Less than a year after new laws came into force to give people in Northern Ireland access to abortion services, the Democratic Unionist Party (via a private member’s bill brought by Paul Givan) has proposed a new law to prevent abortions being carried out in cases of non-fatal disabilities.
It’s often assumed that disabled people all feel the same way about abortion: that we see it as an existential threat and proof of society’s prejudice against us. What’s often forgotten is that disabled people also have abortions – or need them, and aren’t able to access them. I have great respect for my comrades in disability activism who argue on both sides of this issue. Unlike many politicians, as disabled people, what we have in common is that we don’t only focus on disability when it’s politically convenient.
As a disabled woman, I will always be pro-choice. It’s a line in the sand for me precisely because I have had so many experiences in which my bodily autonomy has been eroded. And I think the appropriate response to people feeling they need to have an abortion because their child will be disabled is to actually create a society in which disabled people and our families are adequately supported. That’s a whole lot more useful than creating a climate of judgment around difficult choices which are not made in a social or political vacuum.
And at the end of it all, when we create that society where support is guaranteed? Where disabled people are valued as much as anyone else? Whether to have a baby, any baby, still needs to be the choice of the pregnant person, every time. Not Paul Givan’s choice, not the DUP’s choice, but the choice of the individual. I’m not suggesting we need to prioritise disabled people’s needs as a way of reducing the number of abortions, I’m saying we need to do it because it’s the right thing to do. And so is making abortion available on the same terms as in the rest of the UK.
The DUP’s pro-life attitude also appears to stop at the point of birth. It stops with supporting a Conservative government whose policies cause children to grow up in poverty – that’s more than one in four children in the UK today. And here’s another glaring statistic: nearly half the people living in poverty in the UK today are either disabled, or live with a disabled person.
Disabled people should be at the centre of conversations that affect us, and not only when we offer a politically convenient prop to ideologically motivated attacks on everyone’s rights. It has been very, very noticeable when individual politicians and political parties in Northern Ireland actually support disabled people’s rights, and engage substantively with disabled people’s organisations across a range of issues, and not just abortion.
Where ableist government policy leads, the general public follow, and none of this does a thing to challenge the ableism endemic in medical settings. It is a scandal that a staggering 59% of the people who have died from Covid-19 in England have been disabled adults. And despite the outcry and investigation that followed the revelation that autistic and learning disabled adults were being targeted by GPs and hospitals for DNRs since the pandemic began, it is still happening. Where is the pro-life brigade now? Mr. Givan?
At a fundamental, institutional level in this country, the disabled people who are already here are regarded as disposable. We are seen as acceptable collateral damage. We are presumably the same disabled people who are of enormous value to the DUP as political footballs before we are born. And that is what Paul Givan and the DUP leadership do not want to acknowledge. Their complicity in supporting a Conservative government, that has disastrously handled everything it has touched that affects disabled people, is what the DUP hope to distract you from with a debate about abortion.
“Tell me, Oh Muse, of that ingenious hero who traveled far and wide.” Homer – The Odyssey
The Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game, much like Fantasy, is supposed to be about adventure, ingenuity, and working together to overcome obstacles. And yet, there was so much opposition to the idea of battle wheelchairs. Because they’d be unrealistic. Or cumbersome. Or any other reason you can imagine for disabled characters to be excluded from Fantasy. But, in a world of elves, trolls and -indeed- dragons, how unrealistic is disability, actually?
Sure, a powerful enough wizard could magic any disability away, but would your character have access to that magic? And if you’ve got that wizard at hand, why not also solve whatever quest your DM has set? A magical ring needs to be dumped into a volcano in the badlands? How about a transportation spell, roll your D20, and with a bit of luck you can put your character sheets away again before you’ve even set off. Then again, that wouldn’t be much fun, right? So, if you’ve got Fantasy realms with hobbits schlepping through marshes, then your party can also deal with a wheelchair and the disability that requires it – or whichever disability your player would like to be represented with.
Over the last decade we were lucky to see quite a bit of disability representation in Game of Thrones. It’s done -eh- less well in other areas, but there is that at least. Anyone hoping it would set a trend in representation will have been disappointed though; in The Witcher, we’re back to the cliché of disabled character who wants nothing more than to be cured, gets her wish and only then can be a major character. No hanky-panky with our freezer-sized hero if she’s not conventionally hot! Does The Witcher represent a look back in time, an artefact of it having been written decades ago? Or was GoTs disability representation not progressiveness, but instead – like its standard rape and objectification of women – part and parcel of Westeros’s grimdark identity?
