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I’m excited to say that I’m working on a new article about creating assistive devices. In it I’m channeling all of my frustration with people unthinkingly acting as if assistive devices need to carry the entire weight of creating accessibility for disabled people and I’m really happy with how it is coming out. I’m also presenting my personal method for creating assistive devices. Here I’m sharing everything I’ve completed so far, followed by the outline of the remaining sections. As I finish new sections, I will update this post. I hope you enjoy what I’ve completed so far!

A dark skinned wheelchair user with long hair and a beanie sits at a small table, using their laptop to participate in a video meeting. The laptop screen is shown to their right, with the call being live captioned. The main speaker is a dark skinned person wearing a hijab and glasses, and three other participants are at the bottom of the screen, in smaller windows. In the bottom right corner, a yellow service dog bounds towards the wheelchair user. Illustration by Dana Chan for Disabled And Here.

 

Crafting Assistive Devices for Speculative Fiction

 

Respectfully portraying assistive devices in non-speculative fiction requires research and consulting, but it is a straight forward process. How do we do this in speculative fiction, when magic, advanced technology, or alternate worlds are involved?

 

What Are Assistive Devices?

Before we do anything else, I want to be clear what assistive technology and assistive devices are, because the mainstream view of disability portrays them in a narrow, distorted way. Surprisingly, there is significant variation in the definition of these terms, so I’m using the ones I find to be the most helpful.

  • Assistive technology is any item, system, or product that a disabled person can use to increase their functional capabilities. This includes things that are specifically designed for disabled people and things that aren’t, such as magnifiers, speech recognition software, railings, and elevators.

Assistive technology and assistive devices are often used interchangeably. Technically, any assistive technology that is a device (a physical object made for a specific purpose) is an assistive device, making assistive device a narrower term because it leaves out things like computer programs. Although I recognize this difference, this article uses the term assistive device instead of assistive technology because it is more easily recognized. Not many people associate low tech devices, like grips and grab bars, with the word technology.

One more important definition is that of adaptive equipment.

  • Adaptive equipment is a subcategory of assistive technology that only includes equipment specifically designed for people with disabilities, such as prosthetic limbs, power chairs, and Braille books.

The reason these definitions matter is that the mainstream view of disability leads people to confuse adaptive equipment with assistive devices and think of them both in limited ways. However the reality of assistive devices in the lives of disabled people is much broader, and showing that is part of portraying disability respectfully.

 

 

Start with the Big Picture

Now that we have a clearer idea of what assistive devices are, the next thing to know about assistive devices is that they don’t exist in isolation—they are part of a broader set of accessibility tools that come together to create access and inclusion for disabled people. Key accessibility tools to think about are: accessible physical environments, inclusive social structures, accommodations, assistance animals, assistance work, and medical care.

As an accessibility tool, accessible physical environments are complicated by the fact that they are a combination of assistive devices, like ramps, elevators, and automatic door openers, with architectural features, like wide doors, forward or parallel approaches, space to maneuver, handles that can be used with one hand, and sinks the right shape and height to be used from a wheelchair. In fact, larger assistive devices, like ramps and elevators, have spatial and structural requirements that work best when integrated into the overall architectural design. Because of this, we are going to talk about accessible physical environments as if they are a separate category to assistive devices, even though that isn’t actually the case.

Other categories of accessibility tools, like accommodations and assistive devices, also overlap, but thinking about each of these tools as if they are separate is helpful is because there is a lot of give and take between different categories. When one accessibility tool is scarce, the other tools need to do more to compensate. For example, in an ableist society without accessible physical environments, most buildings only have stairs, so assistive devices need to compensate, making it important for wheelchairs to climb stairs.

The reverse is true as well. If one accessibility tool is abundant, then the other tools don’t need to accomplish much in order to meet disabled people’s needs. For example, in a society where accessible physical environments are abundant and all buildings and public spaces are accessible, climbing stairs is a pointless feature for wheelchairs to have.

This trade-off between different tools is why the big picture is necessary for creating assistive devices. The availability and deficits in the other accessibility tools help define what assistive devices need to accomplish.

