Saturday, July 21, 2012

We are engaged!

View towards the beginning of a cloudy sunset
across a somewhat pewter Irish Sea.
On Thursday evening, we went to the seafront to have fish and chips. While his Dad went to get the food, Stephen and I sat in the shelter looking out to sea and got engaged. This is all very exciting! We both became all trembly and weird and needed a long lie down afterwards. Everyone has questions we don't have the answers to yet, but the main one is about when we're getting married and the answer is some time next year.

There are pictures of us and our rings but we're on mobile broadband for the next few weeks so I shall ration you to one photo which is the view we had from where we were sitting.  I'll update Flickr when we get back to civilisation.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

10 Things Fiction Writers Need to Remember About Disability (6-10)

(6 and 7 are sexually explicit. Keep calm.)

6. There aren't many reasons for disabled people not to have sex

...let alone romantic relationships. In likely order of prevalence:
  • Not having a suitable partner at this time.
  • Psychological reasons, e.g. past trauma, depression, low confidence and many others.
  • Asexuality, which like all sexualities and sexual proclivities, can coincide with disability.
  • Sexual acts or orgasm causing physical pain or danger.  
None of these are unique to disabled people, but they may all be more common in disabled people. Although disabled people fight hard against being seen as asexual (although I'd argue the problem is being seen as sexless, which is something else), the few openly asexual people I've come across have happened to be disabled. I don't know whether having one outsider identity gives us the confidence to explore and embrace other identities which might otherwise have remained hidden.
Reasons for disabled people not having sex do not include:
  • People whose legs don't work can't have sex.
  • People whose genitals don't work can't have sex.
  • People on the autistic spectrum are not interested in sex. 
  • People with intellectual impairments are not intelligent enough to have sex.
  • People with mental ill health are only interested in really weird sex.
  • Medical conditions, injuries and pain make people disinterested in sex.  
  • Disabled people aren't attractive enough to have sex. 
  • Disabled people don't experience sexuality. 
The way sex is sometimes written about, you get the impression that some people (almost always straight, non-disabled people) conceive sex as merely the baby-making act, in the missionary position, and anyone who can't do that isn't having sex. Anyone who can't penetrate or be penetrated can't have sex. Anyone who can't orgasm can't have sex. Any man who can't sustain an erection can't have sex.

Folks, not only is none of this true, but accepting this fact is likely to improve your own sex life, however you happen to be equipped.

People often remember Lady Chatterley's Lover as a story about an aristocrat who has an affair with the gamekeeper because her husband has become paralysed. In fact, D H Lawrence wasn't nearly so clumsy.

Clifford Chatterley is emasculated, in his own eyes, by his paraplegia, the events of the First World War and the social upheaval in its aftermath (being a Lord isn't quite the big deal it used to be). Constance is still interested in him, but he rejects her. Clifford is very much wedded to the Sick RoleThere's talk of physical improvement, but Clifford dismisses the signs. The doctors say that he should be able to father children, but he tells Constance to have an affair and conceive a child - an heir - with someone else. He can't have sex any more because he can no longer meet the standards of a very particular kind of masculinity

Lawrence makes it very clear that it is not Clifford's impairment which destroys his sexual relationship, but Clifford's reaction to it and the massive sense of rejection and frustration Constance is left with.  If Mellors had a spinal cord injury, he would most probably continue to have a rich and fulfilling sex life, and given the obstacles against being a wheelchair-using gamekeeper in the 1920s, would probably spend even more time weaving flowers into people's pubic hair.  Maybe marketing his technique as a kind of eco-friendly no-wax-necessary vajazzle. 

On the subject of private parts:

7. Focusing on disabled people's penises is objectification.

In the second season of the US rip-off of The Killing (no, I don't know why we're still watching either), the freshly paralysed mayoral candidate Darren Richmond is beginning to come to terms and look towards the future, when he suffers an inevitable humiliation. We already know that his penis is now a special disabled penis. He is incontinent and doesn't notice when he is catheterised (by a beautiful young nurse - which makes it much worse). We also know he needs help in the bathroom - from women.

Then, chatting to another beautiful young woman, Richmond urinates upwards and doesn't notice until the hotty draws attention to the massive puddle in the lap of his hospital gown.

