Monday 1 May 2017

Zombicide Survivors with Impairments - The Team (03)

Downloadable MP3

For more on why I was inspired to create a Zombicide team of Survivors with impairments, read my first blog post in this series. For a description of the process I went through to come up with the appropriate rules, find the right miniatures and the steps I took to modify them, read my second blog post

To download full size versions of any of the ID or equipment cards on this page, please click on them for the Dropbox files.

And finally, please let me introduce you to the team...

Four miniature figures.  From left to right - Susannah, a black woman in a wheelchair with a pistol - Moira, a white woman of older years with a headscarf and a shotgun - Anya, a young white woman with a purple mohican and red Doc Martens who is holding a baseball bat - Amir, a man of Desi origin, perhaps in his sixties holding a walking stick and revolver.

Four miniature figures.  From left to right - Pupper, a brown dog of indeterminate breed - Neek, a brown skinned young woman wearing a purple dress and leather jacket holding a baseball bat over her head - Joules, a busty white woman of restricted growth wearing a white t-shirt and jeans and holding a P90 assault weapon with red laser sight - Vee, a person holding an AK47 assault rifle in their right hand, their left arm is a metal prosthetic.

Need a tastefully restored German automobile? Before the apocalypse struck, you didn't have to look any further than Vee. Many a petrol-swilling land yacht were reborn under their spanner. But Vee's favourite was always the divine Volkswagen. Nothing could scupper that deep love – even after more than a tonne of Beetle came down on their arm. While recovering in hospital, doc's running through the “It isn't the end of the world” spiel, the actual end of the world came. But a bright person with all the mechanical knowledge in the world is more than a match for the walking dead. Vee fashioned a new arm from the innards of the car who took the original and they're now tougher than ever. Zombies lean in, expecting the sweet taste of bicep and come away with nothing more than a lick of premium engine oil.

Moira grew up with privilege and wealth. She played hide and seek amongst the Constables, her football pitch had been landscaped by Capability Brown and by the age of nine she was a crack-shot with a 12 bore. But she was never allowed to socialise with the other gentry spawn. Her parents were worried that her differences would mark them out as something less. And the more you have, the more you fear the loss of it. So Moira grew up lonely, listening deeply to the world around her, never understanding the people who did things so strangely whilst the best doctors were paid handsomely never to mention the word 'Autism'. Although some complain it's not easy to be around Moira, those people are now mostly Zombie chow, because Moira understands the way things are going better than anyone. And the old pile has a well stocked gun room.

Slight and pale, people underestimated Anya for years. Then she got sick and never recovered and what little respect was left disappeared on the breeze. But the thing is, the more you lose, the smarter you have to be with what you've got left. And Anya got really smart. When the zombies came, she'd already got a nice little stash of supplies around her. Not to mention a collection of contacts who appreciated having her tactical expertise around. It's true that she doesn't have much staying power for a fight, but she's a bedrock for her fellow survivors who become a whirlwind of Zombicidal carnage around her.

Susannah's a bit of a mystery. No one's nosey enough to have asked what stopped her walking. She's certainly never bought it up. And you might think that having to wheel her around might put an abomination-sized dent in her popularity, but that's because you've not seen her with a firearm. Perched in that rather rickety wheelchair, Susannah becomes a pavement-based gun-ship. An astonishing number of clips and shells are stuffed down her rather frayed cushion and the chair handles are perfect racks on which to sling rifles and shotguns. For a laugh, Susannah once attached scythe blades to the rims. Which says everything you need to know about her sense of humour. 

Neek's sight has been deteriorating ever since she was a kid. When the zombies came, she struggled, listening to groans (and screams) in the dark. Thankfully, she was in the hospital at the time and met up with Vee. The pair looked after each other for several weeks – Neek a strong arm for Vee, Vee sharp eyes for Neek. But then, one evening, Neek heard a whimpering outside the garage. They obviously weren't the only ones to have survived the apocalypse. Neek and her Pupper bonded almost instantly. Together they're a deadly combination. Other survivors use dogs in this bleak new world, but none of them are so efficient a team. Neek and Pupper have been known to fell entire herds of the living dead. Do not underestimate them.

Amir had a tricky life before the zombies came. He suffered through the racist idiots of his youth only to see the whole ridiculous mess coming around again in his later years. After the second note through his door requesting that he go back to where he came from (and, really, who wants to go back to Slough?) it was almost a relief to see the dead come back to life. Sure they wanted to eat his brains out through his face, but at least they didn't care about the colour of his skin. And after a lonely few years after the death of his wife and the inescapable spectre of his declining health, he suddenly found a group of survivors to call friends. Maybe even family. Now he wades into the fray with 'Old Faithful' – his walking stick whose squidgy rubber ferrule he removed in favour of a sharpened steel point. With a lucky jab he's been known to take down even the angriest Berserker Abominations. Never underestimate a walking stick.