 

Step 1: Decide how Ableist Verses Accessible this Setting Is

For those storytellers creating their own settings, the choice of whether to portray more or less ableism within that setting has a big effect on the availability of accessibility tools, so it is the first thing that needs to be decided. For those who are using settings created by others, the first step is to assess how ableist the chosen settings, and the societies within them, are.

Ableist societies push the burden of gaining access onto disabled people. In general, they provide fewer accessibility tools, have less accessible physical and social structures, and push the costs of assistive devices, accommodations, assistance animals, assistance work, and medical care onto individuals. Typically, assistive devices will need to do more things in order to create access, like wheelchairs needing to climb stairs. The amount of wealth and privilege a disabled person has will make a huge difference in which assistive devices, medical care, and other accessibility tools they have. This means that many multiply marginalized disabled people will be coping with limited access to important tools.

In contrast, societies with less ableism take on more of the work and cost of creating access. This means that physical and social structures will be more accessible and assistive devices, accommodations, assistance animals, assistance work, and medical care will be easier to access. Assistive devices in these societies usually won’t have to do as many things in order to create access, such as wheelchairs not needing to climb stairs because every building is wheelchair accessible.

When deciding how ableist or accessible to make a setting, keep in mind that settings with ableism have a negative impact on disabled audience members. Creating ableist environments, even to criticize them, can bring up painful struggles in disabled people’s lives. This makes it harder for disabled audience members to enjoy the story you are telling. Because of this, I recommend avoiding making a setting ableist unless the story you are telling will be exploring ableism as part of the plot. In particular, avoid using ableism (or other forms of oppression) to make a story darker. There are other ways to make a story dark that don’t have a disproportionate impact on marginalized people.

If you are thinking about depicting ableism as part of your story, be aware that accurate portrayals of ableism are difficult to do well and mistakes made when portraying oppression can be particularly harmful by spreading misinformation or reinforcing negative messages. One of the problems is that ableism in mainstream society causes a significant number of people to think of ableism as normal and access barriers as an inherent part of a disabled person’s life. This makes it challenging to portray the harm done by ableism without resorting to exaggeration. Another problem is that there are a lot of harmful portrayals of disability that disguise themselves as positive representation, such as inspirational disability, the supercrip stereotype, disability-negating superpowers, and superpowers that compensate for disabilities. Because portraying ableism accurately is so difficult and sensitive, I recommend leaving portrayals of ableism to disabled storytellers.

There is also a big need for stories that show accessibility as normal. Imagining what a truly accessible society could be like challenges people to think of disability and accessibility in new ways. Even if you don’t go that far, reducing ableism in the setting makes your story more welcoming to disabled audience members.

If you do decide to create an ableist setting, please keep in mind that there will sub-communities in every society that work to be more accessible and provide assistance to community members, like disability communities in our real-world. Depending on your setting, these more accessible communities can be the size of a family, or as large as an international online community. Showing these accessible communities makes it possible to more effectively meet the access needs of disabled characters within the story and provides a useful contrast the ableist society, highlighting its ableism as a choice.

 

Step 2: Identify Access Needs

Access needs are the things a disabled person needs to perform a task or fully participate in an activity. They can be needs for objects, physical structures, specific types of environments, behaviors, types of assistance, social structures, or digital tools and technologies. Examples of access needs are supportive seating, wheelchair accessible buildings, low-stimulation environments, communication that uses plain language, sign language interpreters, frequent breaks during long meetings, and websites accessible to screen readers.

In real life, some access needs can be met in multiple ways, while others are more rigid. However in fiction, physical environments, assistive technology, and social structures are malleable in a way they aren’t in the real world. The ability to easily change things that are difficult to change in the real world gives storytellers more options for meeting the access needs of their characters. This greater range of options is a wonderful opportunity for storytellers, but it is also carries the responsibility to ensure that the choices made represent disability accurately and respectfully.

The accessibility tools in the story, including assistive devices, are there to meet disabled characters’ access needs, though non-disabled characters may also benefit from them. Because there are so many ways that fictional accessibility tools can be used to meet access needs, identifying and clearly defining access needs is especially important. In non-speculative fiction, access needs can be identified and defined with careful research. While research is also helpful for speculative fiction, it might be necessary to identify and define access needs in settings that are drastically different from our everyday lives.

