The narrative of ‘this person was disabled but their disability was cured as part of their story’ is ableist
The narrative of ‘this person is disabled but “overcame” disability in order for them to be a hero’ (e.g. a paralysed person finding a way to walk) is ableist
And just for clarification for the non-disabled, using adaptive technologies, like prostheses or whatever, is not ableist as long as you never forget. Ask yourself questions about the benefits but also the limitations of whatever adaptive thing you’re giving the character.
- They have to take a pill every day to treat a chronic illness or chronic pain? Okay, what happens when they forget, or are in a bad situation and run out of pills?
- They lost a limb or are paralyzed and now they have a sci-fi cybernetic prosthesis/exoskeleton to replace the lost functionality? Cool. What does maintenance look like? Does it ever malfunction? What happens if they don’t or can’t take care of it? Do they still get phantom pains even with the adaptation?
- They’re deaf or blind or anosmic, but they’re a wizard who uses magic to adapt to the lost sense? Fine. What does it take to maintain that magic? Do they have adaptive strategies for when the magic fails?
- They’re autistic or have ADHD or schizophrenia or some other cognitive disorder, and they have a chip in their head to make it easier to communicate when non-verbal? Okay. What exactly does it do for them? Does it ever malfunction or give them headaches? What are other ways they’ve adapted to their disability apart from this chip?
Other questions to ask that go for all kinds of things:
- Do they have a service animal? For what tasks or situations is it trained?
- Do their family/friends know how to help if their adaptive technologies/strategies fail?
- Is their disability (or the adaptation) visible or observable to others? How do others react?
- Has their society adapted to accommodate disabilities, and if so, in what ways? (Ramps, closed captions, sign language, etc.)
Basically, think about what it adds to the story to have your character disabled. If you were just going to completely cure it with no ongoing repercussions or adaptations, why did you bother making them disabled in the first place? What story were you telling?
really good addition
Not to be disrespectful, I genuinely want to know: I heard more than a few disabled people talking about how for them a fantasy world where the disabled character is cured of their disability/chronic pain is wish fulfilment and something they want written and also write. Where does the line go? Like, I’m autistic, and I wouldn’t want a story with a character being “cured” of autism cause that would feel ableist and icky. But I can understand why a person with say chronic pain would want a world where the character gets cured of their chronic pain.
I think personally (as a person who is both neurodivergent and has painful physical disability) it’s about how it’s approached. Is the person who’s in pain cured of their pain because they’re ~broken~, or because they’re suffering and this is an attempt to reduce or remove their pain? Is their disability something that can be accommodated for and give them good quality of life, or is it just something that is physically draining and no amount of accommodation will truly improve the situation because they’re in pain?
It’s the difference from the first (I think?) X-Men movie, when Rogue bursts into Professor X’s office excitedly asking if it’s true that someone’s found a way to cure them, and Storm replies with “no, they can’t, because there’s nothing wrong with us.”
Storm has weather powers but could live a completely normal and fulfilling life as a mutant if mutants were accepted socially. With accommodation and social acceptance, Storm would not be significantly negatively impacted by her mutation.
on the flip side, Rogue kills people who touch her bare skin and could never live a completely normal life due to needing precautions to avoid accidentally killing people, and will also always have to live with the stress and anxiety of knowing she could kill someone if she’s not careful enough. Even if mutants were fully accepted socially, she would be significantly negatively impacted by her mutation.
So no, STORM doesn’t need to be “cured” and it would be shitty to suggest she does, but it’s understandable and even reasonable for ROGUE to desire and get a cure, even if that cure is not removing her mutation but at least removing the worst parts of it (like how she had no control over the killing-by-touch part).
I don’t want to be “cured” of autism or even (though it can be a pain in my ass) ADHD. I would take any suggestion I should be “cured” of these things very personally as offensive. I know a lot of people who are physically disabled (blind, deaf, amputee, just to name a few) don’t feel like they need to be “cured” or “fixed”. It’s deeply ableist to assume that someone with ADHD or who is Deaf can only have a fulfilling life if they are no longer those things.
On the other hand, I have severe chronic joint pain. I would give anything to be cured of that, because all it’s doing is hurting me an lowering my quality of life. No accommodations would actually improve that. I would still be in pain, I just might be in slightly less pain, and frankly, fuck that, I want to be in no pain.
So, no, disability or neurodivergence being assumed to need curing/being cured is not actually 100% either way, but by and large “things that can be accommodated for to allow for a full and happy life” are the ones you absolutely do NOT want to go around curing willy-nilly in fiction.
That being said, there is also something to be said for having representation as someone with chronic pain and fatigue, of someone who suffers too but still gets through the day, and doesn’t have it magically fixed. THAT is all up to the story you’e been telling and the tone you want to develop, imo, but I couldn’t tell you how to get there.
TL;DR: It’s actually not fully black or white, but generally if it’s something that can be accommodated for to relieve the burden on the disabled person, don’t cure it. If it’s something like chronic pain or fatigue, which are just. 100% miserable even when “accommodated for”, then it’s not an automatic “don’t do it”, but consider the story you’re telling with that potential either way.
I’ve been puzzling through a “Bechdel-Style Test” for Disability Representation for a while, now. And I think I finally pinned it down this right around NaNoWriMo (yay! one accomplishment for 2020).
And this is what I’ve come up with (with reasons for each point:
1) There’s a Disabled character
Just one necessary, ‘cause a lot of Abled writers like to stick us in
flocks of (what they perceive as) “our own kind,” and a lot of disabled
people are the only ones in their immediate family or (mainstream)
2) Who wants something for themselves
Rather than being an “inspiration” for an abled person, or the
proverbial cat to be rescued in a “save the cat” scenario, to prove the
3) Besides Revenge, Cure, or Death,
In other words, the thing they want is not defined by their disability.
4) And tries to get it.
Again, they’re not the cat to be saved, but the protagonist in their
own story – even when they’re a side character in a larger book or
movie, or TV show. For example: if you have a disabled side character in
your story, that’s okay, but if you decided to switch perspectives, and
make them your P.O.V. character, would they still have agency and
something to do, or would they be passive plot devices?
I’ve decided to call it the 1,001 Problems Test, because that’s really the key for me.
What makes a “Cure Narrative” (vs. a story with a cure in it) ableist is that in a “Cure Narrative,” the character’s entire story arc hangs on the state of their disability at the end, and nothing else about them matters. Are they still disabled at the end? Then it’s a tragedy. Are they cured? Then it’s a happy ending (even if they die, it’s often framed as a happy ending, because at least they’re not disabled, anymore).
And as we’re talking about cure as a wish-fulfillment narrative, I’d like to point out that my third point says “besides cure,” not “instead of cure.” It’s fine if your protagonist wants a cure for their chronic pain, or “accidentally-killing people” condition. But give them something else to want, too – like falling in love, or being an architect, or figuring out how to save the world from a giant, star-eating Space Dragon, or, or, or…
If the only problem you can imagine your disabled character wants to solve is disability, then you’re ableist. You are revealing the fact that you can’t imagine disabled people as complete, fully formed humans, who live real lives.