I'm no expert in spinal cord injury (especially as I always have to correct cord from chord), but I am guessing that someone with complete incontinence rarely gets a full bladder and someone with no feeling in their penis is unlikely to get a psychogenic erection. But apart from this, The Killing doesn't feature other characters going to the toilet, menstruating, having sex or even eating or drinking very often. There's all sorts of problems with pacing in this series (goodness me, are there problems!), but almost everything we've seen with Richmond in six or seven episodes involves repeated and sexualised humiliations*.

The Man With The Plan in Things to do in Denver when you're dead speaks about the hard-ons he can't feel. The paralysed veterans in Born on the Forth of July get together in order to hire women to have sex with them. This isn't the alternative to presenting disabled men as sexless - any more than Horny Nymphos 3 is the alternative to presenting women as sexually passive.

The curiosity surrounding the disabled person's penis is handled much better in The Book Group, where it is only other people who imagine that Kenny's penis has magical and complex qualities. However, really, if the fiction doesn't focus on the genitals and bodily functions of other characters, then it is unnatural to focus on someone's genitals just because they're disabled.

This is kind of like when you have a cast of white characters with one black character, and you write several paragraphs about the black person's skin, hair and accent, when nobody else's skin, hair or accent is remarked upon. Yes, yes, there are contexts where this would be pertinent, and there are contexts where it is pertinent to talk about a disabled character's penis. But in the absence of such context, it's objectifying. The treatment of Richmond in The Killing is the writerly equivalent of approaching a wheelchair-user in a pub and asking him if he can get it up.

If you want to be a right-on writer who recognises that disabled people have sexuality, then treat these character's sexuality and body parts in the same way as you treat everyone else's. Which sometimes means ignoring them completely.

8. Not all disabled people live in accessible accommodation, but most of us will if we can.

I can't remember much about Notting Hill, but I do remember the lovely Gina McKee, who I had a crush on at the time, playing the very rare role of a female wheelchair-user. I can forgive her the rest of the film for that, including the fact that this wealthy middle-class woman - so wealthy that she lives in a two storey house in a (even then) very fashionable part of London - has to be physically carried upstairs to bed every night by her husband. I think we were supposed to think, "Ah, how sweet, how romantic, what dedication!" but instead I thought, "Ah, I imagine the lovely Gina is as light as air itself! But why would such a wealthy wheelie live in a place with stairs?"

This is so common in fiction, however wealthy a disabled character is. In Gattica, Jude Law's paraplegic character is forced to crawl up his own spiral staircase - yes, this is a dystopian disablist future, but he is rich and it is his home. Even some disabled villains, who you know would be prepared to flout any planning regulation that got in their way, nevertheless fail to make their homes and underground lairs DDA-compliant.

It is as if some writers are afraid that we're going to forget that a character is disabled. The answer to this is to ask the question, Would it matter if we forgot?  Is being disabled so central to who this person is?  If so, if they are the disabled one, does anyone exist like that in real life?

There are lots of disabled people who live in accommodation which isn't fully accessible. I spend half my time in a building with stairs which, while I can physically get up and down most of the time, are a real bane. However, this isn't my house or somewhere I'd chosen to live.

9. Disabled people know other disabled people

Women and members of minorities are well used to tokenism in fiction; worlds that look like our own but mysteriously feature only one woman, one person of colour, one gay person etc.. But the idea of disabled people being acquainted with other disabled people, let alone some sense of community among disabled people outside institutions is extremely rare indeed (I have never come across fiction which acknowledges the disabled community as a social and political movement, although I can kind of understand that - Marilyn French's The Women's Room is the only successful novel which significantly features any egalitarian movement).

All the fiction that features community among disabled people I can think of is set in or around institutions; care homes (Skallegrigg, Inside I'm DancingBubba Ho-Tep), schools (The Drool Room) and hospitals (The Officer's Ward, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and the brilliant Taking Over The Asylum).

Otherwise, the only place where disabled people live and work in close proximity are for the enemies of Bond, Batman and all those other superheroes - disabled villains are invariably equal opportunities employers. To be honest, right now, I'm struggling to think of other fiction where two disabled characters are friends. Oh yeah, Forest Gump. Great.

However, disabled people meet in all kinds of circumstances - we are everywhere, after all - and  for a great variety of reasons, most of which have nothing to do with disability. We're just about.  Disability sometimes means we have stuff in common - I find other disabled people are generally more likely to fit in with my passive social life - but even when not, two disabled people are no less likely to get on and be friends than any two people. We're slightly more likely to be related to other disabled people.

