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This is an in-progress (mostly done with a few rough patches), detailed set of notes and resources for my “Making RPG Podcasts Accessible” workshop. It covers what accessibility is, what ableism is, different experiences of disability that are important for this discussion, how to make a podcast accessible to disabled audience members, techniques for including disabled participants in games, how to deal with game systems that don’t handle disability well, how to create disabled player characters that are respectful representations of disability, and negative patterns of representation to avoid. Note that this article was written for a role-playing game podcaster audience, and as a consequence it assumes more knowledge of tabletop role-playing games and audio recording than is assumed in other parts of this website.

 

Workshop Resources

I am providing these workshop resources in a variety of formats so that I am able to meet a broader range of access needs. (Note that due to limited capacity, these aren’t complete yet. However, I am working on them and will complete them soon.)

PowerPoint: These are copies of the PowerPoint slides from this workshop.

Workshop Notes: These are copies of this page of notes for those who wish to download it.

  • Notes as a pdf that uses OpenDyslexic as a dyslexia friendly font: Coming soon.
  • Notes as a Word Document that uses Veranda as a low vision friendly font: Coming soon.

 

Who I Am

I am a queer, disabled, neurodiverse, genderqueer writer, artist, podcaster, game designer, and disability consultant.

Much of the content of this workshop is drawn from experiences I’ve have making my podcast, Writing Alchemy. Writing Alchemy is storytelling that centers intersectional characters, including a fairy tale series that combines humor and magic with serious topics, and a tabletop role-playing series about the adventures of disabled and mentally divergent heroes played by participants with disabilities, divergent mind, and chronic illnesses.

I am also designing Magic Goes Awry, a table-top role-playing game focused around the core principle of accessibility. It is a high fantasy role-playing system that is light on rules and heavy on magical mayhem.

 

Accessibility

Disability accessibility is about creating an environment where people with disabilities can fully participate in whatever is going on. Accessibility includes both removing barriers to participation and creating a social environment where people feel welcomed and respected.

It is important to know that we currently live in a society that isn’t fully accessible. This means that it takes more effort and resources for individuals to make their projects accessible. For example, episode transcripts are an important accessibility tool for people who are deaf and hard of hearing. Because the society we live in doesn’t provide resources for free transcription, individual podcasters become responsible for providing their own audio transcripts. As a result, it takes resources (such as knowledge, time, and money) to become more accessible.

This workshop is all about giving you information and resources that will make the process of becoming more accessible is easier to do. However, it still takes work. This isn’t all going to happen at once. And some parts of it will be easier than others.

An important aspect of this is that improving accessibility involves a lot of learning and changing. Once changes have been implemented and new habits are formed, maintaining them is usually less work than it initially took to set things up.

A common theme that comes up with accessibility is that increasing accessibility benefits everyone, not just people with disabilities. Part of this is because being accessible means creating additional tools, like transcripts, which have a wide variety of uses. However, another part of this is that becoming more accessible means changing how we do things to make more room for the diverse needs of everyone who is participating. This shift to a more inclusive way of doing things helps everyone participate more fully, often resulting in tangible benefits for podcasts, such as increased audience and increased engagement.

In becoming accessible, having a goal of becoming 100% accessible is good, but not always immediately achievable. We also need to be aware of the fact that there are barriers, such as a lack of time and money, that make achieving this goal harder. That doesn’t mean that meaningful improvements can’t be made. This is important work and increasing accessibility matters, even if it isn’t perfect. Erin Hawley wrote an amazing short article on this topic called “When Accessibility Isn’t Accessible” which gives more details on these sorts of struggles.

Also keep in mind that accessibility applies to us as creators, as well as to our work and the environment we create for others. We need to have ways of doing things that are accessible and sustainable for us. This is why it is so important to honesty assess where things are at and what resources are available for increasing accessibility. Those areas where there are a lot of resources will be able to change quickly, while those areas where there are fewer resources will change more slowly. Be realistic about what is going to be sustainable and start with those improvements which are easiest for you to do.

 

Ableism

Ableism is the term used for discrimination against people with disabilities. This can be overt, but is usually more subtle. Like many other forms of oppression, ableism is deeply embedded in modern US society.

Up until recently, mainstream society has been largely unaware of ableism. A lot of amazing disabled activists have been working on this for years and recently we’ve reached a tipping point where increasing numbers of people and communities are becoming aware of ableism. As a queer, nonbinary person the shift that is happening around disability feels similar to shifts in awareness around gender and sexual identity that I’ve experienced over the course of my life.

Because we are in the stage of this social shift where a lot of people are finding out about ableism for the first time, it can be challenging. It is not easy to discover that, for example, the words and phrases we’ve used our whole lives are harmful to others and may be making some people feel unwelcome. Be aware that a few people to react to education on ableism with denial and pushback, rather than face this uncomfortable realization.

Ableism creates barriers to inclusion. In some cases, it prevents people from participating and in others it makes them feel unwelcome. Not every disabled person experiences these barriers, but keeping in mind that 1 in 4 adults in the US has some form of disability, that’s a lot of people.

Common areas where ableism comes out in role-playing games are a lack of accessibility options for the games themselves, an absence of options for making disabled characters, certain game mechanics that promote stereotypes about disability, and story patterns (such as the excessive number of mentally ill villains) which promote negative ideas about people with disabilities.

In podcasting, ableism comes out as the presence of ableist words and phrases, and the lack of community knowledge and resources for including people with disabilities in the technical aspects of recording and podcasting.

 

Ableist Language:

A lot of everyday language perpetuates the idea that people with disabilities are lesser. Not every person with a disability is bothered by ableist language, but many are.

Reducing and replacing ableist language is one of the aspects of increasing accessibility that can be challenging for some people, especially at first. Because ableism is so deeply ingrained in common expressions, change is a ongoing process.

Here are some examples of commonly used ableist words that many people don’t know about.

  • Lame
  • Insane, mad, crazy
  • Dumb
  • Idiot, stupid, moron

These are all words for different types of disabilities and using these words negatively sends the message that people with these kinds of disabilities are lesser. If you didn’t know about these before now, that is okay. Not everyone knows about them. That is why we are talking about this. For more information on why these words are harmful (as well as some other words and phrases to avoid), I highly recommend the video “Casual Ableist Languages [CC]” by Annie Elainey.

The best way to avoid using these words is to replace them with neutral words. Here are some examples of replacements.

  • Frustrating
  • Silly, ridiculous
  • Nonsense, illogical
  • Wild, extreme

For more information on ableist language, “Ableism/Language” is an article by Lydia X. Z. Brown that covers and extensive list of words and phrases (both ableist language and language that is used to talk about disability) with many examples of respectful language and alternatives. If you want a shorter list of words and phrases to avoid, along with suggestions for replacements, I have compiled my own list in the “Use Respectful and Inclusive Language” section of my “Game Ground Rules.”

Finally, when talking about changing language, it is important to recognize that this is going to be a lot easier for some people’s brains than for others. For example, people with certain types of brain damage or cognitive disabilities may find changing language extremely difficult. It is important to make space for these experiences.

 

Reclaiming Language:

I’m going to end this section by addressing the issue of reclaiming ableist words. A significant number of people with disabilities are reclaiming slurs and other ableist language, such as “crip” and “cripple.” This is a perfectly fine thing to do and it is important to respect this process. Judgements, pushback, and arguments about why someone shouldn’t reclaim a specific word are disrespectful and unwelcome. Disabled people don’t need to be told by others how to live their lives.

