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Context

In my fantasy world, there are two realities that people travel back and forth between constantly. There is the "real world" where everyone travels when they are awake, and then there is the "dream world" where they all go when they are asleep.

One of my characters has an illness that prevents them from walking in the real world. They can get around fine with crutches, but they usually need a wheelchair.

However, in the dream world they are able to walk normally without any assistance.

This is the heart of the issue.

The Problem

I want to be respectful towards people who have physical disabilities, but if my character has the power to simply waltz into another dimension where they can walk perfectly fine whenever they want, it feels like it detracts from the character. Rather than having to learn and adapt because of their physical disability, the dream world feels like an excuse to handwave away any consequences the character might face due to their inability to walk.

It's like having a character with no legs, only to give them the power of flight. Or giving a person with no eyes the power of super-sonar that lets them sense things from crazy distances. Even though the character technically has a disability, the magic/supernatural elements scrub away most of the problems that the character would face due to it.

On one hand, I want to keep the character as they are. and I don't want to eliminate the idea of this magical otherword. Still, it feels wrong to write a character with a physical disability and then immediately do a 180 and say "but you see, there's magic in this world, so the character can just hop into another dimension whenever they want and walk just fine there."

I want to keep the world as is, and I want to keep the "dream world" parallel dimension, but I don't want to undermine the character's struggles with their disability just because they can go "Any time I want to walk, I can hop into this alternate dimension where anything is possible. Isn't that convenient!"

At best, that seems like bad representation. At worst it seems outright insulting to people with real disabilities.

The Question

If my character cannot walk in the real world, but has the ability to fall asleep and travel to a dimension where they can walk, how can I combine these two story elements without disrespecting people with real world disabilities?

(To answer this question, please give one example of the best way these two elements could work together.)

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    Does this dream world let them change where they are in the real world? Does anything they do in the dream world change things in the real world in easy to predict and convenient ways? Apr 24 at 23:51
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    First Question-When you wake up in the real world you should end up in the same place. The only reason you'd move to another spot is if someone moved your unconscious body. Much like a normal dream, your body remains in the real world but you're mind's all over the place. Apr 25 at 0:24
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    Second Question-Yes, the dream world affects things all the time. The dream world provides the energy that powers every piece of technology and sustains all living beings. The main conflict is that the dream world contains monsters who live off this energy, and they often drain too much, which can kill people, plants, animals, and far worse depending on where and when this is happening. The main characters are the ones who are trying to stop this disaster. Apr 25 at 0:32
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    The highest-grossing movie ever, Avatar (2009) ,had Jake Sully in a wheelchair transferring his consciousness to a physically superior alien body, and that was in the same world/dimension.
    – BoppreH
    Apr 25 at 15:07
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    Are you not missing your own point? Shouldn't "How do I respectfully portray (anything)…" be all you need to ask? Do please notice that there's a difference between "I" and "you", and that's immense. I might help if you read at least the first if not all six of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, whose main purpose is to portray a character crippled in one world and not in another… Apr 25 at 21:27

5 Answers 5

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For starters: A character being able to walk in the specified dream world does not necessarily take away from the character's struggles with not being able to walk in the real world.

Since in the dream world you cannot change where you are in the real world and where you cannot just toggle back and forth between worlds to move or gain any other advantages that come from walking vs being in a wheelchair, the dream world can be used as a way to show contrast. That character will still need to be able to move about in the real world and would still struggle with the challenges that might mean. Then again later they can go to the dream world and walk around, which gives an opportunity to show how that difference affects the character and how it affects their interactions with other characters (and the world).

By having events that require them to move around in each world you can show the character's strengths and weaknesses under different circumstances. That does not mean that their differences are lessened, in fact it lets you contrast the same character with themselves.

And again since they can't move around/do what they need to do in the real world by just hopping back and forth between worlds, they still do have those challenges in the real world.

Example Time

Example 1:

The character with the disability needs to get to some hard to get to place in the real world in order to rescue a dreaming person whose life is threatened in both worlds. Maybe other characters are already busy in the dream world trying to save that person or maybe the character with the disability has the skills/tools necessary to get past some obstacle (need to hack or only authorized personnel are allowed).

Example 2:

After climbing a mountain in the dream world, the characters sit down for a short rest. The character with the disability laughs about how much harder that would be for them in the real world. Another character remarks that that sounds frustrating and they can talk about how they feel about it. Maybe later the character-with-the-disability nods and says that their legs would also not be as sore from climbing in the real world since climbing would have meant mostly upper body strength there.

Example 3:

After carrying an injured comrade down a long hill/stairs in the dream world, the characters take a break. The character with the disability remarks that it would have been much faster for them if they could have used their wheelchair on a ramp. The others ask about difficulty stopping and the character-with-the-disability nods but is confident they could have done it, after all their wheelchair has above average brakes.