Joules is a survivalist at heart. She knew that the worst was coming and, like all the best people, worked out a plan. And part of that plan was moving right next to a military base with surprisingly lax security. When the sirens were blaring and people were dying, she made her way to the armoury and procured for herself a rather nifty bag of tricks. Of course, every survivor knows that you can't just blow away every gnawing monster of doom. Stealth and slipperiness are at least as important. And growing up with a very visible disability, Joules has an instinct for making herself invisible as possible. Many's the time when an entire herd of walkers have passed her by, or she's waded into the fray knowing that she can slip back out at a moment's notice.


Blind: A survivor with visual impairment only ever hits with a ranged attack on the roll of a 6. Range is only ever 0-1 even if the original ranged weapon has a higher range to begin with.
Possible addendum to this skill – a person with the Blind skill can only move when they have a Guide Dog or Companion in the square with them. 


Thank you for reading and enjoy yourselves!

A black woman in and wheelchair and an older woman with a shotgun face
down three zombies.

Zombicide Survivors with Impairments - Creation (02)

Downloadable MP3

As I mentioned in my previous post, Zombicide is a game in which characters have 'skills'. With every zombie kill or objective achieved a character gains experience. At certain levels of experience, new skills are unlocked. These can be as simple as gaining one additional 'action' per turn to something as complicated as being able to influence the order in which zombies spawn each phase. There is a great list of skills you can choose from when creating a character and, of course, you can make up your own. The problem with making up your own skills in this context is that I wanted my survivors to fit into the existing universe as smoothly as possible. I will be sharing all the appropriate material in the final (third) blog post so that anyone with a copy of Zombicide can play with them.  Making that as easy as possible is important to me.

The box artwork from Zombicide: Rue Morgue.
A diverse group of survivors fighting the undead.
I also wanted to show that people with impairments also have skills, but I didn't want to fall into the trap Elsa S. Henry describes when 'flaws' just become a point balancing system. I didn't want to create the world's most dangerous wizard and then literally 'handicap' him with a dodgy leg. So my survivors have quite a mix of impairments and strengths.

I also wanted them to be diverse in other ways. In Rue Morgue, the cast of 12 survivors are an equal split of men and women. This is brilliant – many dungeon crawlers come with a male dwarf, male wizard, male human and lovely lady elf archer. The equal mix of Rue Morgue helps to guard against lazy stereotyping. But I wanted to turn things on their head, so my team of survivors is almost exclusively female. And they all feel like people who would genuinely survive a tragedy. I also have one male character (an older bloke who has survived years of being male and so has a good chance of surviving the living dead) and one gender non-binary person.

A bottle of peachy-coloured acrylic paint by
Army Painter called 'Survivor Skin'
I have also done my best to provide a cast of characters who are relatively racially diverse. I've already mentioned that Rue Morgue does make an attempt at racial diversity (although could do better), but the official Zombicide acrylics by Army Painter perpetuate one of the problems with miniature figures.  In the box there is a paint called Survivor Skin. It is a peachy colour which, when washed and then highlighted comes out a bright Caucasian. I've had to use Dirt Splatter and Bone Spikes in order to create a proper range of skin-tones. But the association between 'skin tone paint' and white skin must be a bit galling to anyone who wants to be a part of this hobby but doesn't match that mould.

My dream team would not be possible without the appropriate miniatures. Yes, you could get away with making counters or card printouts on bases. But one of the things I love about Zombicide are the figures. They're fun to paint and look great on the beautiful map artwork. So I went searching. It's extremely difficult to find characters with impairments. I had in mind a list of possible conditions and spent a lot of time trawling websites. I eventually settled on Hasslefree Minis. Their figures are notably more diverse and realistic in body shape than any other suppliers I found. I was particularly impressed by depictions of women and race. Of course, there are a fair share of shapely naked ladies, but there are also naked men, relatively heavy women, children and older people. I worked my way through my list and found appropriate models for almost all of them. Some would need modification – something I'd not done before – but that only added to the fun.

So, we come to my list of impairments. I didn't want my characters to have acquired their impairments during the apocalypse. The idea was that they had survived in large part because of the skills they'd accumulated in life before zombies, which had been shaped somewhat by disability. Some would have more limitations than others. But as a group they would be survivors. 

So we have;
  • A person with visual impairment 
  • A person with autism 
  • A walking stick user 
  • A wheelchair user (who cannot self propel – more on that later) 
  • A person of restricted growth 
  • An amputee 
  • A person with chronic illness 
 I'd like to talk about the rules I chose for these survivors.

Visual Impairment
A woman and her dog face down an
approaching trio of zombies.