At the same time, the fact that some disabled people are reclaiming slurs doesn’t make it okay to use ableist words to talk about disabled people in general, or to refer to specific people who aren’t reclaiming those words. Keep in mind that word reclamation is something that can only be done by those people who are directly impacted by the word that is being reclaimed. Individual identities must be respected, but if you are in doubt, avoid using slurs and ableist words.

In addition, please be aware of how context affects the use of reclaimed words. For example, #CripTheVote is hashtag that is about empowering people with disabilities and encouraging people to become more aware of disability issues in their voting. Because this is a context of empowerment, the use of the word “crip” in this hashtag is works.

Since context is so important, when repeating or sharing reclaimed ableist words and phrases, it is helpful to ensure that the context of reclamation is explicit. This doesn’t have to involve a lengthy statement or conversation; simply being careful about how things are presented and worded usually does the job. For example, if an activist self-identifies as a cripple, explaining that they self-identify as a cripple, or stating that you are quoting them when quoting their own words about themselves, lets others know that this is a reclamation of “cripple,” rather than a derogatory use.

 

Experiences of Disability

One in four adults in the US have some form of disability. That is a lot of people with a lot of different experiences. Disability is diverse. However, there some common experiences and ways of thinking about disability which are important to know about.

The Limitation/Difference Spectrum:

  • Disability as a Limitation: Some people experience their disabilities as inherently causing limitations within their lives. Society may add to these limitations when it is inaccessible, but the condition itself is a major cause of limitation. This is often connected to the standard medical view of disability (also called the medical model of disability) where disability is thought of as a problem with an individual person’s body. Connected with this is the idea that the major goal is to cure, fix, or treat the disability so that the disabled person can become as close to normal as possible.
  • Disability as a Difference: Other people experience their disabilities as traits that are simply different from what is typical, but are neither better nor worse. The limitations that people encounter come primarily from barriers that society creates, such as a lack of ramps or negative stereotypes. This idea of disability questions whether being normal is better. Here the major goal is to change society so that it is more inclusive of human diversity. Keep in mind that experiencing disability in this way doesn’t mean that people don’t want medical care. In fact, access to reliable medical care is one of the social barriers that some disabled people face. This understanding of disability is an important part of the social model of disability. Members of the Deaf and Autistic communities, in particular, have done a lot of work to lead the way in this understanding.
  • Each Person Is Different: While, some conditions may be experienced more often as a limitation or a difference, it is important not to generalize. Each person’s experience is unique. For example, many people with anxiety talk about experiencing anxiety as a limit, but I experience it primarily as a difference. While my anxiety causes a lot of challenges in my life, my anxiety is part of the way my brain works. My brain is great handling both the big picture and the details simultaneously. I can quickly think through many possible outcomes and I’m great at planning and analyzing things. The fact that my brain does this is one of my greatest strengths. However, thinking through so many things at once can becomes stressful and overwhelming, which leads to my anxiety.
  • Limitation/Difference Can Be a Spectrum: Some disabilities will be more in the middle or have different aspects that feel more like a limitation or more like a difference. For example, while I usually experience my anxiety as a difference, I experience panic attacks as a limitation.
  • Game mechanics, in particular, can cause problems when they represent one end of this spectrum without making room for the other. For more discussion of this see the “Challenges with Game Systems” section below.

The Visible/Invisible Spectrum:

  • Visible Disabilities: These are disabilities that are immediately apparent. Being visible often means regularly encountering ableist behaviors, such as invasive questions, unneeded “help,” being condescended to, and invasion of personal space.
  • Invisible Disabilities: These are disabilities that are not outwardly apparent. Many people with invisible disabilities find that their experiences of disability are discounted or disbelieved. One common pattern is that people with invisible disabilities are less likely to be targeted by ableist harassment when not using disability resources, but as soon as they start using a disability resource (such as a parking placard) they are met with scrutiny, disbelief, and hostility.
  • Moving Between Invisible and Visible: Many people with disabilities move back and forth between visible and invisible depending on the situation, as is the case for many part time wheelchair users. Annie Elainey explains their experiences of being in between visible and invisible in their video “Coming Out as Disabled: My Visible and Invisible Disability [CC].”

Disability, Chronic Illness, and Neurodivergence Language and Experience:

  • Disability: A disability is an impairment that substantially affects a person’s life activities. This impairment may be caused by a person’s physical or mental attributes, or by barriers created by society. While disability is most often associated with physical disabilities, it is an umbrella term that covers a wide range of experiences, including chronic illness and neurodivergence.
  • Disability as an Identity: Many people take on disability as an empowering political identity. This sometimes involves reclaiming slurs like “crip” and “cripple.” It is important to respect these identity terms and to avoid questioning or pushing back against them. Please keep in mind that slurs should only be reclaimed by those people who are targeted by those slurs.
  • People Who Don’t Identify as Disabled: Not every person who falls under the broad definition of disability identifies their experiences as a disability or wants to take on disability as an identity. It is important to respect these experiences. No one should have an identity forced onto them.
  • Chronic Illness: Chronic illnesses are long-term health conditions that impact daily life. There is some disagreement in how broadly to define chronic illness, but typically it refers to ongoing conditions that have some form of treatment, but no cure.
  • Neurodivergence: Being neurodivergent means having a mind which differs significantly from what society considers normal. This word is a value neutral term that is replacing the term “mental illness.” This is being done in order to better include those people who don’t experience the unique aspects of their minds as illnesses. More information can be found in the article “Neurodiversity: Some Basic Terms and Definitions” by Nick Walker. Because nerodivergent is a newer term that not everyone who falls under it is aware of or identifies with, I will be using both mental illness and nuerodivergent.
  • Neurodiversity: Neurodiversity is the diversity of human minds and brains. This includes both neurotypical and neurodivergent people. This word was created to refer to the mental diversity of a group. Some people do use neurodiverse as a synonym for neurodivergent when describing an individual. This usage is considered incorrect by some people. However, if someone is using neurodiverse as a personal identity, it is important to respect that identity regardless of whether or not it is grammatically correct.
  • Neurotypical: A person whose mind falls within dominant societal standards of normal. Neurotypical is the opposite of neurodivergent.

Other Aspects of Disability to Know About:

  • Flare-ups: Some people with chronic conditions experience flare-ups where their symptoms gets significantly worse. (For an entertaining description of what chronic illness flare-ups can be like, check out “15 Memes That Perfectly Describe What Flare-Ups Are Like” by Erin Migdol.)
  • Side Effects and Trade offs: The treatments for many disabilities come with side effects and trade offs. For example, a choice between two different medications, each of which has an unpleasant side effects. Managing these side effects and trade offs can be an important aspect to living with disability.
  • Spoon theory: “The Spoon Theory” by Christine Miserandino is an important way of understanding the limited capacity that many people with disabilities experience.
  • Fork theory: “The Forks Model of Disability” by Ozymandias is complimentary model to spoon theory that is meant to capture a different experience of limited resources. Rather than having a limited capacity that dwindles, this model is about having a limited capacity that can grow  or dwindle depending on how people invest their resources.

