Yeah. So. Here’s the thing. People without disabilities, many, many of you need sensitivity training when it comes to disabled folks like myself. Like, big time. Because you don’t even know what you don’t know. And you’re hurting us with your ignorance.
Last weekend at a conference, I was scheduled to be a panelist to discuss how to write characters with disabilities in speculative fiction. I was all like, “Whoot, this is my jam! I am so gonna sit back with my fellow peeps and we’ll share stories and learn from each other.”
Nobody gave me any heads up that of all the panelists, I would be the only one with a disability. I discovered it as the talking began. My heart went into my throat but it’s not like I could flee the room. There were people who had come to learn. I have journeyed the spectrum from being invisibly to visibly disabled. I’ve a voice to speak about the prejudices hurled against people like me. I know how I want to be represented in writing. I’ve written characters with disabilities myself. I had stuff I could contribute to the discussion.
I did my best to bring across the points I felt should be addressed: give us personalities, make us sexy, don’t create inspiration porn, we don’t need to be cured in your stories, and don’t write us to be pathetic and sad.
When I felt more and more questions were being directed at me, by a pretty rockin’ audience I might add, I felt really on the spot but I reached into the knowledge I did have and answered as best as I could. Without prep. Without another panelist in the know to correct me or add to my perspective.
Because I don’t have all the disabilities. There is a wide diversity of them, and I would have loved to have seen that representation. You just cannot have a panel about a marginalised group of people that should be own-voices, and fill it up with non-disabled people. Even if others with disabilities had to cancel, it’s better to cancel the entire panel, in my opinion, than have one person try to carry it. Or at least ask the one person left if they mind being a soloist. What if I had been ill? The entire panel would have had no representation of people with disabilities.
It’s akin to an LGBTQIA panel comprising only of cisgender, heterosexual people.
Now, I must say I have no issue with writers who aren’t disabled including disabled characters in their stories. Go for it! Get your sensitivity readers and make sure you don’t tread into own-voices territory. But just like how I include queer characters in my stories and have them thoroughly vetted by sensitivity editors, I stay away from certain stories I couldn’t possibly write because I wouldn’t have that personal, experienced perspective.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate non-disabled authors who do their research and want to offer their experience on a panel such as this, but I feel the vast majority of the panelists should be own-voices. Ideally, all the panelists would be own-voices, but we’d encourage you all to include disabled characters and then give you advice on how to do it best.
You know, like how I thought we’d do on that panel.
I was shaken, livid, and really upset when it was over. I know I carried myself in my fun Cait ways, because I liked the audience and again, wanted to offer what I could. But throwing me into that situation with no warning was not acceptable.
Thankfully, I have the support of other friends with disabilities and we’re going to work together to help educate in these spaces.
Because an education is needed.
No one should be made to feel marginalised in what should be their safe space.
I’m making the Splot face right now.
Cait Gordon is an Irish-Canadian warrior princess and author of Life in the ’Cosm, a space opera about a little green guy who’s crushing on the female half of his two-headed colleague (Renaissance). Cait’s also the editor of the Spoonie Authors Network, a blog featuring writers who manage disabilities and/or chronic illness. She likes cupcakes.