I've already mentioned in my previous post the 'blind' rules of Warhammer 40k. I pondered simply not allowing a survivor with a visual impairment to use ranged weapons. But that seemed foolish given the circumstances – if you were to not have much vision but could hear the hoard approaching, it'd be worth shooting in their general direction on the off-chance. So for my special blind rule, I have gone with exactly the same modifier as Games Workshop – any ranged weapon used by a person with a visual impairment only hits on the roll of a 6. What's more, I've also included a range modifier – even if using a weapon with a longer range, it can only ever hit a model in an adjacent square.

I believe that this ruling makes sense when the character has long term problems with their vision – a sudden blinding would be much more of a problem.

I'd like to think that the biggest defining characteristic of our visually impaired survivor is that they come with a guide dog and an additional dog action. Dogs were introduced in a separate Zombicide box as companions to main characters, offering survivors additional attacks whilst also being a very mobile unit who can easily travel through zombies to search and retrieve. I think this should give our character not only some early on close combat ability, but also the chance to move forward, quickly grabbing objectives.

I had considered including a rule to say that she could not move without having the dog with her. As we play test, I'll see if that should be included.


I was very conscious when it came to our autistic character that I didn't want to provide them with 'magical' abilities. However, most of the autistic people I've known have been very good at recognising the way the world is going. So their skill tree is all about the more cerebral route to winning. They come with the Zombie Link skill which allows them an extra turn if zombies get an extra turn. This is always a very dangerous point in the game and it's easy to be overwhelmed. Our autistic hero, therefore, is always on the lookout and ready to deal with the hoards as they rush in.

Walking Stick user

When I first started using a walking stick, I comforted myself with the idea that I was now carrying what amounts to a significant weapon in public in an entirely socially acceptable way. My user cannot move without the walking stick in his hand, which precludes the ability to 'dual-wield' weapons and move. There is also the possibility that a zombie might grab the stick from him and leave him immobile. However, his walking stick is a special piece of equipment. It has the same stats as a baseball bat but with the caveat that, on the roll of a 6, the damage it inflicts is much greater. This is meant to simulate a sharpened point replacing the ferrule and the survivor stabbing it through a vulnerable part of the zombie. As such, even as the group start a game, they have the possibility of dealing with all but the most powerful zombie - the A-Bomb Abomination.

Wheelchair user

This was my biggest modelling task and I was very pleased with the result. The wheelchair imparts the survivor with the hoarder skill (effectively allowing them to carry an additional item of equipment (other wheelchair users may know how easy it is to become a living shopping trolley) and webbing skill (meaning that any item of equipment they have is effectively close to hand and so can be used without swapping around your inventory). However, they cannot self propel. I envisioned this character becoming a mobile gun emplacement and her skill tree rather encourages this style of play. Working in tandem with another player, they could very quickly cut down on large numbers of zombies.


My amputee character is the 'toughest' of them all – a very physical fighter who, thanks to the prosthesis is very hard to kill. My idea was that the prosthetic arm would be a distraction to zombies – they would try to bite a part of her that was completely invulnerable. Obviously she cannot hold weapons in this arm – I didn't want to go for the Ash from the Evil Dead chainsaw look. But I believe her combat-based skill tree will more than make up for that.

Will you be ready...
A lego rendition of Ash from the Evil Dead film series.  A yellow lego figure with a pistol in one hand and a chainsaw sort of in the other (in the film it's strapped to the arm because his hand has been amputated) and a grey zombie lego figure lying at the other figure's feet.  He has been cut in half and red lego viscera is on the floor.  It is covered by a Creative Commons Licence and was photographed by Kenny Louie.

Chronic Illness

This impairment is the biggest departure from the standard skill tree of other survivors. In general, the game sees survivors becoming more and more dangerous as the experience builds. It's a kind of blood-lust, I guess – people building up a murderous steam as they fight. But our chronically ill survivor easily flags as the game progresses. Where everyone else is gaining an action, she loses one. And her ability to hit zombies reduces beyond that. She has the potential to be quite a liability – a position I very much recognise in myself (and in the way that disablist society talks about people like me). However, the truth is that people who lack capacity in general learn how to organise things as efficiently as possible. In that way, she's able to impart three additional actions to the survivors around her. We will see if she ends up getting left behind, but hopefully working as a team they can all survive together.

Person of restricted growth

I have worried about this survivor more than any others. I honestly believe that among people with physical impairments, people of restricted growth are some of the most badly effected by disablist attitudes. Jokes are still widely acceptable and, thanks to the conventions of the fantasy genre, 'dwarfs' are a mainstay of many wargames, boardgames and RPGs. I really struggled to find an appropriate miniature I was at all happy with and I felt that I did as good as I could. However, being a busty lady with a tight top, the character still feels rather more sexualised than I'd like. I also worried that my skill selection might make the character seem rather magical in their ability to bypass threats because of their diminutive stature. Because of this, I'm rather keen to introduce the special P90 assault weapon the miniature is modelled with as a piece of equipment. This weapon might encourage a slightly more mainstream style of play. I think playtesting will be very important here. I suspect it will be a piece of equipment the team have to fight to discover (or rediscover as the case may be).