Part of the answer to these questions is that every story’s resonance is at least partly created by its wider cultural context, and it helps create our collective culture in its turn. The more popular a show or book, the bigger its cultural footprint, and the more it should move the needle. We cannot expect one book or one series to be everything to everyone. Nor – as shown by the widespread “huh?” reaction to disabled people delighted by GoT’s finale – can we expect all of the audience to catch up at once. We can only hope that creative teams at least consider their impact, and realise their potential for disabled inclusivity. And disability is not a monolith, or a single item to tick off a checklist. Inclusion is the beginning, not the end, and should be as varied as disability itself, in all its physical, intellectual, mental health and social communication dimensions.
We’ve moved – through decades of dedicated activism – from the medical model of disability to the social model, in which disability is understood not as being caused by an impairment, but by society’s failure to accommodate us. This idea too is a beginning, not the end of a cultural discussion, and perhaps neurodivergent conditions illustrate this most of all. The social model of disability cannot account for all disabled experience, and for many disabilities; some of the disabilities we ourselves have would suck even in the most accommodating and understanding society, and some of them we’d want cured if we could.
The point, however, is that there is a persistent focus in fiction on the cure (or lack thereof), and it still is the obvious default in how most fiction about disability (in Fantasy and other genres) is played out. It’s an incredibly mainstream idea: disability becomes the story, instead of part of the character’s make-up. This is why disability activists picketed the premiere of the film adaptation of Me Before You (the “better dead than disabled” romance movie): unless a reader/viewer is actively seeking out a wider range of perspectives, that’s usually what they will be served when they consume content with disabled characters. That, also, is the context in which people who aren’t conscious of knowing disabled people in their own lives form opinions about disability. It drives how they vote, how they think and talk about disability, and how they teach their children about interacting with disabled people: disability is a cross that we have to bear, or are nailed to, and for that we are to be pitied, or santified if we show enough courage in holding up.
Disabled characters in fiction often are looking for a cure or have no hope of one. That’s their story. For the heroes a cure will bring salvation, for the villains a cure would come with a heavy price for others. And if there is no cure, then disability becomes the cause for revenge on society for the villains, and time for either bearing up heroically or fading inspirationally into the night, like in Me Before You, but also The Diving Bell And The Butterfly,The Sea Inside, and half a dozen Stephen Hawking biographies.
And that’s the context in which The Witcher was written, both as a book series and, well into the 21st century, a TV adaptation. Writers had every opportunity to do something different, but they chose not to innovate. There definitely is a story to be told about a woman who’s told she can’t become a powerful witch without being abled and conventionally beautiful. It shouldn’t be the most prominent story, though: it’s been done to death – much like disabled people in the real world. This is why we’d love to see more stories where our lives, with our disabilities, are shown as worth living.
You can’t be what you can’t see. If there are no characters with disabilities, in various forms in different phases of their lives, you not only lack representation, you also lack examples. Not having had this ourselves has had an impact for Angeline in particular, and it was difficult to envison herself as being older, with disabilities. Seeing realistic disabled characters with succesful, or at least normal lives would have been a comfort and, perhaps, taken away some fear of death. If the only stories with young people with disabilities are about them languishing or dying, you don’t really believe middle age exists for you.
As it is, while stories about cures, or the lack thereof, are a dime a dozen, you’ve got to look hard for stories that reflect the life someone with a disability actually has. We find it important for stories to exist, and to be widely read and viewed, whose message is: “You can still lead a good life with disabilities; you can still self-actualise; you can have friends and lovers and family and a job. You can still be a witch, if that’s your genre.” Just imagine The Witcher‘s Yennefer trying to magic away her disability, to then decide: “You know what? Not at this price! I’ll accept myself as I am, and so can you!” Her newly found self-acceptance is what’s needed to unlock her magical potential, and it’s her self-assurance, her sass and her personality that makes her attractive to The Witcher, not her t & a. Attractive and worth spending time with, for both Witcher and audience.
It’s getting better. Slowly. Very slowly. And encouragingly, some of that storytelling is on Netflix too, though it tends to be small moments in ensemble dramas, and that glorious biographical dramedy exception that was Special. But it shouldn’t be special. Decent disability representation should be the norm.
In our stories, we try to include elements of disability that we are familiar with ourselves, or from our surroundings. They may inform the characters, but they won’t inform the stories; disability won’t be the story. In the titular story of The Red Man and Others Ymke lives on a farm and has badly treated hip dysplasia, much like one of our relatives, who worked as a maid on a farm as a teenager. We imagine that there’s magic in her world (our S & S has been rather light on S) but it’s not available to her to fix her. There’s not much beyond a willow bark extract from the hedge witch for her. That doesn’t stop her from going forwards, limping at times, having adventures, loving and being loved. We foresee a future in which her disability will get worse, and she’ll have to adjust. We’d like to imagine the world around her being one in which she can still maintain herself and thrive.