Whilst in real life, disabled people are sometimes introduced to one another because we are disabled, the oh-so-special tragic heroic status of disabled characters in fiction usually means that they must be the only one around. After all, if there's a blind person, a double amputee and someone with MS living in the same street, none of those things is all that tragic or all that special. Which they're not!

 And finally, perhaps most importantly

10. Disability is not a conflict that has to be resolved.

Honestly.  It's not!  Most disabled people live into old age and do not become non-disabled.

A personal little rant.  Do you know how it feels when other people understand your life as a battle which you either have to persist in fighting, struggling, trying to be other than you are, or else give up and accept defeat?  Maybe you do. It's wearing. It's also incredibly frustrating when you have a reasonable life expectancy and yet your health is not likely to dynamically improve. And if it did, it would take ages and happen behind the scenes. Meanwhile, you have a life to be lived and all sorts of dreams and schemes which you want to get on with - dreams and schemes made a fair bit more difficult by your circumstances - and yet other people think you should be putting all that on hold and concentrate on being an ill person and fighting your illness until you can be a normal person once again! Rant over.

Sometimes disabled people are cured by love (The Boy In the Bubble, As Good As It Gets, Avatar) or friendship (Heidi, The Secret Garden) or just by being such brilliant mad geniuses that the genius magically overcomes the mad (A Beautiful Mind, Proof). But overwhelmingly, disabled people are cured because they are good. Keep being good and sooner or later, you'll be a non-disabled normal Norman. Disabled villains never get cured. They almost always die (although of course, that doesn't necessarily finish them off).

Lots of good disabled characters die as well (by good, I mean virtuous - quality is quite another matter), but our deaths are bitter-sweet. Our deaths help other people to appreciate their lives in some way. And quite frankly, our deaths happen because our lives are seen as less valuable or more miserable than the lives of others, so we are expendable and maybe death is a release anyway.

Our deaths are romanticised, often without any particular medical cause. Even in the brilliant Skallergrigg, a main character with cerebral palsy appears to simply fade away while still a young woman.

I shan't accuse Dickens of starting it, but despite a wealth of disabled characters, I think the only one that survives and remains disabled is Esther in Bleak House who remains scarred by smallpox. Okay, so maybe few others with mild disfigurements and speech impairments, but nobody with so much as a limp. Smike dies. Everyone with mental illness dies and usually soon into their illness. Anyone vaguely weak and pretty dies (in Victorian times, weak and pretty was itself a medical condition). Tiny Tim is going to die but is now going to get much stronger (although the book doesn't take this as far as certain films do - I enjoy Scrooged where the Tiny Tim of the TV production Bill Murray is overseeing is played by an acrobat).

Of course, there are a few good stories to be told about people coming to terms with impairment (The Officers Ward is a good example of this - I usually hate this kind of thing, but that was really beautiful). However, as I've said, most of our stories have nothing to do with our impairments. Most of our stories began when we were already disabled, and concluded without death or medical miracle.

Here's a link to 10 Things Fiction Writers Need to Remember About Disability (1-5) - the comments now feature a vast number of disabled fictional detectives I'd not heard of before.

Meanwhile, Feminist Philosophers have a post up called Moving Beyond The Stereotypes about disability in fiction, complete with lively comments thread (although it does descend into a row about what literature is - that's philosophers for you!)

* In between writing this, I caught up with several episodes of the Killing and you'll be pleased to learn that, I don't know, 72 hours after being shot and paralysed, Richmond has now become an inspiration hit on Youtube by playing wheelchair basketball badly. Super.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

10 Things Fiction Writers Need to Remember About Disability (1-5)

1. Disabled characters can be at the centre of stories which aren't all about disability.

I made a very similar point in my 10 Things...About Sexuality only it is even rarer to read stories with disabled protagonists which aren't all about disability. This despite the fact that there are so few good stories all about disability. In fact, I'm not sure I can think of any good stories where disability is the main event, although there are a fair number of rubbish stories which use disability as a grand metaphor, either for the challenges of life, or else mortality and the fragility of all things. Funnily enough, there's nothing metaphorical about our lives.

Disabled characters can be at the centre of brilliant stories because disabled characters are people. It's a matter of Why not? There are stories where the protagonist couldn't be a wheelchair user, or has to be a fluent reader, or has to great in social situations, or has to be in good physical health. But there aren't many stories which require a protagonist to be non-disabled. I'm not suggesting that writers should ever consider a character and think, "Would this still work if we gave this guy a limp?"  Over the last fifty years we've seen a massive shift in writers of film especially, but also books, no longer assuming a protagonist has to be a straight white man (although in films and many genres of literature, most of them still are). We simply need to add non-disabled to the trashcan of default settings that need not apply. 

