Guest Post: Elsa Sjunneson-Henry talks about Writing Deaf and Blind Characters

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry is joining us today to talk about her Writing The Other Master Class: Writing Deaf and Blind Characters.


I’m teaching a class in September about deaf and blind characters, and how to write them. I’m doing this, because I’m deafblind (by the medical classification, we’ll get into that in a second) and I believe that portrayals of disability are both vital to the world of speculative fiction, and also done wrong most of the time.

Cyberpunk tends to erase it.

High Fantasy tends to make disability inconvenient and/or a punchline.

Space? Shrug. Yes, there’s Geordie, but he can see using his VISOR. Yes, there’s Chirrut Imwe in Rogue One, but I’m pretty sure he’s doing the same thing Daredevil does. “See” with his senses.

Don’t get me started on time travel (you can read about how I feel about that at Fireside Fiction Company.)

But disabled people belong in all of these worlds, all the genres, all the places. Disabled people can be more than just villains, or angels. We are real, fully articulated humans, and we deserve to be part of Story. We also deserve to be part of a story without our disabilities being rendered not actually disabilities, but transformed comfortably into a unique characteristic.

When I was little, I only had one book with a disabled character in it. I read and re-read it, but I never could actually identify with him, because he lost his sight due to an accident, because he had a guide dog, and because he was a he. I’m not saying one must identify with same gendered characters, but I remember in those days it was a sticking point.

When I was 17 years old, my now ex boyfriend pressed a book into my hands and told me he thought I’d like it. He said it was really great space opera, and it was a fun read.

And inside those pages, I found Miles Vorkosigan.

Miles was like me.

Adventurous. Unwilling to change his goals to satisfy the body he was born in. Unable to stop being who he was. And disabled.

From birth.

Hell, Miles’ disabilities are even the result of external influences, just like mine.

The trouble is, almost all disabled characters come out as tropes, the Magical Blind Person trope, the Blind Seer trope, the Deaf Composer, Throwing Off the Disability.

That last one is my favorite, because inevitably, someone will write a disabled character who was never really disabled to begin with, and in fact, often that’s how we talk about many disabled heroes. Frequently, Daredevil is defended with “but he’s not really blind.” Which raises the question: if he’s not really blind, then why is he using blindness as a cover?

There so many tropes, and wrong turns, but the point is simple: I want more from disabled characters in science fiction and fantasy. I want more than what we have now.

I don’t want to see timid blind women hiding from murderers anymore, I want to see blind warriors who can fight for themselves.

I don’t want to see evil blind men lurking in the dark waiting to kill their prey – I want to see blind villains capable of everything that a sighted villain is, without all the tropes.

I want a blind woman who is interacting with ghosts without the tropes of her sight being restored when it comes to auras or the dead.

Miles is the only disabled character I know of who makes me feel like I might fit between the pages of a book, and he’s why I’m teaching a class about how to write deaf and blind characters carefully and accurately – because as a disabled reader, I want to see more people like me between the covers of a book. I want to be able to read a story and not be afraid that I’ll be disappointed by the representation.

When I teach, I encourage people to look past the tropes and the boundaries they’ve been taught by society and by the fiction that exists, to look far beyond what they’ve been told is the way to write blind and deaf  characters and push them into the realm of reality and truth.


Sign up for the Writing the Other Master Class: Writing Deaf and Blind Characters

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4 Responses

  1. Sally

    There’s a movie just out where some kids break into a blind man’s house, figuring he’ll be easy to rob.

    But he’s played by the head military guy from “Avatar” and he knows every inch of the house without any lights.

    It’s called “Don’t Breathe”. I’ve only seen the trailer but it looks pretty scary. And I’m not sure if the blind guy or the thieves are supposed to be the villains! Might confirm the trope, might subvert it.

  2. Elizabeth Amy Hajek

    As a deaf woman, I must say that one of the best deaf characters I’ve ever seen in science fiction was last season of Doctor Who – episodes 9.3 and 9.4. Just FANTASTIC integration into the story!

  3. Atrus

    It’s been a few years since I last read them, but I remember really liking the Eagle Glen trilogy by K.C. Dyer in regard to disabilities and time travel. The main character lost part of a leg in an accident, and while the plots are never about, or propelled by, her disability, she still has to deal with the realities of it throughout the ages (quality of prostheses, ointments/wrappings, sores, fatigue, social recognition, etc.) in a very realistic and matter of fact way.

  4. Melissa Mead

    Miles is one of my all-time favorite characters.
    I once asked Lois McMaster Bujold how she wrote a disabled character so well. and she said “I’ve never thought of Miles as disabled. Miles is just Miles.”


    And that’s why Lois is one of my all-time favorite authors. 🙂

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