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This eye-opening essay in zine form is a must-read for creatives thinking about diversity and representation in their chosen medium. In well researched and lively prose, writer and bookseller Annie Carl lays out what it’s like to be disabled in America today: better than in the past but still frustratingly far from full inclusion.
Carl focuses most of the essay on common harmful pop culture tropes: “Cure,” in which inspiring disabled characters overcome against all odds and return to able-bodied form; “Kill,” in which disabled characters sacrifice themselves either for the good of an able-bodied character or because going on disabled is unbearable; and “Horror,” in which disabled characters are presented as monsters and freaks.
She shares many examples from popular books and movies to illustrate each trope, then ties it all back to fear of aging and death. In a culture that worships youth and beauty, anything that threatens those is terrifying: aging and the associated loss of function; disability due to whatever cause; and inevitable mortality. The essay includes some interesting developments in this moment of COVID-19, such as work-from-home arrangements, and ongoing issues with accessibility, health care, and insurance. It wraps up on a happier note, celebrating recent instances of positive representation in popular culture and a call for more of that.
This is a short read and well worth the time for anyone who enjoys and/or creates popular culture. It has given me a lot to think about as I consider the abilities—and disabilities—of my fictional characters and how to present them as fully human beings.
Annie Carl is the proprietor of The Neverending Bookshop, located in Perrinville, WA. She has been bookselling since her wee teen years, is a high functioning disabled woman and a cancer survivor, and is still waiting for that science fiction novel with a starship captain that looks like her.