Consider the history of detective fiction. If you think about all the fictional detectives from Sherlock Holmes, through Miss Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, Philip Marlow, Maigret, Falco, Inspector Morse, Columbo, Adam Dalgleish, Cadfael, Rebus, Wallander, back round to Sherlock again, and the hundreds of others - I could probably name a hundred fictional detectives myself and this is by no means a specialist subject of mine. I can think of two disabled detectives; Ironside and Saga Norén from
The Bridge, who has Asperger's (some people argue Holmes has Asperger's, but only the sort of people who think a logical mind minus a complicated love life equals a diagnosis). There are almost certainly more, but why aren't there a dozen? The role of the detective lends itself perfectly well to a person in middle-age, who has lived a little, and maybe got sick or injured or traumatised in the process, or fought their way through in the face of some impairment which caused others to doubt them. A bit of an outsider looking in. Maybe someone with time on their hands. Someone who, like Miss Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, Cadfael and others, is mistakenly presumed to be harmless and so allowed to observe people with their guard down. That's us

And, after all

2. Disability can be part of the plot of great stories. 

There's no argument that disability can't be part of the plot of really good stories which aren't all about disability. Rear Window is a smashing story about a man stuck in one place (although in the 1954 original, James Stewart's character had only broken his leg, there was a later version starring the quadriplegic Christopher Reeve). One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is about the mechanics of oppression. Skallagrigg and to a far more tedious extent Avatar are about the transcendence of physical limitations through technology. Covering several decades in the life of his protagonist, Ira Socol's novel The Drool Room marries this and the above point together; the significance, sometimes dominance of disability over the narrator's life and therefore the story ebbs and flows. Which is how it often is. 

In these stories, disability is not a metaphor or a symbol. It is a real thing, which leaves Jeff stuck in one place, watching events that would otherwise be ignored. It places Chief and the others under the total power of Nurse Ratched. It provides young people with the pressing need to find avenues of escape, to carve out their own, unprejudiced world. It makes a grown man want to turn into a big blue giant - and who amongst us can say we haven't felt the same?

In common with most disabled people, disability is at the very most a small feature of some of the dramatic or interesting stories of my life. The story of my impairment isn't very interesting. The story of my coming to terms with it is long and tedious - although a little CGI might raise it a notch above Avatar. But I have lots of other stories to tell. We all have lots of other stories to tell.

3. People with long-term impairments or chronic illness are not fascinated by their own condition or their own symptoms.

I once read a thriller where the hero ex-cop turned vaguely defined bodyguard/ private investigator/ hunk for hire had arthritis. Kudos for having a youngish physically active man with a condition associated with old age. However, during lulls in the plot, the hero would contemplate the morbidity rates for arthritis in the US. Seriously - not just, "Arthritis is a common condition which, contrary to stereotypes, effects both young and old." but "He knew that 1 in [however many] Americans has arthritis, of which 1 in [however many] are under forty. It effects men and women by a ratio of [whatever]." and went on like that.

The only lay people who know these kinds of stats are people who have recently researched a condition, happened to remember a statistic that surprised them or someone actively involved in campaigning or research of some kind. Despite its many faults, Rain Man had a rare character who thought and talked a lot about statistics in a way that made sense, but most people (including most autistic people) are not like that.

For most people with a chronic condition, so much medical information becomes deeply deeply tedious. We hear or read it over and over and, beyond that initial period of relief (oh, thank god, it does have a name!), understanding and adjustment, it becomes just a lot of facts that affect us directly, but which we have no power over.

Similarly, most people who have lived with a condition for more than a few years are decidedly disinterested in their symptoms. Reading the blogs of disabled people provides a good demonstration of this. People who think and talk about their health a lot are people who
  • Haven't had these impairments very long (a few years or less)
  • Haven't had this diagnosis long, or are still looking for a diagnosis
  • Are in some kind of crisis with their health or with other people in relation to their health (discrimination, benefit or insurance problems).
  • Have obstacles to talking openly about their health to most people in their lives, e.g. they have a highly stigmatised condition, they have something difficult to vent about 
  • Want to raise awareness, advocate for research etc. or 
  • Don't have much else going on in their lives (I don't meant that in a derogatory way; some people are so ill, illness is all that's going on). 
I have been ill for sixteen years. If someone asked me to list all my symptoms, I wouldn't have a hope - I don't think about them and if I were to think about them, there are many things I'd forget because this is just normal for me. I have heard and read various stats about my condition in many different and sometimes dramatic contexts, but I can't remember any of them.

