You may have noticed that when disability shows up in the media, it’s:
Short hand for evil: Bond villains, anyone? Limps, scars, prosthetics, mental illness. The media uses disability to other the bad guy. Not cool.
Inspiration porn: the disabled character isn’t a person so much as their tragical experiences are the plot mechanic to spur able-bodied people to become better human beings. Me Before You pretty much takes the biscuit here, but most disability biopics fit this trope through condescension and “good on them for trying”. To quote my friend: don’t say it’s good because I’m dyslexic; say it’s good.
The Overcoming Narrative: because the most important thing in the world is for a disabled person to be cured of their disability. All disabilities can be magically cured if it suits the plot! Nobody needs to be ok about disability, because Real People pull their socks up and defeat it.
Exceptionalism: a trope common to all marginalised people, that we accept your disability (or blackness, or womanhood, or sexuality, or immigrant-status) if you redeem yourself through exceptional achievement. It’s not all bad, but it’s a toxic message when it’s the only positive portrayal of disabled people. It sends a message that you’re doing your disability wrong if you’re living a perfectly normal, happy and fulfilled life like 99% of the rest of the population.
Disability Issues Only: the disabled character only gets to have storylines about being disabled. Because that’s all disabled people do, right? They don’t have lives, or jobs, or partners/spouses and kids *eyeroll*
Like “the Gay Agenda”, folks with disabilities just want to get on with life the same way all you non-disabled folks do: go to work, remember to buy milk, collect the kids from school, and see positive representations of people like them in books, films, TV, and in the games we play.
Sara Thompson has created a ruleset for what’s basically a murderball chair, which levels the playing field for an adventurer with a physical disability: it functions as a basic melee weapon (with ramming, crushing, and side-swiping actions), it laughs in the face of steps and stairs (you know, like able-bodied adventurers do), and has plenty of options for upgrading and levelling-up with your chair as you adventure—mounted combat, being one with your chair as far as spell-casting goes, and pockets.
Sigh. If you’re genuinely asking this question, alas dear reader, you have the ableist mindset that sees disability as broken, undesirable, and to be avoided and put out of mind at all costs. Yes, absolutely, disability is hard and frustrating, and at times and in certain situations, limiting (though you’d be surprised how often it’s not the disability that’s limiting, more society, infrastructure and assumptions). But, you know, so is having ginger hair or an Essex accent, or being a woman in a male-dominated field, and nobody is saying “OMG why would you want to play as these things in D&D, what’s wrong with you? Don’t give them the rules, don’t let that be an option.”
I wondered how could I get abled folks to understand and see us as people like them? – Sara Thompson
Everyone plays D&D as a little bit themselves. Why shouldn’t disabled people have the same choice to play as all-the-way-themselves as able-bodied players, if they want to?
One of the ugly things about ableism is the assumption that disability must be eradicated. That’s like saying the cure for racism is to get rid of all the non-white people, which is just about the most offensive idea going.
I have received death threats, mockery, and vitriol from people who don’t want to understand why this representation is so important – Sara Thompson
Not all disabled people want to be cured of their disability. In part that’s because it’s not an option and it would be a pretty unhealthy mindset to live your life waiting on your legs to grow back, the injury to un-happen, or your genetic code to rewrite itself.
Then there’s the matter of identity: disability is a part of who you are when you have one, particularly if it’s something you’ve had since birth. Not all of that is good, but excising the disability isn’t a clear-cut thing either. Maybe more akin to amputating your cultural identity.
And finally, the ableist notion that disability must be cured is based on the idea that a person can’t be happy or fulfilled with a disability, and that s#$t doesn’t happen to able-bodied people alike—it’s like saying poverty is the cause of unhappiness, so rich people must not have any problems… they just have different human issues to deal with. Admittedly, there’s a lot to be said for not going hungry, but having food and money for the rent is necessary but insufficient to a good life.
Which is all to say, that disabled people exist, and they’re not going anywhere, and a lot of the time they’re happy and fulfilled and expect to be accepted in society like any other person on this planet. Which means seeing positive representations of themselves in games, and having the choice to play with core aspects of themselves if they want.
