Ever since I was a little kid, I looked to books and other media as a way to escape my everyday life. Whether it was sci-fi films like Star Wars, uneasy space bounty hunter tales in video games like Metroid Prime, or steampunk books like A Series of Unfortunate Events, I found myself enraptured with every world. As I grew older, I found myself gravitating to grittier media in the form of apocalypse narratives. As distressing as this facet of sci-fi could be, I have been delighted to observe how recent media such as The Last of Us, The Walking Dead, and other stories imagine how humanity collectively survives at its most dire. As cliche as this type of fiction can be, the potential they show for what the future may yet hold is exciting.
However, it is precisely these exercises in imagining the future that have recently left me feeling troubled. As exciting as I find contemplating how humanity rebuilds itself following worldwide collapse, it also terrifies me. But not because I fear zombies, fungal infected aliens, or any other monster (human or otherwise) that appears in these worlds. No, I fear this media more for what it normalizes in our cultural imagination. You see, as complex as the characterization of able-bodied people in this type of media can be, I can’t help but notice this same complexity absent from how disabled people are characterized.
As disabled writer Shoshana Kessock puts it, this media tends to portray disability as a liability, something to be excised for the sake of the able-bodied. Whether it is the presumed uselessness of Sarah in Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead or the morally negative characterization of bipolar Pilar in Defiance, the imaginative boundaries for the role(s) disabled people have in these worlds start at burden and end at liability.
Furthermore, these stories consistently have moments where any instance of perceived weakness is treated as a problem the protagonists must handle later on. Whether that person is portrayed as having limited mobility, a chronic health condition, or a deficiency in mental functioning, creators of such (post-)apocalyptic media reinforce a viewpoint that such individuals should be considered a drain on the group’s resources. At best, the labeled person(s) will need to prove their worth by committing to an (unexpressed) standard of health the group must have in order to survive. At worst, there is narrative validation that any person who previously lived with a disability is holding onto a modern, luxurious right to life in a world now in chaos.
This all raises the question: what kinds of futures can disabled people imagine for themselves within the context of this ableist survival of the fittest mentality? If all it takes is one trigger-happy leader to say a disabled person will get the group killed unless they are put down immediately, what message does this send about the value of disabled life? In other words, if all you have from which to draw hope for the future is (post-)apocalypse narratives as they are now, then for disabled people the future truly has no sense of hope whatsoever.
I know these kinds of concerns can seem frivolous in the face of all the other issues disabled people face in reality. However, that is exactly my problem: I don’t believe this kind of horrifying, purposeful erasure of disabled people is restricted solely to the realm of fiction.
Whether it is the disproportionate removal of children by Child Protective Services from blind, deaf, and intellectually disabled parents for (imagined) fears of neglect, or the recent plastic straw ban debates ignoring their non-frivolous uses by disabled people, the current outlook for disabled people is grim. More than anything, these cases demonstrate the same dismissive attitude towards disabled people that apocalyptic media does. For something as minor as plastic straws, disabled people’s vital insight on appropriate policy is ignored in place of villainization. For something as future-oriented as raising children, many disabled parents are made to think their disabilities or (presumed) unfit parenting have no place in the future.
Even in cases as extreme as disaster planning, disabled people are still not free from undue burdens. From a lack of funding to support policy which addresses disabled needs prior to natural disasters to poor planning of evacuation centers used during those disasters, disabled people remain an afterthought. As a result, situations like those in Texas during Hurricane Harvey where elderly, disabled residents of nursing homes get left behind become all too common. In real life contexts mirroring those appearing throughout apocalyptic media, disabled people’s lives matter as little in reality as they do in fiction. With this context in mind, I can’t help but laugh at my inability to tease out if what I hear happening to disabled people is fact or fiction.
In light of all this, however, I do not despair. Instead, I look upon these realities as a chance to do what I think post-apocalyptic media does best: show us the good humanity has yet to accomplish. If the world currently sees disabled people as disposable burdens, then perhaps there is a future yet to be made where that is not the case.
In the end, I share disabled writer Corinne Duyvis’ view that the wonderful thing about sci-fi (and by extension post-apocalyptic media) is that what feels set in place about the world now does not have to be so. If reality and fiction as we know it now are living horrors for disabled people, perhaps there is space to imagine a beautiful future for disabled folk. And I look forward to being a part of those disabled futures, those days where we don’t ask folks to prove they matter to survive but live on precisely because we know they matter already.