My method for doing this is to start by defining the tasks that people in this fictional setting are required to do to fully participate in their society and have a fulfilling and meaningful life. Some of these required tasks will be basic actions that are part of many activities, like remembering things, communicating, moving around, and picking things up. Other required tasks are survival based, like needing to get food, prepare it, and eat it. Required tasks can also be daily living activities, like dressing, showering, and brushing teeth. Other required tasks are things that help people function in society, like being able to use computers or navigate a city.

Be sure to think about the ways that speculative settings elements affect required tasks. For example, characters in different settings will need different skills to go through their daily lives, creating differences in required tasks. For example, the tasks a person living in a medieval farming village is required to do and those required of a person living in a futuristic spaceport needs are quite different. Fantastical story elements can also create new required tasks, like a character needing to be able to perceive magic or plug their brain into a computer.

Because it can get overwhelming taking into account all of the possible required tasks that people in a particular setting might need to do, it helps to focus on the tasks characters will need to do to fully participate in the main activities of your story. If you are creating assistive devices for a specific character, you can also focus on the tasks most likely to be affected by their disability/disabilities. In fact, studying specific disabilities may help you define some required tasks that you wouldn’t otherwise think of, but don’t forget to think through the unique elements of your setting and how that disability might interact with them.

Once you have defined some required tasks, you can use them to identify access needs. Compare each required task to the capabilities of your disabled characters. Because access needs can be situational, it can help to think through specific scenarios, like the character going through an average day in their life or a major event in your story.

Any situation where a disabled character needs something in order to accomplish a required task, or struggles more with that task than a non-disabled character, indicates an access need. For example, a required task in a science fiction setting is being able to use computers. Comparing that task to the capabilities of a blind character indicates that one of this character’s access needs is a non-visual computer interface.

When defining access needs, be aware that the words you use will affect the options that come to mind for meeting those access needs. Keeping access needs open-ended and distilling them down to the bare essentials makes it easier to think of multiple options for meeting them. For example, if your story is about bird people that live in a forest city, you could say that an access need for a character with one wing is “flying from tree to tree,” which indicates a need for a flying vehicle or prosthetic wing. However, distilling this access need down to the more basic “moving from tree to tree” implies additional movement options, such as climbing or zip-lining.

Keep in mind that disabled people don’t have to do things the same way as non-disabled people. The more access needs are distilled down to their basic elements, the easier it is to think outside of the methods used by non-disabled people. This is particularly pertinent to assistive devices, because a lot of over-designed devices—devices that are overly complicated or that have unnecessary features—are that way because they are trying to copy the way non-disabled people do things, rather than do things in the way that is most effective for the disabled person that is using it.

 

Step 3: Determine Accessibility Tools

Now it is time to get a fuller picture of the different accessibility tools in the setting. This is important even for stories using pre-existing settings, because few settings have the details of their accessibility tools worked out. Knowing what accessibility tools are and aren’t available makes it clear when an assistive device is the best option for meeting an access need, or when a different accessibility tool is. For example, an access need for memory assistance might be best met by a personal assistant in a low tech setting where there is an abundance of assistance workers available, while that same access need might be best met by an electronic assistive device in a high tech setting where few people are available to do assistance work. Knowing the details of what accessibility tools are present and absent also provides useful information about what assistive devices need to do. For example, knowing wheelchair accessible vehicles are scarce in an ableist setting is important information for creating mobility aids, like wheelchairs.

Two major factors that shape the accessibility tools of a setting are the decision made in step one of how ableist verses accessible this setting is, and the resources that are abundant and scarce. In this context, resources are things people use to achieve their goals. Resources include raw materials, plants, animals, land, space, people, social structures, money, technology, knowledge, and skills. The speculative elements of the setting will have a large impact on its resources. For example, the resources available in a small, high-tech community on the sea floor will be quite different from those available in a massive medieval metropolis. As this example demonstrates, the core elements of the setting determine its resources.

Think through the resources in your setting and use them to figure out what accessibility tools are abundant, which are scarce, and what form they take. Use the following questions to help with this process.