Conclusion

Someone having a disability in the real world and not the dream world does not mean that disability does not matter. Not only that but there may even arise occasions where the perceived disability might be an advantage in certain circumstances (and so not having it in the dream world becomes a disadvantage itself). The disability will still impact the character and in fact the contrast over having one in each world can be used for more character building opportunities (and opportunities for conflict/difficulty.

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  • Another bonus example could be someone getting hurt in the dream world that leaves them with a physical disability there but not in the real world. Then you can also explore the opposite. (though this might not be possible in your given setup) Apr 25 at 1:06
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    I like the general direction of this, but as someone with a minor disability statements like this "that may be so but the character-with-the-disability is better at music than they are" are annoying. If an obstacle created by my disability is mentioned, it's annoying when people respond with "yeah, but your good at <unrelated thing>". It minimises my frustration/sorrow/discomfort. I'd much rather hear something like "that sounds frustrating", or "how do you feel about it?" because not everything bad in life is balanced by a good thing, and it's OK to be frustrated by that sometimes.
    – Clumsy cat
    Apr 25 at 18:18
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    Of course, if you meant for the friend to say something that is a common but annoying response, then I guess that's a pretty believable one.
    – Clumsy cat
    Apr 25 at 18:19
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    @Clumsycat Thank you for your comment, I'll edit my answer to be more respectful and less negative Apr 25 at 18:20
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    @Clumsycat's comment makes an important point - OP really needs to talk to someone in the disability community to better understand how to accurately and respectfully portray this character and their struggles.
    – David K
    Apr 26 at 13:30
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I read Thomas Covenant when I was about 11. I couldn't understand why when they were in the alternative world they were fully healthy, had friends and were respected. When they came back to the real world to their leprous body with nerve damage, debts, isolation and general hatred from neighbours and police.

Years later I broke a knee and the difference in what I could do (sports) to reality, nothing. What I could experience if I took the painkillers to the reality of pain.

I understand now why Covenant wouldn't risk allowing himself to live in the dream, to escape from reality as the risks are great if they are just 'tripping'. The real world risks are similar, addiction, a total spiral of your world, none is healthy.

You do what you can, you try to stay independent and do as much for yourself as possible, but you have to learn to pace yourself, to ask for help when something you could do easy before is hard or risky now. Short temper when you are in pain, with you apologising to anyone you snapped at.

Still if I went to another world where I could walk without pain, climb, fence, ski, scuba again, I'd really hate to come back.

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    I was totally thinking of Thomas Covenant when I read this question!
    – DWKraus
    Apr 26 at 22:48
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It sounds like you have a great hero's journey on your hands.

Rather than making their disability not matter, it will be twice as hard on your character. Returning to the real world is likely to make them feel much worse than the other characters (if any others can).

From the initial high of being free to move in the other world, you can take your character to the lows of "withdrawal" and the consequences if they neglect the real world for too long.

Whether the ordeal is more physical (being evicted after neglecting to pay rent for too long) or mental (having to face all their despair and negative feelings), the character will have to do this mostly in the real world.

It will allow you to explore your character in depth and make it more emotional when they complete their journey in whatever way you have planned:

  • If the finale is planned for the dreamworld, obviously the disability will not play a role at that time, but the character's growth should.
  • If the finale plays out in the real world you can combine it with their personal climax, overcoming their despair and resolving to try anything even if it looks hopeless for them.
  • Finally the true test could involve the character having to give up their ability to enter the dreamworld, the greatest sacrifice they can make.

By treating your character as a person that happens to have a disability greatly affecting their life instead of just a vehicle for you to play around with this disability on/off idea, I think you will not disrespect people with a disability regardless of how the character ends up.

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I think you can approach this in a fairly simple principled way: what are the consequences of the character's disability?

Most of your question describes there being no consequences at all. If it's true that the character has a choice of two worlds, and literally the only difference between those worlds (for them) is that they walk in one and use a wheelchair in the other, then sure, I find it believable they might move full-time to the one where they walk. Especially if they acquired this illness rather than being born with it, and/or they are fundamentally avoidant of its reality.

However, I agree with you that this is a very shallow representation of disability: if a fictional tree falls in a fictional forest and nobody writes about it, does it make a sound? If there are no consequences whatever of your character's disability, and it has no effect on their quality of life, then are they really disabled? It's more like someone who doesn't like their home town so they never go back there, than it is like someone living with a disability. It's believable, but it's quite the cyberpunk cliché: "reality sucks so I don't go there much".