I also plan to include wheelchairs in some games. They would naturally be found in hospital settings and might prove helpful to characters like the walking stick user and the person with chronic illness. 


I'd just like to take a little time to list the resources I used in the practical creation of my team of survivors. As previously mentioned, the miniatures came from Hasslefree Minis  [nude miniatures are featured on this website]. I will link to the individual miniatures I used 

Amir – Walking Stick User
Susannah – Wheelchair User
Neek – Visually Impaired Person
Anya - Chronically Ill Person
Vee – Amputee
Moira – Autistic Person
Joules – Person of Restricted Growth

In addition to these, I also used the Hasslefree Mini weapons sprue

I spent a lot of time looking for wheelchair users. Most were either steampunkified or rather ridiculous and inappropriate. Eventually I found a brass plate of wheelchairs ready to build from 4D Model Shop. I used some Green Stuff to bulk out some of the shapes and the finished models are a touch small. But obviously, come the apocalypse beggars cannot be choosers.

As mentioned, I did modify some of the miniatures. I cut off the machete blade Amir was modelled with and drilled out his hand to accommodate a walking stick made form a paperclip. Neek had the fingers cut from her right hand and her palm filed to accommodate the baseball bat from the weapons sprue. I then modelled new fingers and thumb from Green Stuff. Vee's hair was cut off and new hair put in place (I really loved the mask, but not so much the hair). But the biggest change was cutting off one of Susannah's legs so that I could pin it in a new position to allow her to sit. I felt that her pose would easily suit this and, with a rather massive dose of luck, I was right. I filled the cut leg with more Green Stuff. I then modelled all the bases to give them a street look, again with Green Stuff. All in all, I used around 10cm of Green Stuff strip and two whole paperclips.

A male figure holding a pistol and a walking
A female figure holding a baseball bat.

A female figure holding a pistol whilst sat in
a wheelchair whose back wheels are missing
A female figure whose leg has been sawn off and pinned back
in place with a paperclip.

I then created the ID cards and Equipment cards using the resources on the Zombicide website. I also found a fantastic blog post with equipment cards and fonts available for download.

In the final blog post, we meet our team of heroes!

Zombicide Survivors with Impairments - Inspiration (01)

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I've never had a t-shirt with a slogan before. I've had brand names, designs and logos. I even once had lovely black tee with a picture of a triceratops which, when it was dark, started glowing with a luminous skeleton! I was that cool. But never a slogan.

There was one, though, which I wanted. I've seen it several times since, but back then it was origianl and unique. It was, again, a black t-shirt and in white writing it said;

The night after my grandmother's funeral, I sat and watched the original Dawn of the Dead for the umpteenth time. It's a film full of messages. Reject consumerism, embrace friendship, make the right choices. And accept loss. Since then, the zombie invasion has spread towards the mainstream with tv shows like AMC's The Walking Dead and even the medieval fantasy ice zombies of HBO's Game of Thrones.

Zombies are a great metaphor. They are our own worst excesses. They are blindly following hatred. They are a judgement upon our own crimes. Or they're just a nameless foe whose head you don't mind seeing destroyed with a large calibre weapon.

Ultimately, the best zombie narratives use the threat of the walking dead to emphasise our own humanity and our capability. And that's part of the reason I love the boardgame Zombicide. Zombicide is a game for 1-6 players aged 14+. In it, you take charge of a group of humans who are surviving the zombie apocalypse. They must battle through the living dead, searching out weapons and objectives. The zombies are controlled by the game – the good thing about zombies is that they don't do a lot of strategising and so don't need complicated mechanics. The surviving humans are all different, having a unique set of skills. As they progress through a game, so they gain experience and learn new skills which allow them to deal with the increasingly large swarm of zombies. In other words, it's my t-shirt fantasy come to life. And my goldfish bride and I are brilliant at it.

A Zombicide game in action.  A group of colourful plastic figures grouped in one room of a colourful map.  In the background the map stretches off and a collection of yellow plastic zombies can be seen approaching.
But what does any of this have to do with disability?

Zombicide is fantastic. I started by ordering the 'third season', Zombicide: Rue Morgue. Having spent a lot of time in a hospital school, the idea of zombie shenanigans set in a hospital environment really appealed to me. Also, I knew that this set came with the largest group of survivors. Given that you typically choose six models to then play with, I thought having the largest cast possible from the very beginning would add to the fun. What I didn't realise at the time is that Rue Morgue also comes with one of the most diverse casts of all the main season boxsets.

