Sunday, April 28, 2019

You Can't Miss the Library: Making Fantasy Worlds Accessible

Stark land sweeps from the buildings clustered atop the hill. I’d liken farm fields and swales to skirts or aprons. This vista is too sharp for that. These are nature’s tassets, perhaps. Narrow stone paths and hard-packed trails wind between sod roofs. This is a place out of Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. I remind myself the latter was indeed filmed here. I can see why: the landscape is one I’d gladly immerse myself in and call home. But it, like many places I’ve visited in the past year, has barriers.

Fantasy is known for austere, epic landscapes, twisting, narrow streets, dark alleys, remote cities. Even outside of the grimdark subgenre there’s an echo of mercilessness. In that, I suppose, fantasy is as real as the earth I’m limping over now.

I settle against a wall across from the broad stairs, knuckles white on the handle of my cane. Pain tunnels my brain to the strange duality of dissociation and immediacy.

“You can’t miss the library!” One of our group protests, seeing I intend to do just that. As if, in a building with no lift, it’s a choice.

You can’t miss the library. I think of the worlds I’ve painted with my words, across the landscape of my novels, all the startling magical beauty in the books that made me who I am as a writer. Except I couldn’t navigate those worlds anymore. Not with this body.

[Image description: A red-headed person in a sweater leans on an old wooden desk, looking to the left. One hand rests under their chin. They do not smile. A museum display of ] This photo was taken by the man who ultimately carried me up the stairs to see the library. My face is serene as I listen to Skaldic poetry. In reality, what isn't captured on camera, my body was screaming, my ears ringing from pain, and I barely heard a word.

What would Frodo have done in a wheelchair? Forget the whole “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you,” bit. That works for a cinematic volcano climax, but even our dear Samwise Gamgee would grow weary of carrying my sorry ass through the Dead Marshes. Hell, I’d grow weary of it. The idea that the only way I can get somewhere is by inconveniencing someone else is insidious. But not always wrong. 

So how do we make fantasy worlds--yes, even Mount Doom--that are known for their inaccessibility, well, accessible? 

Return to the root of fantasy, of the magical, the awe-inspiring. Many might argue this lowers the stakes. Well, you’re the author. Raise them. Do what you do and untangle that plot-knot. How you solve this depends on whether you’re writing an arc that revolves around their disability or a “casually” disabled character (someone whose condition isn’t directly related to any main plot arc). Even if their disability is part of the plot, that doesn't mean the entire world you’ve written should be completely devoid of accessibility--where is their sanctuary?

You can easily make your world more inclusive by switching up your architecture and tech, using magic, and adding different forms of communication. 

Have a character who can’t walk? Ramps and wheels are great! If Egypt built pyramids, surely your fantasy culture could create a city without a single set of stairs. Able folks aren’t inconvenienced by a ramp vs. stairs. A great example of this occurs in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Teo uses a wheelchair that is also fitted with glider wings so he can fly with others at the air temple.

In fantasy, magic serves both as an accessibility device or disability in its own way (one of my main characters, Keplan, involuntarily hears others’ thoughts which manifests similarly to unwanted thought syndrome in someone with unmanaged OCD). But if you have magic, you can guarantee that people will use it to solve problems--perhaps there are spells that reduce anxiety or help people sleep. Braces that also relieve pain for people who dislocate, like me. There are hundreds of herbal handbooks where you can research “magical” plants too!

Communication is a big one, whether your character is non-verbal due to neurodiversity or Deaf. Luckily, many cultures developed sign language independent of one another, even if it began solely as gestures. Think of the Adem in Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles, who use gestures for mood and context for their spoken language. In my own work, I have a Deaf protagonist, Rih, who is raised in a culture where many of the nobility are hard of hearing or completely Deaf. There are still a fair amount of hurdles she has to overcome, but many people in the city know sign language or learn throughout the books.

All of these things are present in our own world--if you’re worried about realism--and have been for a long time. Putting aside the fact that a person’s worth has nothing to do with what they produce, some of our most brilliant minds are housed in bodies that don’t work typically. Just look at Hawking. 

You can’t miss the library. 

So how can your character defeat the genius orc sorcerous if they can’t get to the library to research spells? Sure you could toss them up on the shoulders of a strong, well-meaning companion, who trots up each step like it’s nothing, despite the added person-sized appendage on their back. It’d be an inconvenience to the piggy-backee. Like me, with a stranger’s wool sweater clenched in my hands, your character would have to laugh to keep from sobbing at the embarrassment.

But where’s the creativity in that? Give your world ramps, and wheels, and magic politics and anxiety-reducing spells, flaming words and universal signs for non-verbal people. Give them a reason to save this perfect, accessible world you’ve made them.

And then give them something brand new to fight. 

Thanks for reading! What great examples of accessibility in fantasy or sci-fi have you seen?

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