The 2013 volume of the WisCon Chronicles, edited by science fiction and fantasy writer and editor JoSelle Vanderhooft, has a focus on disability signaled by its title: Shattering Ableist Narratives. WisCon is a feminist science fiction convention that has been held in Madison, Wisconsin for the last 37 years. It is a hub for intense discussion of disability, gender, race, and sexuality that revolves around science fiction yet extends into history, politics, and many aspects of attendees' personal lives. The WisCon Chronicles series, published for the past seven years by Aqueduct Press, mixes personal narrative, scholarly writing, and informal discussion of science fiction literature and media. In addition to speeches and papers reproduced as they were presented, contributors solicited after the convention write transcriptions and discussions of convention panels and reflections on events and conversations. Sometimes fiction and art are also included. Shattering Ableist Narratives is packaged with a CD containing an expanded version of the text in several digital formats.1 Throughout the book, art by Erin Harrop offers evocative imagery of non-normative bodies.
While the audience for the WisCon Chronicles series is primarily those who attend or hope to attend WisCon, the thematic focus of Shattering Ableist Narratives gives it a wider reach, and there is much in the book that will interest many readers of Disability Studies Quarterly. In particular, the short pieces collected here will interest conference organizers wishing to host an accessible conference for all. People interested in discourse about accessibility, universal design, and otherness from the perspective of the lived experience of conference participants will enjoy this eclectic collection. The experiences described in this book suggest that while WisCon is unique in its success, no one conference can serve the needs of all.
Shattering Ableist Narratives carries out the mission stated in its title by including the lived experience of people with all kinds of differences; by challenging the prevailing discourse on accommodation and accessibility; and by including voices of those who identify as "disabled" in a multitude of other ways—not just bodily, but emotionally, intellectually and financially. In this collection, readers will find a variety of essays on disability and identity, conference/convention access and accommodation, universal design, and class, race, and gender differences. In addition to disability, these essays touch upon the politics of passing, transphobia, and the importance of focusing on negative feelings about one's body. In the same way that WisCon strives to be accessible to all, so does this book. It aims to educate readers, and also provides teachable elements that one can use in the classroom. It expands on the idea of universal design to include the visible and invisible, the spoken and unspoken, and in doing so shatters the notion of what is "personal but not private" (Notkin 16). Rather than highlighting differences among (and within) the "abled" and "disabled," this chronicle brings together collective voices in a public sphere such that "the design of products and environments [can become] usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design" (Jesse the K & Olson 48-49). At WisCon, universal design means participants — disabled or not — can talk with the organizers and among each other about what they want. Universal design moves beyond private conversations about individualized accommodations to public conversations about needs for all; as such, it practices an approach to design that might be called, in DS terms, more participatory than universal. Moreover, access at WisCon goes beyond the traditional narrative of visible/invisible disability to include other modes of difference, including class background.
Upon perusing the table of contents, readers are presented with a variety of categories: the guest of honor speeches, disability and identity, WisCon and access, disability and science fiction, and panel write-ups. In a straightforward and teachable summary essay on "Defining Disability in a World that Fears Disability," S.E. Smith discusses the various models of disability, including medical and social models. Smith argues: "Many definitions and outlines of disability developed by outsiders are rooted in a culture of fear, where disability is viewed as alien and other and must be clearly outlined in an attempt to neutralize it" (17). As a result, these simplistic models fail to recognize that there is diversity within the disability community. Smith argues for an inclusive movement that recognizes all members' intersectionality and the diversity of disabled experience.
