Today is the 27th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I don’t remember a life without the ADA. I don’t remember school without the ADA. And I don’t remember being a writer without the ADA. The Act means I can go to school, have a job, access buildings. It means that when I write contemporary fiction, my disabled characters have access to many of the same things that able-bodied characters do—though not everything. We still have work to do!
The ADA is a cornerstone of disability civil rights legislation. To celebrate that—and Uncanny Magazine‘s Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction Kickstarter—I want to discuss the work of disabled genre authors, or authors who celebrate disability in their work. Here’s five of them you’ve definitely heard of—some of them write about disability, some don’t, but ll of them have changed the landscape of SFF.
Fran Wilde’s Andre Norton Award-winning Bone Universe trilogy comes to a close this fall with Horizon. One of the fantastic things about this particular series is, in addition to being beautifully written, it features loads of disabled characters. They are so seamlessly integrated into the setting, many readers won’t instantly notice disability as a major part of the story—but they are there. In particular, her use of echolocation has been lauded by many blind readers, myself included. Fran also wrote The Jewel and Her Lapidary (Hugo nominated, I might add), and is a featured essayist for Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction. She’s likewise written powerfully about her feelings regarding her own disability.
Mishell Baker’s Borderline urban fantasy novels have been widely acclaimed, both here on the B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, and by the Science Fiction Writers of America, who nominated the first book for a Nebula Award—and with good reason. Mishell beautifully develops a multiply disabled narrator—one who shares a disability Mishell also has. One of the things that I love most about Borderline is something author Tracy Townsend mentioned on a panel about writing disability in the future at Readercon. Townsend praised Baker’s work, explaining that Millie might be the most reliable narrator in fiction right now because, “she is so self- aware and candid with the reader. She does not let her perceptions off the hook, and wants to be understood.”
Seanan McGuire is prolific (you may have also read her writing under the name Mira Grant), and celebrates disability with inclusion. Her books are peppered with disability references that aren’t forced, reliably depicting disability as a part of the worlds she creates rather than as an afterthought. Characters use ASL, wheelchairs, and other adaptive devices without having to explain them. It’s something that I’ve always appreciated, knowing that I belong in her worlds, because that’s not something I get everywhere I go in fiction. McGuire creates worlds that think of us, where we are not second-class citizens—where we are not ignored. In the October Daye series, for example, McGuire has mermaids using wheelchairs (including during a chase scene!), which indicates they are an everyday object, and not something to be considered out of the ordinary (the wheelchairs at least; presumably the mermaids aren’t something one sees every day). This visibility is critical—Seanan has tweeted about her OCD, and how much she needs to see characters like her in fiction.
One of the greatest science fiction writers of the 20th century was also disabled. Octavia Butler, author of Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Talents, and Kindred (to name but a few), had dyslexia. One of the reasons I bring her up is because it’s important to remember that even with a disability that directly impacts an ability to write, one can create beautiful, important works. Her influence is felt far and wide, and stretches across genre lines.
Nisi Shawl is an important figure in the science fiction world. She’s also disabled, though you wouldn’t know it to look at her. Her work with Cynthia Ward on Writing the Other is instrumental for writers from all backgrounds. Secondly, her recent novel,the Nubula-nominated Everfair, reimagines steampunk to be more inclusive—something the subgenre sorely needed. Her fiction and nonfiction alike have had an outsized impact on the genre—and readers.
These authors represent a wide range of disabled experiences, and their works reflect a wide range of genres, but they are all stellar examples of writers whose work has changed readers’ lives. If you want to find more books with disabled characters like the ones in Borderline and Updraft, check out my article Disabled Heroes and Where to Find Them—and support Uncanny‘s Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction Kickstarter.
In addition to blogging for B&N, Elsa is an editor of Uncanny‘s Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction special issue.