Sarah Chorn is the host of the Special Needs in Strange Worlds column at SF Signal, and has become an important voice in the conversation about disability in genre. If you’ve been appreciating these guest blog posts, you should check out her column as well, where she’s hosted a wide range of authors talking about disability.
My brother Rob has a condition called Agenesis of the Corpus Callosum, as well as spina bifida. His life has been one very, very long struggle against himself, the world that doesn’t understand him, and sometimes his own family. Rob functions a lot like a person with Asperger’s. His spina bifida has relegated him to a wheelchair. Currently, due to seizures, he can’t read anymore.
Rob was the person who really got me into the genre. When I was a horrible teenager, it was Rob who got me to read The Wheel of Time, Dragonlance, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, and A Song of Ice and Fire. It was Rob who traded books with me, and spent hours talking to me about worlds, plots and characters.
We can all blame my brother for my enthusiasm for this genre.
It was also Rob who taught me that reading is more than just a hobby. For him, it’s a way for others to understand how he lives and interprets the world around him. It is also a way for him to sort of take a vacation from his body, and his problems for a time. Reading wasn’t just fun, but an exercise and an education for him, and for me.
It is important to remember that books aren’t just pretty words strung together in an entertaining fashion. They are windows into souls, and looking glasses into the world around us. These books tell stories about lives and conditions that we might not be able to understand or experience on our own. They educate us, teach us tolerance, aggravate us, anger us, enflame us. Books make us feel.
Special Needs in Strange Worlds, my column on SF Signal highlighting the importance of disabilities in the genre, has just gone to prove to me how important it is for everyone to have a voice, and a spot at the genre table. In so many ways, my column has turned out to be the highlight of my time in the genre. I get to talk to giants each week. I get email from people who humble and profoundly touch me, from the blind woman who uses computer software to keep up with my column, to the gentleman who spends so much time and effort advocating for the disabled and has taught me so much.
The world is full of magnificent people, and I’m beyond fortunate that I get to interact with some of them.
On the other hand, it breaks my heart to realize that in so many ways, the disabled are still a vastly overlooked part of the genre community, with hardly any visibility, and very few people actively working to get disabled voices heard. In matters of diversity in the genre, very rarely do the disabled get mentioned.
There is hope, however. Some authors have been more than willing to openly talk about their own depression, disabilities, or their efforts writing realistic and honest characters that face complicated emotional, physical, and/or mental struggles, and so much more. It’s a small light on a topic that deserves so much more than I’ll ever be able to do for it, but it’s something. The willingness for authors to open up about these sensitive topics has released a flood of readers and other authors who understand, sympathize, and empathize. The conversation is starting. It’s slow, but steady, and largely happening due to the bravery of authors who are willing to open up to the internet about personal matters.
And people are listening.
A few weeks ago I got to be part of my (very first) convention panel, called Disabilities in Genre Fiction. I wasn’t expecting much of a turnout (I have an inferiority complex), and was absolutely astounded when I saw that every seat in the room was full. The panel was one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had. It was wonderful to be able to actually talk about the issues and people I have been introduced to in my time working with the special needs community.
It was even more touching to hear the stories that so many shared, from the woman whose daughter has cerebral palsy, to the blind man who talked to me after about how hard it is for him to find books that are accessible to his needs, and the gentleman who came up to me with tears in his eyes, clasped my hands, and said, “don’t ever stop.” It was profoundly moving to realize that this was a room full of strangers all coming together to support something that means so very much to me.
It gave me real, profound hope that the disabled, while currently rather overlooked in the genre community, won’t always remain that way. There are giants all around us, inspirational individuals who are some of the strongest people I have ever met. These individuals show what strength of heart really is, and have taught me how to not just love the books I read, but appreciate the lessons and diversity that can be found in them.
Books aren’t just words on pages. They are lives, lessons, mysteries and passions unfolding before us.
My brother, Rob, told me years ago, “I wish people would realize that someone like me can be a hero, too.” That quote is the single reason why I started my column, and that’s a sentiment I will never forget. Heroes are all around us, often silent, lost in the margins—individuals with souls that shine with fire and willpowers of steel. These are the people who deserve to be in the books we read, and the books we write. They deserve to be part of our diversity discussions, and our fight for equality in the genre.
Sarah Chorn has been a compulsive reader her whole life. She’s a freelance writer and editor, a semi-pro nature photographer, world traveler, three-time cancer survivor, and mom to one rambunctious toddler. In her ideal world, she’d do nothing but drink lots of tea and read from a never ending pile of speculative fiction books.