Wanda, a zombicide character.  A blonde woman with glasses
wearing roller-skates.  She wields a chainsaw in both hands. 
When I was a kid, I used to religiously buy White Dwarf magazine – Games Workshop's publication for everything Warhammer / 40k related. Although I never really got to play the games properly, I would occasionally buy the odd figure to paint and would avidly sit reading the monthly battle report. It was, and still is, much the same as watching a sporting event. Only the scale is greater and there are more dice.

The social justice problems with video gaming have been publicised in recent years. Far more people have a console and a social media outlet than are willing to sit painting toy soldiers for several months in order to play a game which requires a 6x4' table and at least a couple of hours - not to mention a rulebook the size of a small novel. And so when video games make mistakes (which is almost a base state, sadly) the resultant story spreads far and wide. And the battle lines of the internet are a bloody zone.

Wargaming, boardgaming, RPGs – they don't register in the same way. Not that there haven't been moral panics about RPGs, but not so much in recent years and not regarding anything that we might be interested in here. In fact, the closest there has been to a Wargaming controversary recently was the not-at-all-a-publicity-stunt move by PETA to criticise the use of fur in the entirely fictional characters in Warhammer 40k. As with other geek cultures, though, there are genuine problems with representation. I will talk about Games Workshop in specifics as they are the company with whom I am most familiar, but they are in no way unique.

As is the case in much fantasy and sci-fi content, gender is poorly represented. Female characters are rare (non-binary characters are rarer) and, in general, only ever exist as part of all-female groups. They are almost universally lithe, fragile creatures and there are often problems with sexualisation. Bell of Lost Souls recently followed the modelling of Daemonettes over the past twenty-odd years and as you can see, even at their best they are effectively demonic chorus girls with crab hands. For more information about gender in Warhammer 40k, it's worth reading this article by James McConnaughy.

Talking of crab hands, let's get on to disability. It's extremely rare to have any real example of disability in the characters available. And when there is an example, it tends to be rather extreme and not very...disablish. Take Commisar Yarrick. When I was 10, he was one of my favourite models. The back story of his character involves a running conflict between him and a famous Ork boss. During their final battle Yarrick had his arm torn off. But he also heroically saved the day, killing said boss who had a 'killa klaw' arm. When he came to, Yarrick insisted that, rather than a proper bionic arm, he be fitted with this crab-like monstrosity. Which does look fantastic, but must make eating a burger really tricky. And why, in the forty-first millennia, can't he have both and them be interchangeable? Or, maybe, him just be a character with a missing arm?

A photo taken at a convention of four people dressed as characters from the
Warhammer 40k universe.  The second from the left is Commissar Yarrick.
By Klapi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons
There are attempts to represent the impairment of injuries in 40k, but they are very simplistic; the rules for a freshly 'blinded' unit says that, for one turn, they can only hit a ranged target on the roll of a 6 on a six sided dice. There are no penalties to movement or morale, which you might expect on a battlefield. Skirmish level games with campaign rules (keeping track of the same characters over several games) try harder, having more complicated systems that track the health of individuals.

In a fantastic article about disability in RPGs, Elsa S. Henry writes about the problems she has found in the disability mechanics in the RPG games she loves. In many ways, they have a lot more options than the war games of Games Workshop - understandably, perhaps, as they focus more on narrative and adventure than military combat. But as with the incredibly simple and underwhelming effects of, say, 'blinding' in 40k, the games Henry plays involve 'flaws' which people are able to ignore or game away with ease. For example, she mentions someone who takes a 'flaw' for their magic-using character who then simply casts a spell to remove said impairment. Henry also points out another game whose impairments (much like the skirmish games mentioned above) are all acquired in-game. They can never just be something that's a long-term part of someone's character. They are a tragedy to befall them. A tragedy which costs someone...numbers on a dice roll. I'd like to quote this from her article;

Well, we should bother [pushing for inclusion in games] because the world of games has changed drastically since the first publication of Dungeons & Dragons in the 1970s, and where we are now is a place where we should diversify and accept that our culture and hobby is growing. We can do this by changing the way that games look at disabilities. They’re not flaws, or blockades to the heroism we want to play out. They are not antithetical to the adventurers we play, or the knights who save the realm. A disabled knight is still a knight, her ability—whether or not she can hear—is a part of her physical representation. Disabilities should be written into games as a part of the space, a part of regular play, not as a flaw which doesn’t acknowledge that disability is more than just physical: it’s an identity we carry with us from day to day.