Furthermore it's also wholly believable that they they wouldn't live fully in the dream world, or that they'd stop doing so after a time. Maybe they (in common with most people with disabilities) don't see their disability as the end of the freaking world, or at least most of the time they don't think that way and don't find life utterly unbearable. Maybe there's something in the "real" world that is worth having that can't be had in the "dream" world - it's your job to decide and to put that there. Maybe they are otherwise forced by circumstance, society, or events, so they have no realistic choice. Maybe if they don't spend time in the real world, the illness progresses faster and they die (for a reason, I mean, like they're treated in real-world. Not because their illness is, "allergic to dream-world". Unless you can make that work).

If they're a/the protagonist in a novel, then pretty much by definition they are going to have to do some things that they don't really want to do. At least initially, as they are or appear at the start of the novel, they will not want to do them. A couple of shoves and some character growth will soon change that, though. They might try to resist doing them, but it ain't going to work. Even as a secondary character, it's not a bad idea for them to face some kind of meaningful difficulties. So, it doesn't really matter what they think, does it? They're going to have to deal with the "real" world at some point.

Fundamentally, I have no disability and I don't seriously compare this to a disability, but: I do have my house set up pretty much how I want it. It's great. I still choose to leave the house. People with disabilities, far more so, often have their houses set up to be way more comfortable and convenient for them than most of the rest of the world is. They still leave the house, in huge numbers, for a whole host of reasons ranging from: they want to, through to: they have to in order to continue living.

Just don't act like the "solution" to disability is for it to magically go away at the end. Either this is a character who lives in dream-world, with the minor quirk "can't walk in real-world", or it's a character living in both worlds who has a genuine and unavoidable disability in one of them, which you can address in a way that's respectful to non-fictional disability. That said, obviously some illnesses can be cured and some conditions can be treated, so nothing's out of the question.

I imagine probably there's a trap in assuming that it's "natural" to want to avoid the disability by staying in the "dream" world, or "natural" to want to embrace the disability as part of the character's identity and hence cling quite strongly to the "real" world. I don't think either is correct, and different people have different views about their disabilities at different times, but on the whole I get the impression that the desire to be "cured" (and I use that term in snigger-quotes for disability in general even though it applies to many illnesses) is less universal than I might have naively imagined.

If you are not disabled yourself and aren't in a position to even begin to know what's OK and what's not, then you aren't writing from that POV, and you almost certainly won't represent it accurately. Maybe with a lot of research and listening, but pretty much forget about it. Likewise, I can't give you permission to write it: at best only your readers with disabilities can do that. The fact that this character can get a rest from managing their disability "any time they like", yes, that's going to take something away from the portrayal, since most disabilities don't work like that. But the alternative is to write a whole lot of characters all exactly the same as you, so I think you kind of have to give it a go and see what happens.

Note that you can always use test readers, so you can ask people not, "should I try this?", but "I tried this, here it is: is it OK?". If it's not OK, change it or scrap it.

Just noticed you require an example. Unfortunately I haven't seen it yet, but at least include CODA. I'm pretty sure it's mostly "OK" since although it clearly got some things wrong (which you can read about online) and a lot of Deaf people have raised ways that it's unrealistic, I haven't noticed any furious boycott-storm. The general narrative seems to be that it represents some degree of progress, and that where it misses people seem to accept that's due to honest failure rather than fundamental disrespect. Also, I think many Deaf people experience a world in which everyone in their own home signs, and so the effect on their communication really is very different indeed in some places than others. I wouldn't take it as the last word on how Deaf people live their lives in America, and an assessment from Lennard Davis is particularly striking: "this genre of films is glued to a different reality: it is as if birds were obsessed with making movies in which humans were miserable about their inability to fly." But it definitely plays with a version of two-worlds, so why not look at it and learn from what it does well and its shortcomings?

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    Also a second question: what are you really writing about? For example, reading Phil's answer, if he wrote this then the dream-world quite likely would appear to offer a solution that ultimately is false, in the same way that a retreat into painkillers is no solution: because it's not sustainable and it spirals to destruction. So, is dream-world about disability, or do you just have two unrelated ideas that you need to relate together by figuring out how they interact? Apr 26 at 9:22
  • To answer your question, the story is mostly supposed to be a high-octane fantasy adventure about fighting monsters, but the monsters are sort of representations of the characters' "inner demons", so fighting them is almost like a representation of overcoming their own personal flaws or trials in life. The character with the disability in question is a main hero, but they are one in a group of five and not the main narrative perspective. While they're not necessarily the story's central focus, I want to portray their struggle in a way that is realistic and empathetic. Apr 26 at 13:09
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    Cool, so I think to be respectful in that context then for one thing you want to give a strong steer towards their disability being a "trial" rather than a "flaw" :-) Apr 26 at 16:14
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Have you seen the movie Avatar? Sounds very similar to the main character's circumstances. Perhaps placing some limits on when the character can traverse realities, so that they can't just always live in the best reality, but have to maintain their livelihood in both realities equally. This forces the character to continue to live 50/50 in a disabled state.

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