However, if my health gets worse, and especially if it deteriorates in a way that frightens me, then I become an expert in my body and illness and notice things which have nothing to do with anything.

If a double amputee wakes up and notices that the duvet is flat at the end of the bed where their feet used to be, there's got to be some reason. If they lost their legs ten years ago, came to terms with it, moved on to a full and happy life, then it's probably the writer, rather than the character, who is noticing.

4. Disabled people are not all young, white, straight, affluent men.

Although the vast majority of disabled people in fiction are. It's as if identity is a cub scout uniform but with very limited room for the badges - one, two, maybe three if you sew them on right close to one another. People joke about "disabled black lesbians" as if they simply don't exist (I know three), and writers write as if it is impossible to be a member of an ethnic minority and disabled, or gay and disabled. It's fairly rare they manage female and disabled, and disabled women make up a little below ten percent of the population. 

We're all used to the identity stuff,  but the affluence one is quite weird. While there's one cultural stereotype that says disabled people are universally poor, unemployed and dependent on the charity of others, this only applies in fiction if the disabled person is a relative of a main character - a burden on the main character, to provide crises and obligations. Such disabled characters are generally not complete characters in their own right, more obstinate scenery or yet another human metaphor. 

When a disabled person is a character in their own right, writers usually sweep away all that disability is expensive and an obstacle to financial success reality and make them rich. Sometimes filthy rich, as if to make some vaguely ironic point, "Well, they're rich and powerful, but what use is that when they can't walk up stairs?"  This is especially the case with disabled villains, everyone from Mr Potts to Blofeld, but it's also the case with many of the minority of disabled good guys, like Professor Xaviar, who happens to have inherited a fortune. 

My current favourite disabled villain is Mr Gold, a.k.a Rumplestiltskin in Once Upon a Time, which I'm loving and Robert Carlyle is rocking. But in that case, it makes sense he has money - he can weave straw into gold, after all! That show is so good, I'm half expecting that they'll explain his use of the cane some super way, as opposed to the obvious and somewhat disappointing, He uses a cane so we all know he's sinister.

On which subject...

5. Disabled people go bad for a reason.

As you may have gathered, I don't have a problem with the fictional archetype of the disabled villain. But only proper honest megalomaniacs or their imposing henchman - disabled creeps are a horrible and fairly hateful stereotype. [major plot spoiler until the end of paragraph] For example, The Da Vinci Code features not one but two murderous disabled creeps; self-mutilating religious zealot Silas, whose Albinism is made much of (though strangely no evidence of visual impairment) and the irreligious zealot Teabing, who has post polio syndrome and uses a cane. It's all about symbols, apparently.

Another horrible example from film in recent years is a character played by Mackenzie Crook in City of Ember, who is introduced by his limping gait and proceeds to be the creepiest creep you ever had the displeasure of being creeped out by - in a children's film. For children. At least few of who will walk just like that.

Ian Fleming had the hang of this. If you're non-verbal, a snappy dresser and have good aim, or if you're extremely tall and ate so many Jelly Babies that your teeth have had to be replaced with stainless steel, then what are you going to do? It's either henching or B&Q, and henchmen get to travel the world.

The need for motivation applies especially to villainous characters with mental ill health. Cases where an illness, in the absence of any other factor, makes a person do very bad things are fantastically rare in reality, but pandemic in fiction. And it's a cop-out - I have read too many detective novels (I could stop that sentence there, but I won't) where I'd been weighing up the motives and opportunities of the suspects for three hundred pages, only to find out it was someone without any motive except that they're a little bit bonkers - indicated by a sudden change in character, or the chance discovery of a shrine to Justin Bieber in their potting shed. 

Given the tremendous and sometimes deadly stigma experienced by people with mental ill health - especially scary diagnoses like schizophrenia - writers have a pressing responsibility to get this stuff straight. Not that people with mental ill health aren't capable of doing very bad things, but it has to make some kind of sense.   A diagnosis is never a motive for murder or megalomania.

See also, s.e.smith's recent post Writing the Other