I had a chat with Sara over e-mail:
What led you to coming up with the combat wheelchair rules?
There were a lot of factors that led up to the chair’s creation. I’ve had experiences of asking Dungeon Masters if I could play a disabled character at their tables and was generally met with an awkward “Oh, yeah, there’s no rules for that so you can’t,” or the unsurprising method of “Okay, but you have to take all these negatives and/or penalties,” which isn’t an accurate portrayal of disability/chronic illness/neurodivergency at all.
A lot of my friends are also wheelchair users (both ambulatory and full-time) and it got me thinking about how we never see an adventurer in a wheelchair. We never see disabled folks represented as the capable people that they are – many of us, like me, have jobs and families and responsibilities. Our disability is just a part of us, and I think that able-bodied people don’t understand that. We are often seen as and used for pity or inspiration – there’s a real issue with inspiration porn in the media; look at Queer Eye’s episode about a disabled man, for example.
I wondered how I could represent us in D&D, how could I get abled folks to understand and see us as people like them?
Already, the average Level 1 character is above the typical NPC villager, so I decided to take inspiration from Paralympians. Essentially, I spent 6-7 months submerging myself into the culture behind wheelchair sports – I recommend to anyone that they watch some Murderball matches; they’re very intense! I made some very rough concept ideas which was Combat Wheelchair v1.0 and took feedback from wheelchair users in the community who play-tested it to tell me what I could do to better reflect a wheelchair inclined towards combat and adventuring. This feedback, along with the design for the basic chair being taken from sports chairs used in Murderball matches, was then put together and written up into what people know as the Combat Wheelchair v2.0 today.
What’s the response been?
The response in general has been overwhelming, regardless of it being good or bad. I never really expected the chair to take off and get as much coverage as it did. I posted it knowing that the people I made it for (wheelchair users and the disabled community) were the ones it would reach and I only cared for their reactions to it – I wanted more than anything to put positive and accurate portrayal of them into a game that has, for the most part, failed them on the representation front for the past 40+ years D&D has been running. But then so many people started RT-ing it, including writers at WotC and Critical Role’s DM Matt Mercer, and it suddenly had a lot of eyes on it.
In general, the response has been positive. For every 1 mean comment are 20 more that have kind words of support. But still, I have received death threats from sock puppet accounts, mockery for being disabled and making an item that doesn’t erase disability, and vitriol from people who don’t want to understand why this representation is so important. It has been a lot, but at the end of the day, it made the people who needed it and who I wrote it for happy, and that’s all that matters to me.
Where would you like to see the hobby in five years?
I would like to see our hobby and communities accept that a lot of the demographic of RPGs is disabled people – they are something disabled folks can play every week and, now that a lot of it has moved online, it’s become more accessible (not entirely accessible though). A lot of disabled people play ttrpgs and it’s time we all step up to acknowledge and work on bettering our games to represent everyone.
Anyone can be an adventurer.
What would you like straight-white-male wargamers to know about gaming from a disability perspective?
Don’t be afraid of disability; open up that dialogue at your tables. Talk to disabled folks about this and learn – there are a lot of free resources out there online for you to learn from. Stop treating representation of disabled folks as a threat and see it as an opportunity to learn, broaden your mindset, and help you become a better DM/GM and player. Disability isn’t a bad thing and it’s time we stop treating it like it is.
This is awesome, what can I do to make my games more inclusive?
The FATE Accessibility Toolkit is a great disability resource. It covers how to make your gaming table accessible to players with disabilities, as well as how to include disability in character design within the FATE system, which also translates well to other systems. You can buy a copy on DriveThuRPG.
If you want to get your learn on about disability culture more broadly, I recommend reading No Pity by Joseph Shapiro, a collection of essays on disability rights and history, and watching Crip Camp on Netflix, which tells the story of the 504 Sit In, the longest non-violent occupation of a U.S. federal building in history: 100 disabled people, supported by the Black Panthers, protested for 26 days for equal access to public services. Fun fact: disability equality is part of the anti-segregation ruling handed down in Brown vs Board of Education.
Read more about the Derby House Principles on diversity and inclusion in professional wargaming here.