Thinking about Writing: Internalized Ableism

Because apparently I am a masochist, in addition to doing NaNoWriMo for my cookbook that I am trying to write, I am also devoting a significant amount of energy to a story I am trying to write. For months now, I’ve been thinking that if I am going to keep talking about the importance of including disability representation in fiction like fantasy, I should do my best to put up or shut up. In truth some of the ideas I had suggested as possibilities for fun ways to include disability in an incredibly versatile genre like fantasy had inspired me. I wanted to write stories that incorporated some of these ideas.

I started with some of the short stories I had posted earlier this year.

Then this silly idea started niggling at me. I had become enamored of this concept of Baba Yaga I had and it led to this idea of “what if she ran a magical school for abandoned girls?”

I started playing around with the idea, and I thought to myself that this was the perfect setting for some of my disabled character ideas. Think about it? In a time where Baba Yaga would have roamed the forests, one type of child that could rely on being abandoned even as a baby is one who is disabled. Even now, disabled children are more likely to be abandoned, murdered by their parents, be the victims of negligence, and so forth.

The story began to grow around four students in particular:

  • Kasia, a talented animal witch who uses a seeing spell to see through the eyes of certain animals, since her own eyes don’t work. Her favourite set of eyes is a white faced scops owl and a black cat, who she switches between as the occasion warrants. She is Baba Yaga’s eldest student being in her early twenties and acts as a teacher or teacher’s assistant as often as she does as a student.
  • Anna, a powerful weapons witch who uses magic to fight with double swords as well as forge wonderful magical weapons as well. She uses the help of spirit scribes who provide her with captions for people’s speech since she is deaf. She supplements this with her ability to read lips and the fact that her friends and teacher have learned to communicate with her through gestures.
  • Lidiya, an artist of a woodcarver who can infuse items with magic. She is also a talented singer and will often weave her spells with songs. Her right leg is beautifully carved from enchanted wood. In addition to just being stunning, it also include balance spells, spells to make the prosthetic comfortable and not to give her blisters, as well as protections spells.
  • Iskra, the only redhead at the school which explains her name. She is the second oldest at 18 and is a talented spell caster and potion maker. A lot of what she does focuses on healing. She uses a magnificently carved wheelchair that instead of wheels, is held aloft by a gift from the North wind. The chair is often pulled by a large mastiff looking hellhound. This big dog also acts as a mobility service dog by helping her stand up from her chair when she wants to use her canes instead, or to help her get up from when out picking herbs and mushrooms and other ingredients.

The plot is pretty basic. Their protector and mentor Baba Yaga is kidnapped by a well-meaning hero and the four girls decide to go on a quest to save her and on the way discovering more about themselves while showing off a world filled with wonder and magic.

I’ve been having a lot of fun writing this story. I’ve missed playing with fantasy with my focus in the last few years being working on Hunting Blackbirds, and Young, Sick, and Invisible before that. I wanted something that wasn’t as serious as the Fantasy I had spent more than a third of my life trying to write. Something playful, funny, but also interesting and compelling. (Humble aren’t I. I mean I’m not saying I’m going to succeed at all that but you know, at least try for it).

I have no set goals for it. I don’t know if it will be a novella or a novel. I’m not trying to have some larger broader message. Just fun.

But even just fun like this can show a lot about a person’s internalized biases. As I came to realize just this past evening while working on what was a silly scene.

The setting: I’m just introducing all the characters. We’ve met Anna and Kasia, and are about to meet Iskra. We meet her in the middle of household chaos. Another student at the school had misfired a spell which hit her hellhound in the eye and sent him off barking and howling into the kitchen scaring Kasia’s cat who accidentally jumped into a bucket of water spilling it and jumping into Kasia’s arms scaring her Owl who then gets into a fight with the Cat. The hellhound knocks Kasia over, things are falling all over the place. Finally Iskra yells and freezes everything with a spell, except for Anna who was immune from that one because she couldn’t hear it.

As I was describing the scene, I started on the part where I was describing Iskra.

About a hundred or so words in, I realized something that caught me by surprise. Although nominally I was describing Iskra, I realized that before describing anything else about her, I had started describing her chair.

I’ve used wheelchairs before and I will again. Because of my pain and energy levels lately, it has become more common for me to use mobility assistive devices when I go to the store. Despite all that I still had enough internalized ableism of my own that I fell into the same trap that so many people do: seeing the disability before seeing the person.

Wheelchairs are incredible assistive devices. Contrary to what many people seem to think, they are not prisons but rather represent freedom for a lot of people. Having access to an electric wheelchair or scooter or some sort for me would actually mean a dramatic improvement in my ability to enjoy parts of my city. It would give me more ability to explore my neighbourhood and some of the community parks in the area. The lack of it means that I mostly only get to see those parts that are accessible by car and a short walk away.

Despite how wonderful of an assistive device they may be, a wheelchair is also not the definition of a person. While it contributes to the experiences that inform their personality, it is not its defining feature.

It is the tendency to see people entirely as their disability or their assistive device that informs the idea people have that disability is misery. It’s what makes it difficult for society to see us as human. It’s what makes it hard for us to see ourselves as human sometimes.

I could be charitable with myself. I could excuse it as saying that I was just really excited to describe something I had spent a lot of time thinking about. But taking that excuse means not thinking critically about how an author’s biases can come out in our writing, even while we are trying to improve ourselves.

It also shows why it can be important to think about these things. The point of inclusion and diversity is to let people see themselves in a character. There is an element of escapism in it as well, as well lose ourselves in characters and feel what they feel. It is why seeing a character face an unnecessary literary microaggression like what I had fallen into can be so exhausting and so disheartening. The escapism is ruined by the reminder that even in fantasy we cannot escape the ableism that harms us.

I need to do better and it’s thinking about these things that helps us improve. Literature has the power to change the world and shape opinion. It is a mirror to society. It can act as a warning of things to come or an example of how to be better, and writers need to take that responsibility to heart.



Thinking about Writing: Internalized Ableism

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