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Fictional Portrayals of Disability- Why Do They Matter?

By Derek Newman-Stille

I frequently get asked why I look at portrayals of disability in fiction. I am often told that I should look at something “real” and “substantial” like policy. 
I find this an interesting assumption. People frequently assumed that marginalized identities are going to be best changed through policy and politics, but policies are shaped by social consciousness, by the realm of ideas. Fiction is about the realm of the possible, the realm of ideas, and it is ideas that make changes more than policy. Policies won’t change social attitudes unless there is a social receptiveness to these changes. 
I frequently think about this in terms of requirements for accommodation in building codes, and the notion that undergirds this: “minimal compliance”. Minimal compliance with building accessibility codes mean that people can continue to view disability as a PROBLEM, as an issue that doesn’t need to be accommodated, but instead needs to be appeased. This means that buildings often have spaces that don’t really fit disabled bodies, but instead fit codes. Disabled bodies are still viewed as non-viable in these spaces, perceived as a barrier to an easy build rather than a necessary inclusion. Rather than viewing us as needed and essential participants in these spaces, we are viewed as inconvenient obstructions. 
Fiction provides a space for radical rethinkings of our social spaces, challenges to a system that is content with our erasure. Fiction invites society to radically re-imagine our perceptual frameworks, our entrenched beliefs and the things that we consider self-evident. 
Yet, our fiction is produced from the moulds that have been created previously, from our social frameworks and from our existing taken-for-granted understandings of the world. Our fiction, and our ways of imagining disability are fundamentally problematic, limited, and actively damaging. They reproduce ideologies that push disabled bodies further to the fringes and influence policies that don’t really include disabled bodies and often actively exclude us. 
Our fiction, our imaginations, need an infusion of something new and potent, something that radically reconsiders not just literary tropes, but imaginative possibilities. We need a radical reconception of the way that disability occupies our imagination, challenge images that reduce us, and open up new possibilities for discourse.
Critical explorations of popular culture, literature, art, imagination, are not just things in the realm of academia. We should all be radically reconsidering our portrayals, critically questioning them, discussing them, and producing something new.

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