 

Podcast Accessibility

This section is about the physical aspects of making a podcast more accessible to audience members. Not only does this benefit audience members with disabilities, it benefits all audience members. For example, NPR did a study that shows that transcripts have a wide range of benefits, including increasing website traffic, increased user engagement, and the ability to translate into other languages.

 

Transcripts:

Audio transcripts are an important accessibility tool for a range of people, including deaf and hard of hearing folks, people with audio processing issues, and people for whom English is a second language. If at all possible, podcasters should provide transcripts for for their episodes.

Because transcripts take a significant investment of time or money, this can be challenging. Erin Hawley’s article “When Accessibility Isn’t Accessible” gives more details on these sorts of struggles. There are free options that can help with transcription, such as using automatic transcription from otter.ai or YouTube’s automatic caption service to reduce the time it takes to make transcripts. Both Otter and YouTube also have transcript editors with features that make transcribing audio faster, though I do recommend Otter as the easiest to use. I have created step-by-step guides for “How to Create a Transcript with Otter.ai” and “How to Use YouTube to Create Podcast Transcripts.”

For those with passionate fan bases, it is sometimes possible to recruit fans to help with the transcription process. Please only do this if you would not otherwise be able to provide transcripts. If you do use volunteer transcribers, I highly recommend finding ways to show your appreciation for these volunteers and compensating them with any perks or merchandise that you have available.

There are a number of paid transcription options. “The Podcaster’s Guide to Transcribing Audio” by Join the Party Podcast provides an outline of many of the available options, along with some excellent style guide and posting suggestions. “Making Your Podcast More Accessible (& Growing Your Audience as a Result!)” from Podcraft also has a worthwhile discussion of different transcription options.

 

Accessible Audio:

Producing audio as mono, making sure all people have a similar loudness, and limiting the dynamic range of the audio can make podcasts easier for people who are hard of hearing to listen. As is common for accessibility, this can help any listener who listens to podcasts in loud environments that make it hard to hear quieter sounds. Other things that also make a big difference are avoiding having people talking over each other, making any sound effects or music that overlap with talking quieter during those times of overlap, and being careful that any audio processing done to make character voices sound strange isn’t so extreme that it is hard to understand what they are saying. “The Podcaster’s Guide to Transcribing Audio” by Join the Party Podcast has a short “Bonus: Audio Mixing for Accessibility” section at the end that addresses some of this.

 

Content Warnings:

The purpose of a content warning is to warn audience members about types content in a particular podcast episode which they may find harmful or disturbing. This is especially important if this content is unusual for the show. Content warnings help build trust with audience members by giving them the tools they need to make effective choices about when and how they expose themselves to content which personally impacts them. “Content Warnings Will Help Your Podcast: Here’s Why and How to Do Them” is a brief overview of the why and how of content warnings for podcasts.

 

Accessible Websites:

This is one that can be tricky because it can get very technical. However, there are less technical things that can make a big difference to website accessibility. Things like using headers to separate different sections of the website, putting in alt text descriptions for informative images, and having a blank alt text for decorative images are usually easy to do.

It is also important to have a mobile-friendly version of the website. For those who use wordpress, there are plugins, such as JetPack, which can improve mobile accessibility. Also choosing an accessibility ready theme (search for “accessibility ready”) with the WP Accessibility plugin does a lot to improve the way the website interfaces with assistive technology. Some of this information comes directly from “Making Your Podcast More Accessible (& Growing Your Audience as a Result!)” from the Podcraft podcast, which has a good discussion of many aspects of website accessibility, including tools for testing accessibility (they recommend using tenon.io).

 

Disabled Participants

The best way to make participation accessible for all participants is to proactively ask people about their accessibility needs starting with the scheduling process. Know that some access needs people will be aware immediately and others people won’t think about until it comes up. This is especially common when people are doing new activities. Because of this, I’ve made this section more detailed so that it can prompt discussion and help people anticipate things that are likely to come up.

 

Scheduling:

When working with disabled participants, scheduling recording sessions can involve more than just finding a time that works for everyone’s schedule.

  • Preferred Communication Methods: Finding out which communication methods work best for disabled participants and using them can make the whole process of scheduling and preparing go a lot smoother.
  • Reminders: Certain disabilities make it hard to remember things. In these cases, reminders of recording dates and preparation activities can be helpful, but be sure to discuss when and how to do reminders so that they don’t become a source of stress.
  • Time of Day: Some people have conditions or medications that cause them to fade in the evening. They will be able to participate the most fully earlier in the day. Others have conditions that make them unavailable in the mornings or that improve later in the day. These people will be best able to participate at later times.
  • Length: Many conditions reduce the time, energy, or focus that a person has for participating in a game. In my experience, two hours is a common time limit that people can manage.
  • Breaks: People may need regular breaks to do things like stretch or eat a snack. In addition, some people may need breaks at specific times in order to take their medications. Be sure to schedule the time needed for these breaks.
  • Cancellations: Certain conditions regularly flare up, causing participants to need to cancel at the last minute. It is important to have an agreement ahead of time about how the group will deal with this. Do you want to record anyway, or to reschedule? If frequent cancellations are an issue, it can help to schedule additional sessions ahead of time, knowing that some will be cancelled.

 

The Recording Environment:

Whether recording in-person or online, there are many aspects of the environment that can affect a person’s ability to fully participate in the game. Be aware that some people disabilities will find gaming in person more accessible than gaming online, while others will find gaming online to be more accessible.

Recording In-Person: If you are recording in-person, be sure your recording space is physically accessible to all participants. There is a wide range of different needs that might come up.

  • Transportation: Some people will have specific transportation needs, such as a location that is accessible by public transit, a location that is near to their home, or scent free transportation assistance.
  • Wheelchair Accessibility: Not all spaces that claim to be wheelchair accessible are fully accessible. Be sure that all parts of the building that you need to use (including restrooms) are accessible.
  • Supportive Seating: It is not always easy to predict what chair is going to work best for someone with a disability, so it is best to have a diverse selection of comfortable, supportive seats. Pillows and blankets can be helpful in adjusting seating to meet people’s needs.
  • Temperature Control: Certain conditions and medications can make people particularly sensitive to hot or cold. If possible, use a recording space that has a controlled temperature. If the space is unavoidably hot or cold, let people know ahead of time so that you can work out the best options for keeping people comfortable. For cold environments, blankets, hot beverages, heating pads, and hot water bottles can help people stay warm. For hot environments, quiet fans, cold beverages, and ice packs might help people stay cool.
  • Microphones that Move with People: Some people need to frequently move and change positions. For consistent audio it is important to have a microphone that can move with them. This can be done with lapel and headset microphones. It is a good idea to do an audio test to be sure their movement isn’t causing any rubbing or bumping of the microphone.
  • Scent Free Environments: There are multiple different conditions, including Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, that result in people having health consequences from exposures to specific fragrances and chemicals. The best way to address this is to provide a scent free environment. Different people have different chemical triggers, so it is important to have a conversation about which chemicals are the greatest concern. It can also help to placing a quiet air filter next to the person with chemical sensitivities. Going scent free requires preparation and commitment on the part of all participants. You can find out more information on going scent free here.
  • Calm Environments: Some people are easily overstimulated. It can help to be aware of the sensory aspects of the environment and avoid things that might be overwhelming, such as bright lights shining in people’s faces.
  • Accessibility to Deaf and Hard of Hearing Participants: Participants who are deaf or hard of hearing may have specific needs that require changes in behavior, such as avoiding cross-talk or for people to face them while speaking. An ASL interpreter may be required. A useful resource for this is Illuminerdy’s RPG sign language series by Bill Paulson which teaches signs for role-playing games. In addition, even if your podcast doesn’t normally provide transcripts, please consider providing transcripts for episodes with deaf and hard of hearing participants so that those participants have full access to the episodes they were in.