And so back to Zombicide and the diverse cast of Rue Morgue. The survivors have a range of ages, races and genders (although, of course, only in a binary sense). The female characters are not universally young, stick thin sex objects for male player gaze. And female characters are just as likely to be capable of extreme violence as the men. Very quickly our collection of Zombicide boxes grew and Deb has often ended up playing with three female characters who form a very mobile group of fighters who mostly excel in hand-to-hand combat. It's really lovely to see that and it not be some kind of magical enhancement or peculiarity. They are who they are and fight as they would. It all makes sense and the inclusivity really helps the player to sink into the game.

The box artwork for the second season of Zombicide -
Toxic City Mall.  A black woman with a firearm leads
a group of survivors in a fight against zombies.
It's not all great, though. The second season survivors are not quite so brilliant for female characters. Although there is a black woman, her character is more sexualised than I would like. There are 'guest boxes' where other artists have designed characters. These range from slightly more believable strong women, to women who risk dying of cold before the zombies get a look in.  But the ease with which new characters can be created really inspired me. The makers of the game (Guillotine Games) have been very good about providing templates to allow players to create their own characters, equipment and missions. And motivated by the feelings of inclusivity in the season three survivors, I wanted to create a team of survivors with impairments.

In my next blog post I'll describe how I went about collating appropriate skills, finding the right miniatures and some of the challenges I faced in creating a diverse group of heroes.

Saturday 29 April 2017

Blogging Against Disablism Day 2017


Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2017

Please share the word about the day and come back here on Monday to read my contribution.

Sunday 1 May 2016

Prejudice and Representation

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This blog post is a part of Blogging Against Disablism Day 2016.  For more information and to read other work on the theme of disability descrimination, pride etc, see Diary of a Goldfish

Prejudice grows like mould; the smaller and darker the space, the worse the problem.  In an insular group, everyone is an outsider.  It's so much harder to treat anyone with bigotry when you're surrounded by a variety of voices, a variety of faces, a variety of hopes and dreams.  So one of the key tools in fighting prejudice is to feed people with broad and positive representation in fiction, film and television.

Thinking back to my own childhood, I remember very little about Grange Hill beyond the bullying which I recognised in my own school, and the character played by Francesca Martinez - the first person I saw with Cerebral Palsy.  I remember, in extremely white Surrey, programmes like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and their broad cast of entirely individual people of colour.  And I remember the bad, too - the disabled villains, stereotypical black men, and non-existant or entirely passive women of a hundred different programmes and films.
Comic book style image of numerous young people and an alarming sausage.
Grange Hill Theme
Of course, I am not a product solely of these things.  But they are some of the earliest cultural rungs in the ladder of my life.  And some of them appear to have been deliberately greased in the hope that I would fall back into prejudice.  Fostering an atmosphere of mistrust and prejudice, where the same kind of people play the same kind of roles, enables those who are already at the top of the pecking order keep their place.  It also maintains a bland and simple world which takes little imagination to navigate. If Francesca Martinez had never set foot in Grange Hill, viewers who had never and would never come into contact with disability would not have to think about it.  As it is, social awareness is talked about as if it is a chore; when the BBC hired Cerrie Burnell to present on the CBBC channel, parents were upset because “they were forced to discuss difficult issues with their young children before they were ready.”


In terms of narrative, it's obvious that, in the case of original stories like Grange Hill and The Fresh Prince, there are no barriers to inclusivity.  If someone had wanted to write one of the Banks family as disabled, that would have been possible.  However, there are also other situations in which people feel they have a genuine excuse for what amounts to disablist laziness.

Historical fiction is created with weight of fact to wrestle with.  This is further complicated when the history is ancient as sources become uncertain or contradictory.  In some ways this benefits the adapting author as they have numerous narrative options open to them.  But those with privilege (or those brainwashed by the powers that be into thinking that things are as they are because that is how things *should* be)  are restricted to the same old stories of Straight White Non-Disabled Men fighting their way to the top.  These stories, damaging to our cultural health, are immensely boring.  And, as Foz Meadows describes in this excellent post, it's missing something about what *really* happened in our history.

A line drawing of Richard the Third naked, looking none too well.
Richard the Third's death
An interesting example can be found in Shakespeare's Richard III.  At school, we were told that Richard's disability was merely a metaphor, that the Tudors had painted a hunchback onto the last Plantagenet king to symbolise his corruption.  Then in 2012, archaeologists discovered Richard's body buried under a car park and revealed he did, indeed, have substantial spinal problems.

It is true that historical figures are often 'tainted' with a disablist brushstroke by critical contemporaries.  But disablist caricatures only really work if we take those disabilities to be negative.  If there wasn't an association between hunchbacks and evilness, Richard's disability would be neutral. There would have been no reason for historians to be sceptical about its reality, if it wasn't being used to cast him as a pantomime disabled villain.

We've recently watched a couple of historical TV series which have made choices to show disabled characters.