 

Step 4: Compare Access Needs to Accessibility Tools

Now that we’ve defined both access needs and accessibility tools, it is time to go through each character’s access needs one by one and think through which accessibility tool is best for meeting it. This is a creative process that involves extrapolating, filling in details, and making things up. In many cases there will be multiple options. I recommend working out the basics of each option so that they can be effectively compared.

For example, let’s explore some options for meeting an access need for cleaning assistance in a humorous story about daily life in an accessible space station commune that uses plant-based technology. Because this is a communal society that cares about meeting the needs of all of its members, there are many people available to do assistance work, like cleaning, so this is one option. Another option is to use the accessible physical environment and the abundance of plant-based technology to invent little robot-like funguses that wander around the station cleaning up dust and debris. Both are good options.

Which option works best depends on the needs of the story. To continue the example above, if this story emphasizes the novel and humorous plant technology, then wandering cleaning funguses would fit best. However, if this story focuses on humorous social dynamics and would benefit from more excuses for characters to be in each other’s homes, then the best fit would be using communal labor to meet this access need.

Access needs that are best met by assistive devices should be defined as clearly as possible. The goal is to figure out what assistive devices need to be able to do and get a feeling for how assistive devices will interface with other accessibility tools. If this is an ableist setting that causes certain accessibility tools to be limited, are there places where assistive devices might be needed to make up for this lack?

In my experience, the process of using accessibility tools to meet access needs is messy and chaotic. When I do it, I find myself jumping around, going back to reassess decisions made in previous steps, and going forward to the next steps. The steps for creating assistive devices in the second part of this article can be applied to a wide range of tools and strategies for meeting disabled people’s needs, and I often use them when figuring out the details of how an accessibility tool fulfills an access need.

In particular, grounding the way access needs are met within a fictional setting in the way they are met in the real world helps ensure fictional depictions of disability are relatable to real disabled people. For example, both options I presented in the example about the accessible space station commune are based in the real world. Paid and unpaid human labor is a major way real disabled people get these needs met. In addition, real disabled people also use devices like robot vacuums and automatic self-cleaning litter boxes to increase their independence by meeting these needs without having to rely on the help of others. Whether these are considered assistive devices or part of the physical environment depends on how accessible the setting is and how advanced its technology is.

If you are having difficulty meeting your characters’ access needs, especially in an accessible setting, then your setting might not be as accessible as you want it to be. This is easy to accidentally do because mainstream society has a lot of ableism in it and most of us have been raised to think of ableism as normal. So if you are having trouble meeting your character’s access needs, it is a good time to assess whether unconscious ableism has snuck into your setting.

Research and consulting are the best tools to identify and break out of unconscious ableism. I like to start by researching on the ways real disabled people meet their access needs, the social model of disability, and what accessibility and inclusion look like. Once you have identified the problem you can create additional accessibility tools for your setting and make the existing ones more flexible and available.

For ableist settings, there are fewer accessibility resources, but it is worth thinking about how small communities can create increased accessibility through mutual aid and accommodations. For example, in an online forum that doesn’t allow people to make alt text descriptions of images, the members of a subgroup could agree to write out image descriptions as an accommodation to low vision and blind members.

 

 

Craft those Devices

Now that you have a clearer idea of what resources are present and what needs an assistive device will be meeting, we can start creating assistive devices. However, there are a lot of pitfalls to avoid. Most of these pitfalls happen when fictional assistive devices are too perfect, do too much, or their designs are focused on the wrong thing, like exactly replicating the capacities of non-disabled people. The assistive devices that fall into these pitfalls fail to capture the lived experience of disability and inadvertently send negative messages about what it means to be disabled.

For example, a super wheelchair that generates a force field, fires grenades, flies, hacks computers, and transforms into a submersible is doing too much and focused on the wrong things. In a story with lots of tech, devices like force fields, grenade launchers, and hacking decks are fine tools for a disabled character to have. In addition, having a few things incorporated into their wheelchair might make sense, but why are they all incorporated into the wheelchair? A separate hacking device and grenade launcher would be easier and more practical to use. Also, if a combat vehicle is needed, why not have the disabled character drive a tank or fly an airplane? Having every tech device be incorporated into a disabled character’s wheelchair, regardless of how practical it is, shows a fixation on the character’s disability, as if everything they do has to be about their disability. It is also a form of overcompensation that sends a negative message about what it means to be disabled.

