Being Visible, Being Seen

My wife has a long-term disability, one which, while it doesn’t confine her to a wheelchair permanently, does affect her mobility. She and I watch the TV shows NCIS and Bones together, and we’ve been discussing the representation of disability in the two shows. I’ll avoid spoilerific specifics, but in each show there is now a character who has been caught in a bomb blast and is confined to a wheelchair. The two sets of writers handle this circumstance quite differently.

The NCIS writers chose a minor character who only appears occasionally. When she appears, she’s in a wheelchair now - and that’s about it. There was some very brief dialogue about how it was difficult for her to adjust, a hint that maybe her boyfriend, who’s also a character, found it difficult - but no arc, no real story about how this changes her life and his life and their life together.
The charitable way of interpreting this approach is that the writers want to normalise disability, to present a disabled character as just a character who happens to have a disability and otherwise goes on with her life. Given the many opportunities these same writers have missed with the Ellie Bishop character, though (which is a whole different rant), I’m not inclined to be that charitable; and I’ll discuss later in this piece why, even under that interpretation, it’s still a problem.

The Bones writers chose a character from the core cast, who’s in every episode. This puts the whole issue more front and centre. Also, what they’ve done is represent the experience of having a disability, having a life partner with a disability, having a friend and colleague with a disability: the frustration with the things you can’t do any more; wanting to carry on with your work so you can feel useful, and hold on to all the things you can still do and haven’t lost; the unjustified optimism; the false hope which is dashed; the anger; pushing away those who care for you when you can’t deal with the emotions; not wanting to be pitied, yet feeling self-pity; the fear; the bad coping; the lost possibilities; the weight of the reality that it isn’t going to get better, that this is your life now; and also the experience of not knowing how to help your lover or friend, and frustration with their process and their emotions.

To me, the difference between these two shows is the difference between being visible and being seen. Disability in NCIS is visible: there’s a visibly disabled character (occasionally). But it’s a little bit like the sexy lamp test: If your female character was replaced with a sexy lamp, would it make any discernable difference to the plot? If that character was not disabled, had made a full physical and emotional recovery, or had never been in the bomb blast at all, would the plot of any episode of the show have to change even slightly? It would not.

Case in point: a recent episode in which the disabled character's boyfriend is looking at an apartment with a view to their moving in. There is a clearly visible step at the entrance to the apartment, one which you could not get down in a wheelchair. Nothing is said about this.

In contrast, disability in Bones is seen. A disabled person - my wife - looks at it and says, “That’s what it’s like. That’s how it is.” She feels represented, in other words, not just tokenised.

It’s early days in the Bones arc, but I expect good things. I expect the writers to continue to unfold what it’s like to be, or be close to, a person with a disability: the ups and downs, the personal growth, the things that always stay frustrating, the way you find value in your life anyway, the adjustments that everyone has to make.

There are two parts to diversity and representation. There’s the part that affirms that these people who are different in some way are also still people, that reminds us of our common humanity and our common human experience, and that’s important. But there’s also the part that says, “These fellow humans of ours have a different experience of being human that comes from who they are, and that different experience is also interesting and worthy of being seen.”

I’m committed to writing diverse characters in my fiction, not as some sort of quota, but because different experiences of being human are part of what fantasy and science fiction are about. I don’t do it enough, and when I do it, I’m sure I get it wrong sometimes; but I want to keep doing it, in the hope that people will recognise themselves and feel seen, and in the hope that other people will see not only their common humanity but also the value and importance of their difference.

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