Recording Online: Online recording can be more accessible for some people. It reduces the toll of participation and allows participants to be in an environment that they have structured to meet their own access needs. However, online recording has its own challenges and access needs, many of which will affect the choice of recording method.

  • Ease of Use: Some people need the technical aspects of recording to be easy. Keep in mind that this includes both the recording itself and the setup for recording. In these cases it will be important to either use a recording method that doesn’t require setup, or to provide setup assistance.
  • Video: Certain participants will greatly benefit from seeing people’s faces as they talk, while others may find video overwhelming. Note that streaming video with audio can reduce audio quality.
  • Specific Equipment Needs: Some people have specific equipment needs, such as a microphone that allows them to move around and change position (see “Microphones that Move with People” above).
  • Access to Equipment: Be aware that many disabled people are low income, and may not be able to afford a quality microphone, reliable computer, quiet headphones, or fast internet. This can reduce audio quality and make certain recording methods less reliable. If possible (and everyone is comfortable with it), this is best addressed by arranging a loan or gift of the necessary audio equipment and resources. If that isn’t possible, be sure to test out different recording options to find the one which will work best.
  • Slow Computers: Some participants might have slow computers. This can cause problems with any recording method that stores data locally onto each participant’s computer. Common problems are audio gaps and syncing problems. The best way to deal with this is to test your chosen recording method ahead of time and to have a reliable (if less ideal) back up in case something goes wrong. Freshly restarting computers before recording can also be a big help.
  • Background Noise: Many people have living situations where there are significant amounts of background sounds. One way to address this is to use a recording method that has separate tracks for each participant, making it easier to remove background sounds during editing. Background sounds may have a disproportionate impact on participants who are hard of hearing.
  • Accessibility to Deaf and Hard of Hearing Participants: See the notes for in-person recording above.
  • What I Record With: Of the things I’ve tried, Google Hangouts On Air has been the most reliable. The downsides of it are the many complicated steps needed for the person setting the recording up, the limited audio quality, and the fact that all audio is recorded in a single track.

 

Game Accessibility:

It is important to think through the different ways in which game play will interact with the disabilities of participants. One of the goals of game accessibility is to set up the environment so that disabled participants have as much autonomy in their participation as everyone else does. Here are some things to think about, along with specific examples that include different ways to improve accessibility. Be aware that this is not a comprehensive list.

  • Game System Complexity: It can be a struggle for people with cognitive and learning disabilities to keep track of all of the parts of complicated game systems. One of the best ways to handle this is to use rule-light systems which are easier to keep track of. If you are committed to a specific game system, then it can be very helpful to create playing aids which present key information in a format that is easier to use. Examples of these are spell cards which summarize each of the character’s spells, simplified character sheets which highlight the most important information, separate character sheets for different situations (such as one for when the character is normal and one for when they are raging or enlarged), and summary sheets where bonuses are pre-calculated and laid out in a clear way.
  • Rule Books: This one is a bit tricky because it depends on game designers and publishers to make their rule books accessible. If publishers do have more than one book format available, communicate with your participants and find out which one is going to work best for them. Keep in mind that people with cognitive disabilities may read slowly and may not get much out of reading a rule book. In terms of providing accessible materials for visually impaired participants, it is important to know that not all pdfs can be read by screen readers. Dots RPG Project is an organization that is translating gaming books into braille, but they don’t seem to have any books publicly available yet.
  • Character Sheets: Paper character sheets can be difficult for a lot of people to access. Small fonts present challenges for visually impaired folks, the fonts used are rarely good for people with dyslexia, and extensive use of acronyms present barriers to people with cognitive disabilities. For many people, creating their own electronic character sheets with programs like  Google Docs and Excel gives people the control needed to put things in fonts and formats that work for them. “Dungeons And Dragons: a How-To For Blind And Low Vision Tabletop Enthusiasts” by Jessica Rickards and “DnD without sight – making the character sheet” by Kirsty M both have good discussions of different techniques for creating character sheets for blind participants. Some people also find it helpful to print out braille character sheets.
  • Dice: The physical aspects of rolling dice aren’t something everyone can do. Online dice rolling programs provide an accessible alternative. Roll20 is a popular one that has many different tools to work with (it can be a bit of a learning curve). The automatic calculations these programs can also be helpful for situations where the dice system involves a lot of math. Braille dice and dice with large numbers are available from multiple sources.
  • Numbers that Change Regularly: Things like hit points change frequently and can be tricky for some people to keep track of. Online notes and characters sheets are one tool people can use to keep track of these things. There are also ways to use tools, like those available in Roll20, to lessen the burden of calculations. In addition, there are tactile ways of tracking numbers with physical counters (such as glass pebbles) which can useful to blind folks and those participants who do best when numbers are represented physically. For example, when a character loses hit points counters are moved from one bowl to a different one to track this change. This technique comes from Mackan Andersson.
  • Maps and props: What is going to work best depends on needs of the participants. A lot of podcasts don’t use maps and props and everything is in the theater of the mind. This can be great for the accessibility of visually impaired participants, however participants with cognitive disabilities or who do better with visual information will benefit from the use of maps and props. With some effort physical maps can be made into tactile maps. Be aware that smaller, more fiddly game pieces will be harder for some people to manipulate. Online maps can be more accessible for people with mobility impairments and the ability to zoom can also make them accessible to some people with visual impairments. “Dungeons And Dragons: a How-To For Blind And Low Vision Tabletop Enthusiasts” by Jessica Rickards has a suggestion for using Excel to create maps which are accessible to blind players.

 

Story Content:

People can also have accessibility needs about the content of a game. This ranges from content that should be avoid to techniques that help people with cognitive disabilities track of what is going on in the plot. Note that Breakout Toronto has a great safety tools page that includes many of the safety tools in this section.

Setting Initial Expectations and Boundaries: This group of tools is designed to help people set expectations and boundaries at the beginning of the game. Although these tools are used at the beginning of the game, they can help with ongoing conversations as things arise in the game.

  • Setting Expectations with the Initial Invite: When inviting people to participate in a game it is really helpful to start by letting them know core aspects of the game such as genre, theme, and expected intensity level. This prevents drastic mismatches between player needs and the planned game.
  • Lines and Veils: This is a tool for setting boundaries about content that won’t be in the game (this is called a line) and content that will be skipped over so that it isn’t explored in detail (this is called a veil).
  • The Same Page Tool: This tool is designed to facilitate an explicit discussion of game play expectations and preferences.
  • Gaming Group Social Contracts: This is a discussion about formal social contracts for gaming groups which covers both logistics and game play. The goal of these contracts is to make social expectations explicit.