In contrast, The Combat Wheelchair created by Sara Thompson for fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons avoids these pitfalls. Many disabled people are excited about it, and for good reason. While the Combat Wheelchair can do a lot, its design is based on the chairs used for wheelchair basketball and rugby, so what the Combat Wheelchair can do is grounded in the details of how real wheelchairs work.

Importantly, the Combat Wheelchair’s design is focused on doing those things disabled characters need to fully participate in diverse adventures in a setting that is frequently ableist. While there are a number of upgrades available for the Combat Wheelchair, most of these upgrades focus on enhancing its use as a mobility device or optimizing its function for specific activities, like all-terrain tires for traveling over sand and snow, or suppression tires that absorb sound to assist sneaking. Finally, the design of The Combat Wheelchair includes limitations and trade-offs. It can only have three upgrades at a time and some of the upgrades are mutually exclusive, like having to choose between all-terrain tires and suppression tires.

Even though the Combat Wheelchair is designed specifically for a tabletop role-playing game, the same principles apply broadly to the creation of assistive devices in speculative fiction storytelling. Let’s look at these principles in detail.

 

Step 1: Ground It in Real Assistive Devices

This step isn’t essential, but it is incredibly helpful, especially for storytellers who don’t have lived experience to ground their assistive device design in. The idea is to start with the information on what an assistive device needs to be able to do that we collected in the previous steps and find the real-world assistive device that is the best match. This is helpful because real assistive devices already are grounded in the experiences of real disabled people.

Without personal experience, it is too easy to let myths and stereotypes lead us into false ideas of what it is like to have a certain disability. The things a person with a specific disability can and can’t do won’t necessarily match what a person without that lived experience imagines.

Even simulations of a disability are misleading, as has been demonstrated by studies that show that simulating blindness by blindfolding sighted people increases stigmatizing attitudes toward blind people. This is because being blindfolded doesn’t capture the learning that goes into adapting to blindness. In addition, “…being blindfolded for a few minutes doesn’t expose you to some of the real struggles that blind people face, such as dealing with inaccessible websites, social discrimination, or a lack of public transit.”

Studying the assistive devices real people use helps avoid these problems. In general, the more similar your fictional assistive devices are to real-world one, the better they will represent the real experiences of that disability and the more people with that disability will be able to relate to your fictional representation of it. When fictional assistive devices get too far away from real ones, they become frustrating to disabled people because there experiences are no longer being accurately represented.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t have advanced technology or magic; in fact, fictional assistive devices should match their settings. It is okay for fictional devices to be significantly different than their real counterpart. What it means is that there is an essential quality to the way a real device meets an access need that it is important to capture in a fictional device so that it accurately represents the experience of that disability.

For example, disabled people who are sensitive to chemical fragrances will often wear a carbon-filter face mask when they go into public spaces. In a science fiction setting, this face mask could be a tech device that creates a personal filtration field around a disabled character’s head. In contrast, in a high fantasy setting, this face mask could be the leaf of a magic plant that rapidly filters air. While different, both of these fictional masks capture a core experience of wearing an air-filtering face mask in public. In addition, as these fictional devices are developed, research into the details of real carbon-filter masks, like the way they muffle speech or the trade-off between how easy it is to breathe and how effectively they filter air, can provide details that keep the fictional devices connected to real disabled experiences. Because these sorts of details are often hard to find, consulting is especially valuable, if you can afford it.

When there is a fictional element to the access need being met, it can be hard to find a real-world device to base your fictional one on. It helps to distill the access need down to its most basic form. Sometimes this also involves being more specific about what is needed.

For example, if the people in a high magic setting interact with magic by seeing it, and for some reason you can’t broaden this out to include other senses, it creates an access need of “being able to see magic.” However, distilling this need down to its essence results in “being able to perceive the location and shape of magic,” which is both more basic and more specific. Now it is easier to think of real assistive devices that might fulfill this need. For instance, many blind people use white canes to scan their surroundings for obstacles and orientation marks. Perhaps in this setting, white canes can be enchanted to interact with magic as if it is a physical object or to vibrate when they contact magic, so that this real-world assistive device can be used to fulfill this fictional access need.