The Last Kingdom (adapted from the Bernard Cornwall novels) tells the story of a Saxon boy surfing the political and social waves of Britain during one of its biggest upheavals.  In it we meet Alfred the Great (played by the great David Dawson). This Alfred, although viciously astute, is not a well man.  There is significant historical evidence charting the course of Alfred's health, enough, in fact, to allow G. Craig to attempt a diagnosis.  He demonstrates the high possibility that the king had Crohn's Disease or something similar.  He also theorises that the early-Christian audience for the original manuscript would feel more kindly towards a king who was struggling with great suffering.

An icon showing Alfred the Great in strong colours carrying a book, orb and sceptre.
Alfred the Great
The Last Kingdom uses Alfred's disability to contrast his razor-sharp mind with physical weakness.  It becomes a symbolic struggle – abstinence from the rich food he desires brings him to an equilibrium which is also spiritual.  In comparison, Uhtred, the main character, is relatively unsophisticated.  And the whole series has a huge problem with the presentation of women (there are four main female characters, three of whom sleep with Uhtred, the fourth being the harridan wife of Alfred).

Vikings, now in its fourth season, follows the story of Ragnar Lothbrok.  One of his sons, Ivar the Boneless, is disabled.  Given the comparatively weak historical evidence (other than his name, the other significant information is that he was carried on his shield by his men – an act of celebration which need not have anything to do with someone's ability to walk) it is interesting that the writers chose this route.  Vikings is a brutal programme with graphic violence and sex.  One of the theories for Ivar's epithet is that he was especially lithe and it was his graceful fighting which made him so successful.  This could easily be used – you can imagine his character now; the same as a million other white male warriors.
A small green train driven by a friendly looking welshman.  A dragon sits on the chimney.  No vikings.
Ivar the Boneless. Not to be confused with Ivor the Engine.

However, they've chosen to portray him with a condition like Osteogenesis Imperfecta.  He fits in well with the rest of the cast and as a young adult his condition is not talked about (or not as far as I've got in the series!).  We know from numerous examples that great military leaders need not be the strongest physical specimens (Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Nelson etc) so it doesn't preclude the historical narrative.  Diversity and flavour are added.  And the unlikely disabled character will, if the history is followed, eventually trick his way into a great British city and earn himself a huge following of warriors.

However, the young child Ivar has suffered from more prejudicial writing.  His disability is a symbol (perhaps not unfairly – Vikings is a series with a lot of symbolism) but his evilness has no historical backing that I can see and the extreme violence he meets out as a child is completely unexamined.  This is damaging and seems rather at odds with some of their other choices.


So what should writers do?  I'm certainly not saying that they should overturn historical facts to create a weak link to modern social justice*, but the truth is that the world has always been a diverse place. It has been our own prejudice which has mangled even the most reliable sources to fit in with our present day cultural narratives.

In order to make realistic fiction we have to include a realistic diversity in our depiction.  And that's especially true of disability at a time when cultural narratives are being written in big, thick marker.  Bad stories.  Stories that cast us as villains or helpless victims, stories which question our worth and which exclude us from significant roles.  Impairment is an inevitable part of life and always has been (in fact, increasingly so the further back in history one voyages).  Whether you're King of the Britons or executing one of them, your disabilities are a key part of who you are and are necessary in any good narrative that describes you.

* An interesting example here would be Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller – a very popular book which I can't stand.  It reworks the story of Achilles and Patroclus amidst the Trojan war as found in the Iliad.  Miller overwrites the original complex ancient sexuality with a modern soap-opera version of homosexual love.  The story of Briseis in the Iliad is replaced with a bizarre escapade of gay men rescuing women from the horrors of rape and slavery during war.  You cannot rewrite motives to make them understandable – the skill of a writer should be focused on making the unimaginable lives of ancient peoples understandable.

Tuesday 6 October 2015

A is for...

Scope's most recent addition to their extraordinarily awkward "End the Awkward" series of publications is an alphabet of disabled sex.  Forgive me, but this was too good to just leave alone.  Sex and disability is a fascinating and under researched topic, so can't you just imagine the dreary afternoon spent trying to come up with an entire A-Z of disabled sexuality.  I hate to think how many biscuits they all got through.

Going through the list, I will trouble you with my own guesses as to what they might have come up with followed by a little critique of each subject.  So here we go.

A.  Given that I was anticipating a pretty righteous and yet baffling start to the list, I guessed Autustic Sex.  I was anticipating something along the lines of "Wasn't Dustin Hoffman cute in Rainman?".  However, I forgot about the single most sexualised disabled group - amputees.  Given the rubbish a lot of amputees go through online, it would have made for an interesting discussion.  It was, if anything, rather simplified.

B.  Whilst trying to guess, Deb mimed a clue.  That didn't help as much as you might have thought.  I didn't even manage a guess and Burlesque really is scraping the barrel.  Again, you could have interesting discussions about how disabled bodies fit surprisingly well into the Burlesque aesthetic, especially as it's often tainted by the dark shadow of the Freak Show.

