Finding Solace in Disabled Geekhood

Read the first installment of Jennifer J. Johnson’s new column, “Nerd Life Meets Disabled Life.”

I’m a geek. Maybe you are, too. And whether you see yourself as a geek, a nerd, a dork, a fanperson, whatever, you’ve spent years finding pleasure in activities that have only recently begun to become mainstream. Science fiction and fantasy, comic books, computers, video games, tabletop games, animation: these are all things that only started becoming cool around the early 2000s, when Lord of the Rings completely redefined fantasy cinema, Harry Potter became a global phenomenon, and the internet became as common a household service as the telephone. Suddenly, everyone had their own website, and fantasy and science fiction became the must-see movies and must-read books. All the geeky stuff that we were mocked for liking became hip, and we geeks suddenly had access to scads of new media to consume and new fans to interact with.

I’m not just a geek. I’m also disabled. Maybe you are too.

But I’m not just a geek. I’m also disabled. Maybe you are too. If you’re like me, that disability is another major part of your identity. Disability is a highly variable experience, with congenital, acquired, and degenerative disabilities all taking hold at different points in people’s in lives. However, despite this variability, most of my disabled friends and acquaintances have been life-long geeks. And we’re not alone: Google search on “disabled geeks” turns up over 12,000,000 results, and nerd havens like TvTropes and Tumblr abound with disabled commenters. However, geeky hobbies have a frequently poor and often frankly insulting history in representing disability. So is disabled geekhood worth it?

Why are there so many disabled geeks? When you are disabled, the mainstream options are often not as accessible. Obviously, there are plenty of disabled athletes, but that doesn’t mean sports are generally accessible for disabled people. However, the very nature of geek hobbies lend themselves very well to limitations in mobility, energy levels, and limitations with mainstream socializing. Geeky hobbies tend to be solitary or done in generally small groups — a pleasurable break for anyone who has had to defend their physical or mental limits to participation in mainstream hobbies from large groups. After all, it is way easier to sign off from a computer game than to duck out of a Super Bowl party if you’re experiencing sensory overload or feeling unwell. Geek hobbies are, for the most part, accessible to disabled people, and that accessibility is attractive. In Dungeons & Dragons or other tabletop games, your inability to run a mile or throw a ball doesn’t matter in the slightest, and is more than made up for by your ability to imagine your way into and out of different scenarios.

But accessibility isn’t the only attraction. Until recently, geeks were a fairly marginalized community. When one is already stigmatized because of one’s physical or mental health, the understanding of a community becomes a major selling point on that community. This can be especially important during adolescence, when forming a social group is as much a method of survival as of finding enjoyment.

Given these two major factors — accessibility and sympathetic marginalization — it seems the disabled community should find the geek community a haven. And that is the case in some ways. The internet provides us with more open communication than we have ever had in the history of the planet, and searching out people with the same interests is a breeze. Disabled fan enclaves have been generally highly successful online, with disabled fans contributing fan art and fan fiction in droves. However, this has not always translated to accessibility in physical fan spaces. Conventions, such as Comic-Con — long the meeting place of geeks and nerds, frequently are criticized for poor disability services. All disability accommodations are usually handled through an overworked and underprepared Con Ops, who rarely have any experience providing accessibility in any space, let alone a chaotic convention. Comic-Con and GenCon both provide a disabled check-in service, but despite these being some of the largest conventions in the country, horror stories still emerge.

I had to stop attending larger Cons, as my particular disabilities include airborne allergies and transitory mobility issues — neither of which is easy to deal with in a large, crowded space. I became overheated at the last large-ish Con I attended, and I had a subsequent attack of paroxysmal dyskinesia. Luckily, my roommate was in attendance, and he managed to get me the help I needed — space and ice — not loaded into an ambulance in an unfamiliar city when I was unable to communicate. Since then, I have stuck to my local small Con, where the organizers know me and can call my health advocate or a friend if I get separated from them while I’m there.

This doesn’t even scratch the surface of some other geek hobbies, like historical re-enactment. Groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism (a medieval re-enactment group) generally try to make accommodations for their disabled members, but the nature of re-enactment (frequently outdoors, venues that require self-set-up, and a lack of organized medical providers nearby) makes it difficult. I have been a small crafter with the SCA for several years, and I’ve experienced highly caring and concerned persons fluttering over me after I have collapsed in a field or had a person wearing perfume walk past me…which is kind, but rarely as helpful as having a cool area or a scent-free policy.