Safety Tools for Use During Game Play: This group of tools are intended to address those situations where game content comes up that would be harmful for someone to engage in. Whether it is a trigger, something that brings up painful memories, a phobia someone forgot to mention, an intense topic that someone isn’t up to delving into, or just something that makes someone uncomfortable in a bad way, these tools offer a variety of ways to adjust game content so that everyone is able to fully participate in the game. While the way these tools work needs to be explained at the start of the game, these tools are used during the game. Many of these tools have similar functions, so this is about finding the one or two that are right for your game.

  • X-card: This is a tool that allows anyone to edit game content that makes them uncomfortable. When someone taps or holds up the X-card, the problem content is removed without need for explanation. Note that saying “X-card” can be an important accessibility option for some players.
  • Script Change: This is a set of tools that allows participants to edit game content by doing things like pausing, rewinding, fast forwarding, and going slow through sensitive topics (frame-by-frame).
  • Cut and Break: These are safewords that allow players to stop (cut) or slow down (break) and change direction or de-escalate the current situation. They come out of the Nordic Larp community where cut is “kutt” and break is “brems.”
  • Support Flower: Also called Consent Flower, this is “a non-verbal affirmative-consent player support tool for tabletop gaming that allows for player to communicate boundaries without the feeling like they are disrupting the game.” The idea of this tool is that by tapping different words or colors players and game masters can communicate what direction they want play to go in as play happens.
  • The Luxton Technique: Most emotional safety tools focus on removing triggering and upsetting content, however this process can be harmful for some people. This article explains why and presents an alternative technique that makes space for traumatic experience and centers the trauma of players in storytelling (for example, giving them power over the way the story situation resolves).

Be aware that some of these tools involve touching physical objects and others involve saying specific words. The physical aspects of touching an object aren’t accessible to everyone, nor are they always practical for online game sessions. At the same time, not everyone is going to be comfortable interrupting with a word, and some people find talking more difficult when they get upset. Take a moment to discuss what is going to work best for each person and adjust the techniques as needed. The key is to find a way (or ways) to communicate that each person is able to use when they are uncomfortable and that everyone else will be able to perceive and understand. Verbal techniques can be made into cards and the names of cards can be used verbally. For online games, touching a card can be replaced by holding up a card or using a chat box. Sometimes a combination of verbal and physical options is needed to meet everyone’s needs.

Techniques for Helping People Follow the Plot:

  • Notes: Some people use notes to help keep track of key aspects of the plot, like group goals, places, and character names. In these cases, it might be necessary to occasionally pause to let people take a moment to update their notes.
  • Buddy Note Takers: Some people benefit from having a different member of the group take notes on the people, places, and events of each game. These notes are then shared with the group so that people review them in preparation for the next session. Online shared documents can work particularly well for this.
  • Game Master Notes: Some groups use reference materials and notes created by the game master to help everyone keep track of what is going on. These may have per-prepared sections, or be created during the session. They may also include other reference materials like diagrams and summary sheets. These can be a great tool for all participants. If you do make these, be sure to save them in a format that is accessible to all participants.
  • Recaps: Periodically summarizing the ongoing plot threads or current situation can be a useful to help people keep track of what is going on. These recaps can be done in an entertaining fashion, to heighten the humor or drama of the situation by painting a mental picture of the scene the scene that is happening. Recaps can be particularly helpful after a break or at that start of a player’s turn.
  • Check-ins: Some people will benefit from check-ins. If this is the case, it is helpful to work out what way of doing check-ins is going to be best for them. For example, if they have been quiet for a while, do they want you to ask them what their character is up to, or ask them how they are doing? Perhaps they would prefer a nonverbal check-in, such as giving a quick thumbs up or thumbs down to indicate how they are doing. It is also good to provide private options for doing check ins, such private chats or texts, or passing a note. Be aware that making these methods silent, so that they don’t interfere with recording, can make them harder to notice.

 

Challenges with Game Systems

Whether it is incorporating stigmatizing concepts, ignoring disability, or creating awkward mechanics, game systems rarely handle disability well. This is a particularly broad topic and there is no way for me to have experience with every single game system out there. That is why I’m going to focus this section on areas where problems frequently occur.

Because these are structural problems, the way to address them is to make changes to games when you play them. Depending on the game system, this could involve substituting for derogatory language, removing mechanics for specific disabilities so that they just handled through role-playing, and custom making alternative mechanics.

 

Insanity:

The concept of insanity is a stigmatizing historic concept that has been largely replaced by the more accurate concepts of mental illness and neurodivergence. Insanity is connected to a violent history of treating people with disabilities as less than human, including institutionalization, unethical experimentation, and forced sterilization. It lumps all types of mental divergence into a stereotype about people with divergent minds being dangerous, out of control, and disconnected from reality. This concept is so stigmatizing, outdated, and inaccurate that the medical establishment has long since left it behind in favor of the concept of mental illness.

Unfortunately the concept of insanity has become entrenched in the insanity mechanics used certain games, especially those of the cosmic horror genre. This mechanic is about making the events of the game impact character’s emotions and ability to function. Clearly this is an important part of the game, but the stigmatizing concept of insanity is not necessary for doing this.

There are many alternatives, such as stress and fear mechanics, using conditions as short- or long-term consequences, changing the language used to describe the mechanic, and eroding the core beliefs of the characters. My article, “Addressing Ableism: Sanity Systems,” provide a description of many possible alternatives. Episode 127 of the Mythcreants podcast, “Mental Health Systems in Roleplaying Games,” also provides a good discussion of alternatives (unfortunately there is not currently a transcript for this discussion). Which alternative is right for a particular game depends on the mechanic that is being altered/replaces and the experience you want to create in the game.

I do want to add that people are starting to realize how much of a problem the representation of insanity in cosmic horror games has been and improvements are being made in some newer games. However, certain game designers have been reluctant to let go of the central stigmatizing concept of insanity. I suspect that this is because the cosmic horror genre has built in a lot of associations around the concept of insanity, such as ideas about the truth being too horrible to comprehend or there being a hidden reality that everyday people don’t want to believe. However, there are other ways to get these ideas across. In addition, shifting from insanity to more accurate concepts like stress, fear, and the erosion of core beliefs can provide better game play by basing mechanics on experiences that are more universal.

 

Mechanics that Force Disability on Characters:

Any time a person is portraying a character with a marginalized identity that they don’t have, it is important that they put in the work needed to do a respectful portrayal. The less experience the person has with that particular marginalized identity, the more work is needed. If a person hasn’t done research and has little experience to draw on, their portrayal will be heavily influenced by stereotypes. This is why mechanics that push people into portraying characters with disabilities are a problem. Portraying a marginalized character, especially in a public forum, should be voluntarily.

The best way to address this is to change the mechanic so that the person portraying the character gets to choose whether or not the character has a disability. If it is important to give a character a long-term effect from an experience, give them an alternative long-term effect (examples of these are given in “Addressing Ableism: Sanity Systems”).

This topic is covered in a bit more detail in the “Mechanics that Force Disability on Characters” section of “Addressing Ableism: Game Mechanics that Treat Disability as a Limitation.”

 

Mechanics that Treat Disability as a Limitation:

Most of the game systems which have mechanics for disability treat it as a limitation. This is sometimes framed in derogatory language, such as calling a disability a flaw. If this is the case, the first thing that needs to be done is to change what language is being used so that disability is not being talked about in a derogatory way.

