When I was fifteen, I got really into queer feminist fairy tale re-tellings. In my fifteen-year-old hubris, I began a novel imaginatively titled The Princess Story, about a school for princesses who learned to rescue other princesses. I didn’t get too far and the project was soon abandoned.
I only recently remembered it ever existed. All the files are long lost (probably for the best) but the characters stick with me. Serena was my favourite, my version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. There’s one detail of her curse the film ignored but I was always fascinated by: every step felt like knives through her feet. Despite that, The Little Mermaid kept dancing with her prince. My Serena escaped her prince and did the sensible thing. She got a wheelchair.
When I was fifteen, my legs still worked. I knew I was born with a bad hip, and they’d cut me open and cracked my bones and screwed me back together again. When I was eight I’d almost died of MRSA because they’d had to operate again. But I wasn’t disabled by any means. I skied, I hiked, I ran, I cycled, I climbed, I did karate, and it was all easy. I was going to be fit and strong forever.
So why did I keep writing about wheelchairs?
My first ever character used a wheelchair. She’d been hit by a truck, which put her in a coma, which sent her to a magic dream world where she was The Chosen One. She later got hit by a second truck saving her bully in the real world. He also had to get a wheelchair. I guess I couldn’t think of any other reason someone would need a wheelchair, but cut me some slack. I was eleven, and how many disabled characters had I ever seen?
How many disabled characters have you ever seen? How many had names, important parts, speaking roles? How many were women? How many were queer? How many were POC? How many were in a genre story, sci-fi or fantasy? Are you a writer? How many disabled characters have you written? Do you think that’s enough?
Age twenty, in the mire of the first lock-down, I started writing a sci-fi comedy audio drama. I’ve never been more depressed. By then I’d quit martial arts after every session left me limping, so I knew something was wrong with my legs, but the pandemic delayed any chance of treatment. I went from walking six miles a day to struggling to leave the house in a matter of weeks as my legs deteriorated, no truck required. It would be another two months before I was advised to quit studying Medicine because of my developing disability, three months before I accepted I needed a cane to walk, nine months before I would actually quit Medicine, and a year before I would begin using a wheelchair.
Working on Attention: The Captain is Fine, I avoided thinking about any of that, or the apparently ongoing apocalypse, or how much I was struggling with Medicine. I had fun, interesting problems: How do we tell this story only through an AI making announcements on a spaceship? How do we make scene changes obvious? How do we make this funny?
How do we include disability?
Both human main characters are disabled. Dr Viera is Deaf, and her hands are severely damaged from an accident, while her wife Becca uses a wheelchair. I don’t remember when or why I decided these things. They just developed naturally alongside the characters. Sometimes people are disabled.
I worried about how to make clear that a character who we can’t see and never directly hear speak uses a wheelchair. Surely it would be weird and rude to just say it outright?
When I invented Becca, I rejected the need for a wheelchair for myself. But as the script progressed, so did my disability, and eventually, it was that or not leave the house at all. And once I had it, I realised it’s not weird or rude to acknowledge it. It’s normal. I use a wheelchair and it rattles loudly and bumps into things and sometimes people trip over the footplates. That’s normal. My friends hold the door and offer to push me up particularly steep hills and suggest routes with flatter pavements. That’s normal. Little kids stare and smile at all the stickers on my wheels and ask their parents when they can get one (kids, eh?) That’s normal. It’s weird and rude to ignore all that.
So I said it outright in the script. I had the menacing sentient AI in control of the ship talk about wheelchair access onboard, include safety announcements for wheelchair users, lets Becca know where there’s space for her wheelchair. The AI is menacing and tyrannical, not ableist.
And when the pilot was released and I listened to it all, complete with rattling wheelchair sounds, for the first time, I realised how rarely I find familiarity in any media. What if I had seen characters like this before? Maybe I would have been better prepared for my wheelchair. Maybe others would be better prepared to deal with seeing me now. I’m certain I would have written more and better disabled characters. And maybe that would have helped others, the way creating my own disabled characters has helped me.