I was recently interviewed on the Spoonie Authors Podcast (episode coming up soonish) and as it’s a podcast by authors with disabilities, chronic illnesses, or mental illnesses, they asked something that I thought I’d turn into the first of 39 weekly lessons leading up to my 40th birthday.
The subject matter they raised was about disability representation in fiction now and in the future, so I’ll mention that first and then move on to a broader spectrum. I was on this podcast because of my depression, PTSD,and fibromyalgia, though the conversation turned unexpectedly to my bilateral vestibular syndrome.
When asked if I enjoyed any current representations of disabilities, I mentioned Ryan Sinclair from Doctor Who. The first time we meet him, he confesses to being nineteen years old and not being able to ride a bicycle. I immediately said out loud, “I wonder if he has what I have.” When he said a couple of minutes later that it’s dyspraxia, I punched the air for joy. That’s another term used for my lifelong condition. I was worried, though, because I had never seen it in a fictional character before and didn’t know how it would be depicted.
Growing up, I was horrifically awkward. I had occupational therapy, vision therapy, speech therapy, an IEP, extra sessions with the gym teacher. My best friend in 4th grade told me she thought I’d come in from the special education class when I met her in math. In high school, this one guy named Dan kept asking me, “Wuddyaretahded?” (Bostonian for “are you stupid or something?”) We were both at an academically-challenging school where every student was gifted in some ways. I excelled at writing, languages, and music. I mentored a Russian math prodigy who was taking college-level calculus in 9th grade. But because I was awkward at just about everything (and blind as a bat before I got Lasik in 12th grade), I believed he was right to call me retahded.
I often say, though, that my parents approached it a great way. Yes, they got me to therapy and made sure I had an IEP, but they didn’t say why. When I was 13, I complained about how hard it was for me to accomplish the same things as other people in my orchestra without doing more work. It was then that I found out that I wasn’t supposed to be able to play an instrument, ride a bicycle, or play a sport. I did all three of those because no one in my family told me there was no way I could. and excelling at music gave me confidence to stop listening to idiots at school. Most of my friends now that I’m grown up don’t know about this diagnosis because I have a lot of ways in which I just don’t have to prove myself as I did in school.
So back to Ryan Sinclair. In another early scene, he has frustration over his failure and his grandmother’s husband flippantly says, “are you going to blame that on the dyspraxia, too?” Just as immediately as I’d cheered for knowing his diagnosis, I angrily shouted “HEY” at the character. But that early comment set the stage for how Ryan feels treated for his challenge. In the second episode, he faces a situation that needs him to be just as coordinated as the rest of the Doctor’s companions and rather than point that out, she is patient with him taking his time and tells him he’s being brilliant. In this kind of environment, he takes more pride in what he can’t do and in a recent episode, a friend of his remarked that he’s more willing to go out and play basketball. It makes me happy that Ryan is being represented with that character growth.
So, Part 2: What do I hope to see in the future in terms of representation? Well, let’s turn to another example. One author I’ve read came out with a cover reveal for a romance. There were several characters on the cover, none of them Persons of Color. I very honestly said that I thought the story was great, but there wasn’t much diversity in the choice of love interests. The person essentially said that they didn’t want to put in a token character just because it’s a thing to do.
Let’s jump back to Swan and Shadow. I set it in Boston and based the diversity on Boston’s cultural representation. I grew up knowing all sorts of hyphenated Americans. I went to high school with Chinese-, Armenian-, Italian-, Russian-, Korean-, Japanese-, Iranian-, Indian-, etc. I had friends who had come to this country with their parents, friends whose grandparents had come to this country. I’ve got a great-grandfather who was Swedish by birth. I’m also a Native American, according to my tribe’s rolls.
Representation, in my estimation, shouldn’t be about “token characters.” It should be about seeing the world around you. People often say that “In my day, people didn’t have autism/anxiety/bipolar/depression” or “No one was asexual, non-binary, etc. back in the day.” It’s not that these things haven’t existed until recently. It’s that we have tools and terminology. We have better understanding of things. Make sure you write with that understanding.