Setting aside the issue of language, treating disability as a limitation through mechanics still causes  problems. As previously discussed, while many people experience their disabilities as a limitation, many others experience their disabilities as a neutral differences. Creating a mechanic that reinforces either one of these experiences frequently causes people with the other experience feel invisible. This sort of invisibility can be painful and frequently causes strong reactions.

Limitation mechanics for disability are often overly limiting. For example, some game systems have mechanics for sighted characters who temporarily lose their sight which are also applied to characters who are blind. These are actually very different experiences, and should have different mechanics. Overly limiting mechanics are particularly a problem because most tabletop role-playing games are about making players feel empowered. Excessive limitations reinforce negative stereotypes and send a negative message about what it means to be disabled.

In addition, disability is diverse and different people experience the same condition differently. In fact, the idea that all people with a particular condition have the same abilities, traits, or needs leads to a lot of harassment of people with disabilities. Anytime someone doesn’t match the stereotype for their disability, able-bodied people won’t believe that they actually have that disability. For this reason, creating a single unchanging mechanic for a condition causes problems even when it is done well.

One way to deal with all of these problems in the mechanics for disabled characters is to get rid of the mechanics and to handle the disability through role-playing. This involves working through how each disabled character lives their life and thinking through any accommodations or assistive devices that they may have.

Another good option is to custom-make rules for each disabled character individually. This involves thinking through each character’s unique experience of their disability and what mechanics would reflect that experience. The best place to start when creating mechanics for a disability is the experience of disabled participants, especially those who have personal experience with the character’s disability. If no one present has personal experiences to draw from, then an alternative starting point would be mechanics for disability created by people with disabilities, such as the list of “D&D Disability Mechanics” created by sleepyspoonie.

For more information on this topic, go to the full article, “Addressing Ableism: Game Mechanics that Treat Disability as a Limitation.”

 

Mechanics that Erase Disability:

On the other side of overly limiting game mechanics are mechanics that erase disability, such as magical cures or perfect adaptive technology. Broadly speaking, these mechanics can have important game uses and are be okay to use in certain circumstance. However, it is important that everyone understands that when these mechanics are being used, the experiences of people with disabilities aren’t being represented. In addition, it is best to avoid portraying cures to real-world disabilities, as that can be invaliding for people with those disabilities. Where possible, use these on fictional conditions.

These mechanics are useful when someone isn’t up to the work involved in respectfully representing a specific disability but their character has that disability. As stated before, any time a person doesn’t have personal experience to draw on, respectful representation takes a lot of work and research to do well. Not everyone is up to that and that is okay. It better to avoid representing a disability than it is to represent it in a way that reinforces stereotypes. Ideally, this situation would be avoided in the first place, but if it comes up, it is best to quickly bring in the magical cure or perfect technology, so that character can become able-bodied and/or neurotypical.

In those situations where you do want to represent disabled people’s experiences, mechanics that erase disability are a problem. Magical cures, in particular, can get wrapped up in harmful depictions of disability as an obstacle to overcome. It helps to be clear about what things can be cured and what can’t. Avoid making disability into an obstacle for a character to overcome and don’t give a character a magical cure as a reward. If you want something to be temporary, give the character something that is clearly intended to be temporary, such as a broken bone or chemically altered mental state. If you want something to be a long-term disability, make it clear that there isn’t a perfect cure available. It is fine for treatment to improve their condition, but it shouldn’t go away. Disability should be a long-term part of the character’s life.

When a disabled character gains magic or technology that doesn’t technically cure them but does make them indistinguishable from an able-bodied character (such as a prosthetic that perfectly replaces a limb with no changes in ability or side effects), they no longer represent the experiences of disabled people. This is because, in the real world, disability impacts a person’s daily life in large and small ways. People with disabilities encounter accessibility barriers, such as buildings that are inaccessible to wheelchairs. We have to make trade offs, such as taking a medication with unpleasant side effects. And many of us have to carefully manage our physical and mental resources, such as someone with limited energy choosing not to run errands so that they able to prepare their dinner. You can find out more information on this in “Cosmetic Disability.”

If magic or technology is available to the character, it makes sense for them to use it to address their access needs. The way to make this represent the experiences of a disabled people, rather than being a way to turn a disable character into an able-bodied character, is to make it clear what that magic/technology can and can’t do. What are its benefits and limitations? Does it have any side effects? How about hidden costs? Does it require maintenance or charging? Can the character use it constantly, or do they need to remove it at times?

 

Absence of Options:

Some game systems have an absence of options for creating characters with disabilities. Sometimes this can be bigger things, such as game mechanics that are tied to particular abilities, such as magic that requires line of sight or vocalizations, which won’t be possible for characters with specific disabilities. Other times this can be a lack of setting-appropriate adaptive equipment for characters with disabilities. This problem is all about an absence of appropriate options for characters with disabilities, so the solution is to create appropriate game mechanics and options. Just as in the “Mechanics that Treat Disability as a Limitation” section, it is important to include game participants with disabilities (assuming they want to be involved) in the process of creating game mechanics for disability.

For science fiction games in particular, a lack of options for disabled characters is sometimes based on the mistaken idea that the presence of advanced medical technology means that disability won’t exist anymore. I don’t have time to unpack ever aspect of why this is a problem, but here are a few key points.

  • Representation matters and people with disabilities deserve to be represented within science fiction.
  • Not every person with a disability wants a cure. For example, members of the Deaf and autistic communities have been very clear about this, so at the very least science fiction settings should contain Deaf and autistic people.
  • Most science fiction settings still have diseases, so it naturally follows that there will also be chronic conditions and illnesses resulting from some of these diseases.
  • The species diversity of many science fiction settings (or possibly the variations between different groups of humans) provides ample opportunity for exploring social aspects of disability. For example, beings adapted to breath a different atmosphere will need some sort of accommodations to visit places with an earth-like atmosphere, just as humans will need accommodations to visit places with this different atmosphere. The “Non-Human Groups and Disability” section of “Should You Give Non-Human Groups Marginalized Traits?” by Cris Winkle has many excellent examples of this.

 

Ableist Monsters:

Traits associated with specific disabilities are regularly used for monstrous and evil creatures. Not only does this reinforce negative ideas about disability, this also results in harassment and mistreatment of people with these traits. For example, Elsa S. Henry, a prominent disability activist and game designer, grew up being called an “evil witch” by her classmates because of the stereotypical association of cataracts with evil (story recounted in “Accessibility with Elsa S Henry” of the Modifier podcast).

The following are some traits associated with specific disabilities that are commonly applied to monsters and evil being. When these traits are used for monsters they reinforce negative ideas about what it means to have these traits.

  • Cataracts or white eyes
  • Joints that bend in unusual ways
  • Limbs with non-normative shapes
  • Hunchbacks and other atypical body shapes
  • Stigmatized body types, such as being fat or gaunt
  • Labored breathing
  • Medical technology, such as respiratory equipment
  • Diseases
  • Large scars, sores, or growths
  • Neurodivergence/mental illness
  • Sapient creatures with cognitive, developmental, or learning disabilities (this is often disguised by the term “low intelligence”)

In addition, certain words and phrases draw upon negative stereotypes of disability when they are applied to people or animals. Some of the following examples are particularly offensive.

