it pushes the abled viewpoint onto us. A story that recreates ableism without undermining it is not a story for disabled people.
I am not the only writer to have noticed this. In her book Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space, Amanda Leduc writes, “[We] support and perpetuate a culture where the emphasis is on the cure rather than societal change—where the aim of the narrative is to eradicate the disabled life rather than change the world so that the disabled life can thrive. The stories we tell need to be different.”
Many writers use literature as an avenue to push for a better way of thinking and being in the world. Speculative fiction allows us to imagine situations not bound to our rules, and the next step in this literature is to take the opportunity to imagine change, whether on a personal level or on a societal level. In speculative fiction, this change doesn’t have to be bound to our rules either.
Speculative fiction gives us space and elasticity to envision or imagine how any one person might move through society. Deaf and disabled people deserve to be seen, acknowledged, and imagined in a space that understands them. Instead of spaces where they are only seen as marginalized and weak, there should be spaces where they have the power to push back. There should be spaces where disabled people can feel safe and where we can thrive, as Leduc says.
I love being represented and seeing Deaf people in literature and media today. I love seeing disabled people take on challenges and overcoming them. But, as a reader, what I love more is people like me being seen as someone full of possibility and full of power. When I am given space to speculate about people like me, it makes me feel included. That kind of inclusion makes me feel proud to be myself.