Keep in mind that basing fictional assistive devices on real ones isn’t perfect, and problems can still come up. A common problem is real devices that are overdesigned. When researching real-world assistive devices, be wary of flashy high-tech gadgets designed to look cool, rather than being based on the actual needs of disabled people. For example, real-world cutting edge prosthetic arms are often publicity stunts, rather than practical tools for disabled people to use.

What about imagining new devices? Speculative fiction can point the way to new technologies that eventually become real, like automatic doors and cell phones. There is nothing inherently wrong with imagining a new kind of assistive device. However, it is easy to go astray when imagining new devices. There is a tendency to want to “cure” disability by making devices, especially adaptive equipment, that perfectly replicate non-disabled function. This is harmful because it sends the message that disabled bodies and disabled ways of doing things are inferior to non-disabled ones. In addition, without lived experience to base devices on, it is easy to make devices aimed at addressing the most visible aspects of a disability, rather than the actual needs of people with that disability. This is why I recommend only creating new assistive devices if you can base them on lived experience—either your own, or that of a consultant.

 

Step 2: Focus on Function and Usability

Text coming soon.

 

Step 3: Use Trade-offs to Depict Challenges

Text coming soon.

 

Step 4: Check for Unmet Access Needs

Now that assistive devices have been made, it important to check for any unmet and under-met access needs each disabled character has.

A prevalent myth is that not being able to do things is a core part of what it means to be disabled. While disability can cause limitations in people’s lives, these limitations are different than not being able to specific activities. In addition, many of the limitations disabled people experience come from ableism rather than their disability, such as the limitations that come from inaccessible buildings. Thinking of disability as an inability to do things is harmful because it hides all of the way that society makes people unable to do things by creating barriers.

The idea that disability is an inability to do things also encourages people to think of disabled people as less capable than they are and causes people to perceive the unique ways that disabled people do things as lesser. For example, if a non-disabled ballerina is in a car accident and becomes paraplegic from a spinal injury, the ableist view is that she “will never dance again.” However, disabled people can and do dance. It is ableism that views the dancing of disabled people as lesser, and it is ableism that makes it harder for disabled dancers to find employment.

In accessible settings, there shouldn’t be unmet access needs. Accessibility is all about meeting people’s access needs. If there are unmet access needs, then there are missing accessibility tools, or the existing accessibility tools aren’t being applied to meeting people’s needs creatively enough. It is time to go back through the previous steps looking for things to adjust so that these access needs are met.

Characters in ableist settings also shouldn’t have unmet access needs. Real disabled people can’t afford to just accept not being able to do important things in their life. If there is an access barrier, we fight it or find ways to work around it, even if that isn’t perfect. We often end up paying costs that non-disables people don’t have to pay, but we usually find ways to get things done. As a community, we do our best to come together to support each other through these struggles.

I do want to acknowledge that sometimes in real life barriers aren’t overcome and certain access needs go unmet. Disabled people have died from an inability to access appropriate medical care. Ableism hurts and kills disabled people. However, the way this happens is complicated. Unless a storyteller is willing to spend the time needed to depict this with great care and nuance, it can easily turn into a perpetuation of the myths that disabled people are helpless victims and that ableism is normal. In addition, just like any depiction of ableism, these portrayals take a toll on disabled audience members and are best left to disabled storytellers who have personal experience to base their stories on.

If you aren’t specifically portraying a situation where a disabled person is unable to get their access needs met, then their access needs do need to be met, even in an ableist society. The presence of ableism means that some access needs won’t be met as well. The main signs of ableism will come out in the additional costs that come with meeting access needs, rather than needs being impossible to meet. There might be a struggle to get each individual access need met, access needs might be met in an imperfect way that requires extra time or effort from the disabled character, disabled characters might end up with more limited access to societal resources, and disabled characters might need to prioritize careers and social lives that keep them in more accessible spaces.

 

 

Conclusion

Text coming soon.

 

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