Special Needs in Strange Worlds

Sarah Chorn is a Speculative Fiction blogger, reviewer, and founder of the website Bookworm Blues. Her series of articles “Special Needs in Strange Worlds” drew over 20 authors, critics, bloggers, and fans to write about how Speculative Fiction addresses the issue of disabilities, and what that means for the capabilities of the genre. 

There is a line in Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin in which Tyrion Lannister says, “I have a tender spot in my heart for cripples, bastards, and broken things.” It is probably one of my favorite quotes from any book I’ve ever read, because it resonates so strongly with me. And it’s notable that of all the actors in the HBO series, Peter Dinklage, who of course plays Tyrion Lannister, is the most talked about and celebrated.

There’s something there, something about disabilities that pulls at the reader (or viewer, as the case may be), and helps them relate to a character and even make them or the plot more interesting. My husband has never read the books, so I was surprised when he heard that line and turned to me and said, “Wow, that’s powerful.” It’s interesting how one line in a show or a book can resonate strongly with so many people.

What is even more interesting is how disabilities in literature are almost never talked about. In fact, when I was organizing my Special Needs in Strange Worlds event, a large chunk of people backed out saying they were uncomfortable discussing this issue. It’s a sensitive topic, and perhaps that’s why, but disabilities in literature should be noted and celebrated. Disabilities add depth and a very human perspective to any plot, but they so often overlooked in literary discussions.

My oldest brother is disabled. He was born without part of his brain, the corpus collosum, to be exact. For a long time my brother was labeled as high functioning autistic. The symptoms fit, but there is more to my brother’s disability than meets the eye. He has a hard time distinguishing between what’s real and what’s not real. He also has seizures and some physical limitations. My brother has always felt like the odd man out, and in many ways he is. He lives in his own little world. In all honesty, I can’t imagine how isolated he feels. He has as hard of a time connecting with the real world as the real world does with him. This makes it hard for him to work, to have friends, to connect with family. He really struggles, and as his sister, that’s hard to watch.

My brother is the person who got me into fantasy. I’ve often wondered if the reason he likes the genre so much is because it’s a genre where his mind can run wild. It doesn’t have the rules and restrictions of most genres. I can see where that would be appealing to someone with his condition.

A few years ago he had a fever of 109. He was in the hospital for days. Doctors thought he was going to die, but somehow he pulled out of it. However, this incident basically fried his short-term memory. My brother can’t read books anymore. He can’t follow complex plots or keep the characters straight. He was a true bibliophile. He lived in his books, and now he can’t. However, his long-term memory is fine so we often discuss books he has read sometime in the past.

It was during these discussions that my brother started talking extensively about how isolated he often felt while reading fantasy due to how ignored disability often is in literature. He told me numerous times (and left plenty of comments during my event) that disability brings reality and depth to books. It makes them more real, because disabilities are so humbling, so human and so prevalent in our own world. When I put the idea of Special Needs in Strange Worlds past my brother, his exact words were, “Finally, someone is going to talk about how people like me can be important, too.”

My brother is the reason I did Special Needs in Strange Worlds. He walked me through the annals of speculative fiction through a disabled person’s point of view, and showed me how incredibly isolating it must be to struggle so much in reality to connect with other people, and then have to struggle for that same connection in literature as well. My brother can’t read and enjoy books anymore, but he’s not the only disabled person on the planet. Disabilities are incredibly common, ranging from depression to far more serious conditions. Disabilities are all around us, and I wanted Special Needs in Strange Worlds to highlight the importance of disability in literature.

What amazed me was how hungry the Internet seemed to be to read a series of posts featuring disabilities in literature. I didn’t expect more than two weeks worth of posts, but instead I had enough to fill an entire month. In fact, I had so many people offering to write posts for the event, I had to turn several people down. Furthermore, this event received more visits than my blog has ever received in one month in its two years of life. Special Needs in Strange Worlds clocked in at 50,000 unique views. Not only was my brother hungry to hear about how disabled individuals can profoundly influence literature, but a massive amount of other people were, as well.

3 thoughts on “Special Needs in Strange Worlds

  1. i agree completely that brother she talks about is my father and he is disabled but i still love him and i see how hard it is for him to be so different then what he used to be its hard to watch but when Sarah did this for him he was so grateful and so many other feelings and it made him very glad to know that she cared

  2. I too cheer for characters who overcome despite the odds, ill-fortune, and physical disadvantages. In terms of characters, only the flawed can be flawless. A character without flaws—without humanity—sickens me. No, I cannot relate to someone with the courage to topple dragons and evil wizards, has a perfect complexion, and never thinks a selfish or hateful thought about anyone. Give me a real heroine, not a Barbie with a battleaxe.

    I'm currently reading a story about King Richard the Lionheart. He was such an unstoppable force in medieval warfare that when a fort garrison saw his banner approaching, they were so afraid he would deny their surrender that they FLED THE CASTLE. However, Richard also suffered from malaria, so after a titanic victory in which he was a human god, he might be bed-bound for weeks, on the verge of death. To me, it's both strength and weakness that makes a character interesting. That's why I write disadvantaged characters, and I wish more authors did the same.

  3. My brother can’t read and enjoy books anymore, but he’s not the only disabled person on the planet. Disabilities are incredibly common, ranging from depression to far more serious conditions. Disabilities are all around us, and I wanted Special Needs in Strange Worlds to highlight the importance of disability in literature.

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