Further complicating the matter is that disability itself is often poorly represented in the media we geeks consume. TvTropes Disability Index contains over 80 different categories about disability in media, and the majority of them are negative. Comic books and their attendant TV shows and movies have a particularly bad history of portraying able-bodied and able-minded people as “good,” and disabled people as unrepentant, deranged criminals. The first glimpse of the menacing Darth Vader is overlayed with his trademark mechanical wheeze, as if his breathing problems enhance his terror (not to mention the constantly coughing General Grievous in the prequels!). The otherwise excellent Wonder Woman has two disabled villains — the facially deformed Dr. Poison, and the cane-using “Sir Patrick,” or Ares. After the success of Split, the third movie in the Unbreakable series, Glass, is being released in January 2019. This movie features another two-fer of disabled villainy — Mr. Glass’s osteogenesis imperfecta, and Kevin “The Horde” Crumb’s dissociative identity disorder.

Disability itself is often poorly represented in the media we geeks consume.

If a disabled character is shown at all, it’s far more likely that they will be evil than that they will be good, let alone heroic. Disabled heroes are also more likely to have an acquired disability — Daredevil’s blindness, Hawkeye’s deafness, Oracle and Professor X’s paraplegia, Iron Man’s shrapnel-induced heart condition, Bran’s paraplegia in Game of Thrones, and the vaguely magical neurological disabilities of River Tam of Firefly are just a few examples of this trope.

One of the more common types of disabled heroes are amputees, perhaps because of the societal linking of amputation to soldiers who lost their limbs fighting bravely. The first that comes to mind is Luke Skywalker, which is played for drama, followed by Ash of Evil Dead, which is played for comedy. It’s a popular trope in Japanese anime, with heroes such as Jet from Cowboy Bebop, Edward Elric from Full Metal Alchemist, Vash the Stampede in Trigun, and Guts of Berserk all missing at least one limb, while the Western animated Finn the Human of Adventure Time is an amputee in all the separate realities of him we see. Fan favorite Harry Potter character Mad-Eye Moody is a multiple amputee, and Jaime Lannister of Game of Thrones really begins his moral change for good upon the amputation of his hand. Arguably the most heroic character in Garth Nix’s fantasy Old Kingdom Cycle (or at least the focus of the most stories), Lirael, becomes an amputee at the climax of the third book. In upcoming film news, amputee Hiccup and his amputee dragon, Toothless, are gracing the screen again in How To Train Your Dragon 3.

Occasional congenitally disabled heroes spring to mind, like the blind from birth characters Toph, from Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Geordi LaForge, from Star Trek: The Next Generation, or of course, little person Tyrion Lannister of Game of Thrones. Disabled villains still abound, however, with conditions ranging from personality disorders to facial differences to unusual bone growth — with both acquired and congenital disabilities being used as backstory or shorthand for their evil natures.

Positive representation in any media is a frequent struggle of the disabled, and it is especially troubling when a community that seems tailor-made for accessibility does such a poor job of producing new media aimed at disabled consumers. But that does seem to be changing with the newest generation of producers of geek media. Group publishing efforts like “Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction” have gotten a lot of attention, disabled actors starring as disabled characters have garnered critical praise, like the cleidocranial dysplasic actor Gaten Matarazzo in Stranger Things and little person Peter Dinklage in just about anything he has been in. At Conventions, Quiet Rooms have started become a standard accessibility feature. These spaces have lower lights, areas to sit and re-hydrate, and are supposed to be kept as noise-free as possible. While not particularly designed for me with my allergies and paroxysmal dyskinesia, their presence can make or break a Con for my autistic and other neuroatypical friends, and they certainly can be a more comfortable space for migraine sufferers who suddenly lack the energy to return to their rooms.

While accessibility needs to be the order of the day everywhere, the plethora of disabled geeks puts us in a unique position to create accessible and integrated spaces with abled people. Geek hobbies give us many outlets to show our potential and our creativity. We helped build this community: it is time we took our place as full members.

DISABILITY ACTS, founded in 2018, is an all volunteer-run magazine — run by disabled people, featuring disabled writers, who write about disabled life, literature, and more. Please support DISABILITY ACTS. Even one dollar helps. All money goes to paying our writers. You can see updates about how much money we have raised on our Submissions page.