Two interviews with Sandy Olsen and Jesse the K highlight WisCon's mission to "create an event that works for members in all our physical and mental variety" (48-49). By shifting the perspective from accommodation, which is often individualized, to universal design, which is collective, participants do not have to repeatedly ask for assistance. When all participants are aware that the spaces marked off with blue tape are for wheelchair users, there is less of a need for individuals to be singled out or "helped" by abled-bodied participants. Other examples of universal access include signs that allow people to know exactly where they are going, thus minimizing cross-traffic, and signs that are printed with numbers and/or visual images to cater to diverse ways of perceiving and learning. In addition, WisCon has a designated quiet space for those needing to escape the bustle of the conference (see essay by Tracy Benton), ASL interpreting, and live captioning for keynote events regardless if a participant "outs" herself as deaf or hard of hearing to the convention co-chairs (with ASL available on request for other panels). Additionally, WisCon aims to eliminate psychological distress by having a team of convention coordinators rather than just one person. Nevertheless, Josh Lukin and Ann Keefer note that some of WisCon's newer accessibility measures have had a mixed response, with attendees laughing inappropriately at some mistakes in live captioning during a keynote event; in their view, WisCon has some way to go to meet the levels of access expected at Society for Disability Studies.
An essay by Andrea Chandler, a service dog handler, highlights the importance of emotional access at conventions. She reminds us that access is not just about physical space but also about creating a space that is emotionally and psychologically safe. When she discovered that convention folks were more interested in her dog than her, and when they frequently stepped into the dog's space with well-intended but ignorant displays of affection, Chandler felt the need to speak out. She writes: "I don't want every year [at WisCon] to start as a battle for my own safety, an endless chant on my part of 'Please ignore him, he's working' … He is my partner, who keeps me safe and upright and watches over me. He's here for me. Not for anyone else, no matter how much they want that to be different" (76).
Vanderhooft's volume includes a section discussing disability in science fiction in general, to complement the focus on WisCon as a physical and discursive space. These are more scholarly in tone than the rest of the volume, though still prioritizing accessibility to a general audience. A second piece by S.E. Smith on "Disability at the Final Frontier" offers a brief history of disability rights movements before asking "what might science fiction look like if we made room for crips in space?" (p. 83) Two other essays in this section take on specific examples of disability representation in science fiction and fantasy literature and media: Bobby Singer in the TV series Supernatural (Lisa Bradley) and Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy from Batman. Kathryn Allen's "Theorizing Vulnerability in Feminist SF" and Andrea Hairston's "Disappearing Natives: The Colonized Body is Monstrous" extend the idea of disability to explore complex understandings of gendered and racialized embodiment. This section also includes Nisi Shawl's short story "Deep End," itself a fascinating representation of bodily limitation. In its science fiction scenario, minds float in "free space" and the protagonist must choose whether to abandon corporeality or learn to live with pain experienced in a body that is literally not her own. On the whole, the essays in the "Disability in Science Fiction" section may be the most portable, the most separable from the project of the book as a whole. Yet as readers we found that the book was most worthwhile and memorable in the aggregate of personal writing with which it presents its audience.
Shattering Ableist Narratives, because it reaches in so many different directions, is open to a variety of criticisms. Some readers may wish for more theory, less simplification. Some readers may wish for discussion on other models of disability, such as crip theory and phenomenology. Some readers may feel uncomfortable as they read about Chandler's experience, thinking back to a time when they stepped into someone else's space or outed a friend who wished to remain invisible. In fact, we imagine that all readers of this book, if they are willing to confront their own vulnerabilities, will feel impacted in one way or another. We also expect readers to delight in the collective desire to expand accessibility, to sympathize with Elise Matthesen and Debbie Notkin's display of friendship, to appreciate Ada Milenkovic Brown's use of humor in recalling her struggles as a writer as she aged and her body turned against her. These essays speak loudly—they speak, if you will, vulnerability and courage. These essays ask that you be willing to step into lives of the writers and characters, as messy, undefined, and beautiful as they are.
Shattering Ableist Narratives asks us to think in broad and intimate terms about access and disability, both the real and the imagined. By reframing access and accommodation as universal design, disability becomes less about a single person's experience and more about a collective need to address the public, including those who may have a non-apparent access need of some kind (e.g., a food allergy) or who may wish for ease and accessibility (e.g. large-print signs). In her essay on body acceptance, Steph Maruch asks: "Can we make room for multiple alternate viewpoints by promoting nonunitary and nonbinary thinking?" (194). The essays in this collection do just that.
- Formats included are PDF, providing the full text and visual design of the print text with variable text sizing, and the e-reader formats mobi (for Kindle readers) and e-pub (for most other readers), which provide flowing text accessible for text-to-speech software.
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