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Representation of disability in science fiction versus real life

ByIsa Viegelmann

Nov 21, 2017

From space travel to superpowers, science fiction has always presented fantastical possibilities. But when it comes to disability, it doesn’t have the best track record.

Does the idealism of sci-fi have a place for representing disability? More importantly, can it be done well?

Oliver Bagley, a programmer and geologist based in Norway, compares Unbreakable’s Elijah Price and Mass Effect’s Jeff ‘Joker’ Moreau. Both have osteogenesis imperfecta: a collagen deficiency that causes brittle bones, loosened joints and walking difficulties.

Oliver has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a similar collagen deficiency which manifests as stretchy tendons and loose, easily-dislocated joints. Despite understanding the frustration of growing up with a similar condition, he was disappointed by how Price became a villain because of his disability.

Price’s condition gets progressively worse throughout the movie, and the increasing villainy of his character seems to parallel that.

“It was just very disappointing that he could never become more than a villain, and even worse, a villain in a wheelchair. When I started using a cane and a wheelchair, people often assumed I was bitter too.”

On the other hand, Oliver and Joker’s experiences seem to mirror each other. Despite being told he could never be a pilot, Joker worked twice as hard to fulfill his dream. In real life, Oliver is also a hard worker who has earned degrees in both engineering and geology, and has even climbed volcanoes.

Unlike Price, Joker’s condition shows ups and downs. Oliver now uses neither a wheelchair nor a cane, but keeps them as backup in case he ever needs them again.

At one point in the game, the player acts as Joker to reset the ship’s defences in the middle of an alien attack. Limping and in pain, Joker can’t go very fast, but he does it. The fact that he is disabled is no indication that he would lose.

“Just like my experiences in real life, it merely ups the difficulty of the game,” Oliver says: “I love the fact that Joker is such a good main character in the Mass Effect universe, because he is right there in the thick of it, he has a support network and is accepted by his peers, and doesn’t get treated like a special case. And still has a fulfilling life”.

Shekinah Alfaro, a research assistant at the University of Kentucky, finds her representation in Noctis Lucis Caelum, the hero of Final Fantasy XV. Shekinah has an unknown condition similar to myalgic encephalopathy (also known as chronic fatigue syndrome) that manifests as pain and long bouts of sleep, particularly when she eats grains.
Noctis, like Shekinah, was in a coma as a child. He tends to need sleep more than other characters, and may make his friends late by oversleeping.

In battle, he can also go into stasis, meaning he can’t use his magic when he exhausts all his Mana Points. These points can only be recovered when he takes cover from the fight.

Noctis isn’t a perfect representation of her disability, but the fact that sleep is part of his character is something she appreciates.

“I would have ideally liked to have seen more impact, but considering this is a story not about an illness but a man who has it, I think they did good,” she comments.

“It expands the schema most people have on the idea [of a] hero. It’s also a tool to explain my limitations to someone who might not otherwise understand or be willing to listen to lengthy science explanations. I can say ‘I’m going into stasis, like Noctis’, and they understand my sleep a little better”.

What about real-life representation? Like Oliver and Shekinah, there are scientists with various disabilities working in many fields.

This isn’t limited to physical disabilities, either. For example, Collin Diedrich from the University of Pittsburgh presented a candid account of his experiences as a biomedical researcher with learning disabilities in Science magazine.

Good representation in fiction and in the real world is incredibly important. Whether we have a disability or not, it helps us become more understanding of others, and challenges our perceptions of the possible.

“This kid was in a coma, I was in a coma”, Shekinah says, referring to Noctis: “Kid gets better, I’m getting better. Can he save the world? Can I?”.

Image: BagoGames via Flickr

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