One of my recurring frustrations with science fiction as an overall genre is the tendency towards eliminationism in texts; disabled people are often entirely absent unless they’re being used as plot devices. The idea is that they’d be eradicated by manipulating genetics and using advanced medical techniques to resolve serious injuries and prevent or cure disease, ensuring that both genetic and acquired disabilities would be things of the distant past. Very few texts explore what it might be like to live with disability in the future, unless, of course, they’re playing with post-apocalyptic themes, in which case the disability becomes a symbol of how far society has fallen.
Which makes me wonder why more authors aren’t exploring the possibilities found in challenging genetic perfectionism and eugenics in science fiction, rather than just accepting them as the norm. It would be amazing to see mainstream books going against the flow in this regard, creating thought-provoking content for readers who might not be used to having their paradigms flipped. The whole point of speculative fiction is to speculate, to imagine different versions of futuristic societies, to think about how the world might look differently depending on changes in technology, social attitudes, and more.
Think about a world where disability is not viewed as an inherent negative or flaw that must be fixed. Take, for example, autism, which is on my mind of late because researchers are starting to develop genetic tests for predicting and diagnosing autism. Such testing inevitably raises the spectre of using testing to eliminate children with autism by simply not having them, eradicating the autism spectrum from the human race. The consequences to diversity could be immense, but I don’t see a lot of people talking about that.
I see people talking about how great it will be to be able to prevent autism, to ensure that ‘no one suffers.’ I don’t see people asking if this is the best priority for society, or thinking about the consequences of reducing neurodiversity in society. Science fiction provides an ideal medium for asking some of these questions and getting readers to think about these issues in new and different ways. What if a futuristic society actively promoted neurodiversity, viewing it as a feature, not a bug? What if autistic people and other people with cognitive and intellectual impairments were seamlessly integrated in society instead of being marginalised?
And not in a gross, exploitative way where they’re treated as magical and amazing geniuses capable of strange and eerie feats, but just as human beings who have their own things to contribute to society. Autistic researchers working alongside neurotypical people, for example, developing new technologies in a world where disability is just accepted as a natural human variation. Science fiction provides so many opportunities for exploring topics like universal design and full social inclusion, and these opportunities are so often missed.
What if instead of fixing the people, writers fixed the environment? Imagine a world where there are many ways to get around, all of which are considered equally valid, where people can control complex mobility devices with a touch or voice command and it’s not viewed as abnormal or worthy of note. And a world where impairments are not inherently viewed as negatives, but as neutrals; just as some people have blonde hair while others have black or red, some people are autistic or mentally ill, say, and they are welcomed in society like anyone else. And they manage their specific traits just like anyone else.
Speculative fiction provides a golden opportunity to challenge the assumption that genetic perfectionism is a worthy end goal. It creates a chance to put readers into a very different position than the one they may be accustomed to; readers approaching a text thinking that disability is bad and doesn’t belong in a utopian futuristic society could be forced to rethink what impairment and disability mean with a text that showed disabled characters in a neutral or positive light. One that didn’t reduce them to stereotypes, but treated them as full human beings.
The eliminationism in science fiction is just widely accepted, without comment or challenge, in much of the community. People sometimes seem shocked and surprised by challenges to it, because they assume disabiltiy is bad and that every disabled person would love for it to go away. Despite the fact that there are numerous organisations active now that are disability positive and focus on highlighting natural diversity. Some members of these groups actively reject treatments and therapies because they, quite rightly, don’t see anything about them that requires treatment, let alone curing.
You don’t see Deaf people in much science fiction. Because most authors assume that no one wants to be deaf, that Deaf people themselves hate their deafness, and that in a perfect world, everyone would have ‘perfect’ hearing, that this is a normal and desirable human trait. Yet, even a casual glance at Deaf culture will reveal that these assumptions are false, that some identify not as impaired or disabled but as members of their own specific culture, and are vehemently opposed to ‘cures.’ In a depiction of a truly diverse futuristic society, there should be Deaf people. There should be neurodiverse people. There should be people who look, move, and think in a variety of different ways, because that’s a reflection of humanity as a whole, not the narrow slice authors seem to want to focus on.
And perhaps by challenging these assumptions textually, authors could start to get readers to challenge them socially as well; for every reader of science fiction who goes ‘aha, I hadn’t thought of this that way,’ there’s a potential person thirsty for more information and context. Someone interested in learning more and perhaps connecting with real-world issues right now to help build a vision of a better future: A future that includes disability, rather than erasing it.