  • Misshapen
  • Twisted
  • Broken
  • Deformed
  • Disfigured
  • Insane

Ableist depictions of monsters are so common that my recommendation is to simply not apply disability associated traits to monsters. Any disabled trait whose purpose is to make the monster more intimidating should definitely be removed. It is possible to give monsters specific disabilities, but I recommend extreme caution. It is all too easy for those disabilities to be portrayed negatively. For example, visually impaired and blind monsters are often depicted stumbling around their environments the way that a sighted person who temporarily couldn’t see would. This is a stereotypical and untrue depiction of what it means to be blind.

In addition, any trait intended to seem “unnatural” should be checked for resemblances to real disabilities. If you want a monster to be unnatural, be sure to take it outside the realm of what is actually possible for human biology.

For those wanting a little inspiration of intimidating monster traits to replace ableist traits, here are some things to think about.

  • Traits which mess with the characters’ ability to perceive them, such as traveling underground or glowing so brightly they can’t be seen
  • Body horror not based on disability, such as thing that would only be possible for dead bodies
  • Incongruous and innocent-seeming traits which give contrast to the monstrous traits, such as the creepy children so common in horror movies
  • The ability to harm protagonists in unusual ways, like draining their energy
  • Weapons like claws, fangs, and spikes
  • Resistance to harm
  • Enhanced abilities like extreme strength or speed
  • Strong poisons that mean that even a small scratch is dangerous (avoid infectious diseases)
  • Clear advantages such as not being hindered by terrain, they have a way to reach the protagonists from a position where they are protected, the protagonists can’t get to them without going somewhere dangerous
  • The ability to grab, envelop, or surround the victim (swarms, packs, oozes)
  • Camouflage or disguises that allow them to hide or mimic something appealing
  • Odd real-world animals are another place to find inspiration for interesting traits, but be sure to double check that aren’t too similar to traits associated with a disability

For more information on this topic go to the full article, “Addressing Ableism: Ableist Monsters.”

 

Disabled Player Characters

Besides game mechanics for characters (discussed above), there are other important aspects that go into creating disabled characters that are good representations of people with disabilities. This section focuses on disabled player characters, but many of the things in here apply to nonplayer characters as well.

 

Know When Characters Have Disabilities:

Some things that people treat as aesthetic choices, such as albinism and white pupils, are actually parts of certain disabilities. In addition, be aware that some character quirks are symptoms of specific disabilities. For example, aphasia is a condition that interferes with communication. One of its symptoms is trouble recalling words which means that a character who continuously struggles to remember everyday words is expressing the symptom of a disability. Also, be cautious about any character who has a greater difficulty with cognitive and intellectual tasks (such as characters where intelligence was the low stat). This easily strays into the realm of learning, cognitive, and developmental disabilities. It is fine for characters to have these traits, be sure to do the research needed to portray these conditions respectfully and accurately.

It is also important to be aware of what things aren’t disabilities. For example, extreme beliefs, erratic behavior, violence, ignorance, and bigotry aren’t mental illnesses. It is important to not act as if they are. On the rare occasion where a character has a mental illness that is intertwined with one of these things, be sure to go into enough depth that it is clear that it is not the same thing as the mental illness itself.

 

Research:

Respectful portrayal of characters with disabilities is based on experience and research. The less experience a person has, the more research is need. If a player is drawing on their personal experience as a person with a disability to create a character that represents those experiences, then research isn’t necessary. However is a person is representing the lived experiences of other, then some amount of research is needed.

Keep in mind that there is a big difference between non-disabled experiences and disabled experiences. For example, being a sighted person stumbling around in a blindfold is not the same experience as being blind. This means that it isn’t enough to just imagine what a disability might be like; it is important to learn about what the lived experiences of people with disabilities actually are. In addition, if someone is drawing on the experience of being a friend or family member of someone with a disability, that can be helpful, but it is important to keep in mind that isn’t the same as having the lived experience of that disability.

Clearly research is important. The easiest things to find are lists of symptoms and medical definitions. However, when creating a character it is also important to have an understanding of how that disability functions in everyday life. What parts of daily life are most impacted by the disability? What assistive devices and accommodations are typically used? What social barriers do people encounter? What are common stereotypes of this disability that need to be avoided?

One of my favorite places to find information on the lived experiences of people with disabilities is YouTube. There is a vibrant community of disabled creators on YouTube who are sharing their thoughts and experiences. Another great resource is “The Digital Crip Wave: Podcasts by Disabled People,” which is a list of podcasts by disabled creators that Erin Hawley pulled together and is continuing to update and maintain.

Finally, no matter how much research you do, it is important get feedback on your ideas from someone with the lived experience you are representing. The best way to do this is to hire a disability consultant. If you don’t already have a connection with someone who does disability consulting, the Disability Consultants for Geeky Projects List is a great place to find a someone.

The main option for people who can’t afford to hire a consultant is reaching out to friends and community members for feedback. If you do this, be sure to find some way to compensate the people who help you. Ideally this would be an equal exchange where you each do something for each other. For example, you could help them with one of their creative projects, or free up some of their time by cooking meals for them.

 

Game Job Descriptions for Characters:

When creating disabled player characters, the place I like to start is what I call the job description of the game. This is a brief description of the sorts of activities the player characters will need to be able to do in order to fully participate in the game. For example, in an action game the job description would be that the characters need to be able to move quickly, fight, and overcome a range of physical obstacles. In a high school drama game the job description would be that the characters be able to attend high school and interact with other characters. For my Owlbear Reintroduction Program game, the requirement was that the characters be able to travel and participate in occasional action sequences.

Now that there is a job description it is easier to get a disabled character set up correctly. Either the character needs to have a disability that doesn’t interfere with their ability to fulfill the job description, or the character needs to have accommodations and assertive devices that will allow them to get the the place where they can fulfill the job description.

If a disabled character is regularly being left behind, either metaphorically or literally, then they are in a situation where they aren’t able to fulfill the job description of the game they are in. When this happens, it sends the message that disabled people are incapable. This is particularly important because most role-playing games are about empowerment and it is important that disabled characters get empowered too. If this situation occurs, the first thing to do is to reassess the game job description (maybe you missed something the first time or it has changed). Then you can work out what accommodations and/or assistive devices are needed for the character to get to a place where they are able to fulfill the game’s job description.

 

Creating Accommodations and Assistive Devices:

With the fantastic settings and abilities present in many role-playing games there is a a lot of room for coming up with interesting accommodations and assistive devices. However, there are a few things to keep in mind when creating these accommodations and assistive devices. The first is the importance of finding a balance where the character’s disability isn’t erased (as discussed above in “Mechanics that Erase Disability”), but the character is capable of doing exciting thing and can fully participating in the game.

In finding this balance, pay attention to how the character’s disability is interacting with the story. It is okay for the character’s disability be present and cause challenges. It is okay for a disabled character to occasionally need help. Role-playing games are about problem solving, so all of the characters should sometimes need help. However, if the character’s disability is becoming a focus of a character to the point where other aspects of the character aren’t being represented, then there is a problem. In addition, if a character’s disability is becoming a burden or it is preventing the character from participating in important parts of the game, then something additional needs to be done.

This is a delicate balance that is easy to overdo in one direction or another. If that happens, then make adjustment to correct it back. Assistive devices can be improved, or they can develop side effects.

