The first fantasy novel I ever read that had a physically disabled character was Oathbreakers by Mercedes Lackey. I was quite ill that year and it meant a lot to me. Especially since the character had something very similar to what I had. This was way the heck back in 1989.
For this, Mercedes Lackey will always have a special place in my heart.
This character, though physically weak, is intelligent, loyal, courageous and an all around asset to the party. He is even sexy. One of the protagonists remarks that he makes her want to climb into his lap and purr.
He has to be careful about his limited energy. He takes pretty strong painkillers. He’s gotten on the wrong side of his monarch who punishes him by assigning him the coldest and draftiest of the palace rooms. Eventually, he nearly gets assassinated and has to flee for his life. He takes A LOT of painkiller to get through this.
The heroes get caught in a snow storm and since he is something of a burden to the others, he decides to take a bit of an overdose. He has a lot of tolerance, so its not as dangerous as it sounds. The painkillers make it so that the party doesn’t need to stop (they are on horseback) and if they find shelter he’ll be fine, albeit with a hangover. If they don’t, in all likelihood, the cold will kill him but the others won’t be slowed down by his condition
However, about the last third of the book loses me. The character is magically healed from his ailment. I tried very hard not to be sad about it, but goddamn it, it hurt my feelings. At the time, I couldn’t articulate to myself why, but I’ve had a long time to think on it.
It’s still really hard to find people with disabilities in fantasy and science fiction. There’s Professor Xavier from X-men, but he’s no shit differently-abled (I personally hate the term differently-abled unless you are a goddamned telepath). There’s Oracle, but they fixed her spine three years later. There’s Daredevil, but he has that radar thing so he’s not completely blind. There’s Toph, but she sees with her feet. There’s Geordi LaForge but he has his visor.
Note: they all have a “but…” after their disability. Something that negates their disability. Makes it so they can pass as able-bods. And somehow this doesn’t cause any crises in these people’s heads. We don’t see Barbara (for instance) agonizing over her restored mobility as a HUGE shift in her self concept.
The most realistic depiction of disability amid miraculous technology I have ever read was a story called Blue Champagne by John Varley about a woman who was paralyzed as a child. She has an amazing prosthetic; a beautiful golden electronic exoskeleton that enables her to move. The woman goes around saying things that my disabled friends and I have always said. Things like, “If you are not a cripple yourself, you can’t use that word.” and “Don’t you dare help a disabled person unless you are asked.”
When the device malfunctions on her, she must find a way to have it repaired. The woman was a media star who makes “feelies”-that is empathic recordings that allow people to feel what the performers feel. She ends up selling her experience of falling in love with the protagonist to a megacorp, thus betraying her lover’s trust. I remember reading it and thinking, “Well, yeah.” The story is told from the lover’s POV, and hurt feelings ensue, but all my sympathy is for the woman.
Okay, his feelings are hurt and she probably should have asked his permission, but without her exoskeleton, SHE CAN’T MOVE. She agonizes, but eventually decides that being able to move on her own is better than a catheter and a wheelchair. One of the other characters helpfully points this out.
She could have made her choice differently of course, but would her lover have stayed with her if she did? She’s only known him a few weeks. The woman he fell in love with wasn’t actually disabled due to the magic tech. Disability often ends marriages.
Her lover gets that, in the end. Sort of. She sends a letter of apology and a “feelie” of what it’s like to be her
Something else I liked: the underlining of an able-bodied privilege that doesn’t get much discussed. It is easier for disabled people to make “feelies” because the technology and the constant observation don’t make them self conscious. Because privacy is one of the FIRST things you lose when you are disabled. But that’s another post.
That magical healing thing always feels like a bait and switch. The disabled person is magically or technologically healed, or their disability doesn’t ever interfere with their functioning, so they can “pass”.
Disability is as much a part of one’s identity as the color of one’s skin. If you are suddenly cured, or your disability is somehow negated this has HUGE ramifications for you. It doesn’t go from, “Yeah, I’ve been disabled for years.” to “Lalala! They fixed me! All is well in my world!”
The reason Blue Champagne doesn’t give me that bait and switch vibe is that the tech is not easy, nor is it cheap. She would love to tell the megacorp to go fuck the hell off, but she can’t if she wants to keep her privilege as an able-bod. She is aware how much of herself she is sacrificing to pass.