Disability Clichés in Wild Cards: An Introduction

by Mary Anne Mohanraj

I’m honestly sort of surprised that there haven’t been entire academic books written about disability which also describes on appealing a denied claim as it presents in the Wild Cards universe, since it’s pretty much baked into the very framework of Wild Cards.  The idea that the virus leaves so many people as physically affected (‘deformed’) jokers has given a host of chances for writers to play out the emotional effects of that over the many books and stories of the series.

For my own first Wild Cards stories, I mostly focused on ace and nat characters who had no superficial physical changes; my joker Minal was a less prominent character, and her changes could be hidden under clothes.  When I set out to create a major joker character for the upcoming volume of Joker Moon, I quickly realized that I was about to wade into a sea of disability clichés, and it would require some adept navigating to avoid reinforcing those tired and harmful tropes.

I asked some friends with intimate knowledge of disability for their thoughts on what clichés they’d seen too often. SF writer Liz Henry immediately tweeted back a few common ones:  “Villain because of bitter feelings about disability / disfigurement.  The idea that you have some exactly compensating extra thing / super power like if blind, an uncanny sense of hearing.  Can’t walk, great spaceship brain pilot.  Plucky. Super Crip. Miracle cure.”

Writer Day Al-Mohammed sent me an essay, “The Stories We Tell and the Amazon Experiment,” that opens with this:  “I am the metaphor for the hero to learn a “valuable lesson.” I am your “afterschool special,” your vengeful monster and scarred villain. I will die or be killed gruesomely to serve as motivation for the protagonist, or I will overcome and be healed. This is how the world views people with disabilities; how the world portrays characters who are like me. And I hate it.”  (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/lynnemthomas/disabled-people-destroy-science-fiction-uncanny-ma/posts/1953111)

Writer Merrie Haskell sent me a list of disability movie clichés (http://disabilitymovies.com/disability-movie-cliches/), which includes gems like these:  “The disabled person needs able-bodied people to teach them that their life isn’t over.  People with disabilities can cure themselves through sheer force of will. If disabled people are included on a team or in a group, it indicates that they’re expected to fail.”

And writer Haddayr Copley-Woods gave me “Physical Disability Bingo,” (https://haddayr.livejournal.com/608357.html), a great graphic representation of some of these common clichés:

With all these great resources now out there, there’s really no reason for an able-bodied writer like myself to fall into those clichés.  So while my protagonist in Joker Moon may be a little bit bitter, and a little bit evil, it’s not becauseher disability made her bitter and evil.  I may still stumble into a cliché or too, but if so, I hope the audience will call me on it, so I can do better next time.  Representing people as they really are is the goal, even when the people you’re talking about aces, deuces, knaves, and jokers.

If you’re interested in learning more, I can’t recommend enough the work Nebula Award-winning author Nicole Griffith does in her chat:  CripLit

https://nicolagriffith.com/criplit/— there’s a host of archived chats on all sorts of disability topics there, and Nicola is a brilliant writer and teacher, so they’re entertaining as well as educational, for writers, readers, and basically everyone.


Note:  Physical Disability Bingo Card by Dot_gimp_snark LJ Community is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.