Another important thing is giving disabled characters control over their own accommodations and assistive devices. For example, if the fly spell is an accommodation that a character who uses a wheelchair needs to get around barriers while adventuring, then that disabled character should be able to casting that spell. If they aren’t a caster, they could have an object that allows them to cast it. Doing this prevents negative dynamics where the disabled character becomes dependent on other party members. In addition, this gives the disabled character more capacity to problem solve in challenging situations.

I also recommend giving the person playing the disabled character control over their character’s service animal or personal attendant (the same as you would for an animal companion or retainer). In particular, outside of a few edge cases, it is best to avoid having other players take on the roles of service animals or attendants. Doing so could quickly create negative dynamics.

And finally, keep in mind that some accommodations involve others changing their behavior. This can be tricky in a role-playing setting. As discussed before, it is best to avoid a dynamic where a disabled character becomes dependent on their party members. However, with the right group, behavior changes can work out well. For example, if a group has a character than can’t participate in chases, they might make an agreement to use magic or technology to track an opponent, rather than chasing them.

 

Negative Patterns of Representation

Introduction: It is important to be aware of these patterns for nonplayer characters, player characters, and story themes. Many of these are covered in more detail in my Trope of the Week Series.

 

Insanity:

In addition to coming up in game mechanics, the concept of insanity often comes up in plots. (and synonyms like mad and crazy). This is stigmatizing. Most of the time it could easily be replaced by something more specific. For example, instead of an alien drug making people go mad, it could make them hallucinate.

 

Disability as a Joke:

If disabled characters are present in humorous games, they are likely to be involved in the humor. It is fine for disabled characters to tell jokes or to be quirky, witty, or silly. What isn’t okay is turning a character’s disability into a joke. An outlandish prosthetic. A disabled character without effective accommodations in a position that is not a good fit for their abilities. Neurdiversity/Mental illness cause them to be the butt of a joke.

As discussed above, people aren’t always aware when they are representing disability. Don’t make disabilities or disability associated traits into jokes.

 

Disabled Villains:

A disproportionate number of disabled characters are villains. Including prominent examples like Darth Vader and Captain Hook, the disabilities of these villains are used to make them more sinister and intimidating. Another version of villainous disability is the mentally ill villain so often used in horror films and thrillers. Here mental illness is used to make the villain seem more threatening. Using disability to make a character intimidating in this way sends a harmful message about what it means to be disabled.

Because this pattern is so prevalent, I suggest avoiding having disabled villains.  For those stories with disabled villains, please be sure to have disabled non-villains in the story. In addition, be careful that disabled villains aren’t more visibly disabled than disabled heroes (another common pattern). It is also important to make sure that a villain’s disability isn’t in being used to represent the villain’s evil nature or to otherwise make them appear more sinister and intimidating.

This topic is covered in more detail in “Villainous Disability.”

 

Bitterness:

There is a pattern of portraying disabled characters as deeply bitter about their lives and their disabilities. Underneath all this bitterness is the assumption that disability is a terrible, life-destroying tragedy that prevents people from having fulfilling lives. After all, if these characters did have fulfilling lives, they wouldn’t be bitter.

Be cautious about creating a disabled character who is bitter. Think about what the purpose of the character’s bitterness is and if it is actually necessary. If bitterness is an important part of the character, be sure that there is a clear cause for their bitterness that it is not simply the fact that they are disabled.

In addition, the best way to avoid sending the message that disability destroys a person’s life is to make sure that disabled characters have meaningful lives. Every disabled character should have more to their life than just their disability, even if the challenges or hardships of their life have made them bitter.

This topic is covered in more detail in “Bitter Disability.”

 

Helplessness:

The repeated association of disability with charity portrays disabled people as pitiable, vulnerable, and pathetic. It is true that in the real world disabled people are more likely to experience violence than able-bodied people. However, portraying disabled characters as passive victims with no agency of their own is not an accurate representation of this reality and it perpetuates the myth that disabled people are helpless (another version of the idea that disabled people are incapable of accomplishing things).

Knowing that violence happens to disabled characters more often, think carefully about how much violence is directed at the disabled characters in your story and whether or not those characters die. Because disabled characters do die more often than their able-bodied counterparts, error on the side of not killing disabled characters. The fact that their aren’t many awesome disabled characters for people to identify with makes having living disabled characters with meaningful futures in front of them all the more important.

That said, I do want to acknowledge that most stories are about adversity, something which naturally includes having bad things happen to the characters. This gives the main characters obstacles to overcome. So I’m not saying that bad things should never happen to characters with disabilities, but that disabled characters shouldn’t be made into helpless victims for other characters to rescue or avenge. The key to this is portraying disabled characters as people who are capable of actively responding when bad things happen to them. Not every action they take needs to be successful, but disabled characters should always be doing something to deal with the situation.

This topic is covered in more detail in “Helpless Disability.”

 

One-Dimensional Disability:

There is a tendency in United States culture to treat privileged identities as the norm. This means that white, straight, ablebodied, cisgender men (to name just a few privileged identities) are treated as the starting point for all characters. Representation of diversity then becomes a process of swapping one (or possibly two) oppressed identities for the privileged identities in this starting point. This leads to disability representation that is overwhelmingly focused on white, straight, cisgender men and a smaller number of white, straight, cisgender women. Depictions of disabled people of color and disabled queer folks are few and far between.

The solution to this is to think about the representation of the disabled characters (and all characters) in your story. How many disabled characters are there, and how many of them have additional oppressed identities? Because there so little representation that goes beyond straight, white, cisgender people with disabilities, it is important prioritize the representation of disabled people of color, queer and trans people with disabilities, and characters with complex, layered experiences of oppression. There are many people in the world living out these intersecting experiences of oppression and disability, and all of us deserve to have our experiences represented.

This topic is covered in more detail in “One-Dimensional Disability.”

 

Inspirational Disability:

There is a common pattern of portraying disabled people as brave or inspirational for getting through their daily lives. This often comes with a dehumanizing fixation on the bodies of disabled people. Underneath this kind of inspiration is the idea that the lives of disabled people are so terrible that just getting through an ordinary day requires extraordinary courage and perseverance. It also demonstrates low expectations for the capacity of disabled people to achieve anything. While it is important not to erase the struggles and pain that many disabled people experience, doing an everyday thing shouldn’t be treated as exceptional.

Another common pattern is treating the accomplishments of disabled people as is they are supposed to mean something about the ability of able-bodied people to accomplish something. For example, this would be treating the fact that a specific wheelchair user trained to be an impressive athlete as if that means that an able-bodied person who doesn’t exercise should stop making excuses. This pattern places disabled people in constant comparison to able-bodied people, preventing their accomplishments from being recognized on their own merits. It also buys into the idea that disabled people are inherently less capable of achievement.

Either of these patterns can come out in how a disabled character is portrayed. To avoid this, do the research needed to portray the character’s disability in a realistic manner. Disability is not life destroying, but it will present real challenges in the lives of the characters. It should be clear, however, that many of these challenges come from society and not just from the disability (such as a lack of sign language interpretation or an absence of meal delivery programs). Importantly, a positive attitude should not be the main thing the character needs to address those challenges. As Stella Young so eloquently put it, “No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp.” In addition, respect the accomplishments of disabled characters on their own merits, rather than defining them by either their disabilities or comparison to others.

This topic is covered in more detail in “Inspirational Disability.”

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