C.  Thoroughly unimpressed by B, I guessed that C stood for Cucumber.  Which makes marginally more sense than Coffee.  Or Coffee?  Because Coffee? is the universal euphemism for "Fancy a quick macchiato upstairs?".  Which explains why Starbucks has done so well.  Given that I don't drink coffee, I suggest that we create more euphemistic consumables.  Cucumber is perhaps a little too obvious, although "Do you want to come upstairs for a cucumber sandwich with the crusts cut off?" is pretty much on my level.

D.  Given that most Disabled Loos are considered hot spots for illicit sexual activity, I thought they might feature in this list as something to be reclaimed.  But no, they've gone for the rather more chaste option of Dating.  Which seems wantonly Dull.

E.  For epilepsy?  Electroshock therapy?  Or, if we're being a bit more sensible, emotions?  Nope - Experimenting!  Firstly, I felt rather robbed because the person interviewed has non-EPILEPTIC seizures!  So close!  But it's a rather miserable little story about how sex with a disabled person can be 'weird'.  And in the example, it's weird because someone might have a seizure during intercourse rather than any of the hundred other more extreme examples of 'weird' I can think of.  Of course, none of those weirdnesses even compare to the weirdness of, say, having sex with someone who really enjoyed Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town.  Or someone who enjoys coffee.  Or someone who came up with the idea of a Disabled Sex A-Z.  *shudders*  Weeeeiiiiirrrrrd.

F.  Heh.  It's not what you think!  No, it's not that either, I checked.  Ooo, flagellation!  I didn't think of that one!  No, still wrong.  F is for Flaunt it.  Because, as we've learnt with Free the Nipple, the way to change any attitude is for people to post naked photos of themselves online.  In all seriousness, it would be great to see more variety in the images we see around us, and particularly in those of a sexual nature where white, very young, perfectly proportioned and apparently non-disabled women dominate.  However, that's not so much up to us as it is up to advertising companies who think that 'perfection' sells.

G.  Gay!  I got this one straight away.  But this is wonderful - listen to this.

G is for Gay… or bisexual, or lesbian, or trans.

It's not, you know.  Otherwise it would be gisexual, gesbian or grans.  So does this mean that disabled people should start sleeping exclusively with grandmothers now?

H.  So fed up, I didn't even try to guess.  But whoever wrote this thing was either messing around or hasn't got into any trouble while trying to get their lumbar rearranged.  Happy Endings apparently, in this case, have nothing to do with insalubrious salons but is, in fact, the *heart warming* tale of someone who had to wait a lifetime (or at least until they were in college) in order to meet their eventual spouse.  Move over Brief Encounter.

We'll have to wait now for Scope to continue this fascinating series.  I suggest you spend the rest of the day trying to come up with your own guesses for what they might come up with for the rest of the alphabet.

Friday 1 May 2015

The God of Sleep

The God of Sleep

Content warning for self harm

When I was a child of eight or so, I remember dreaming about drinking whiskey. I knew that spirits were bad for you and yet also something special. And as such, in my dreams, a nice scotch tasted somewhat like liquid ice-cream.

By the time I was fourteen, I had already been ill for two years. I had crippling attacks of muscle and nerve pain. Aware that no doctor wanted to help me, I did my best to blank my mind during the worst bouts. I tried to think about the colour black. Surround myself in a never-ending night. Floating above the pain.

I remember a talk by an ME “expert” at the hospital school I attended. Asked how I coped with pain, I said to the audience about my technique...emptying my head. “Of course, that’s easier for some people...” I got a laugh. I felt euphoric.

But I didn’t cope well with the pain. I spent nights awake, I would hit my leg repeatedly and hard enough to send a wave of tingly numbness over me. I took more than the recommended dose of paracetamol, aspirin and ibuprofen. Later, desperate and searching for some respite, I’d start having a small drink with the pills. Nothing deadly. Although a few years later, my stomach might disagree with that.

My GPs were terrible and I was scared of them. My friends at the hospital school all knew about being branded a drug-seeker. We knew what sort of a future that led to.

It was thanks to Deborah - her borrowed strength, bravery and wisdom, that led me to first experimenting with Co-codamol. The fizz and astringency followed quickly by a lovely light opiate blanket. Feeling the muscles relax. My family and I moved house and I asked the new GP about taking a stronger dose. This was a monumental psychological shift.

Our culture celebrates those who break the pain barrier, who withstand agonies with a quip and a grin and who, when shot in the shoulder, are not only spared incapacity, but who are then gifted with just enough adrenalin to waste an entire bus-load of bad guys. No one writes books about people who sensibly take a few tablets and have a lie down.

People do write books about people who take too many tablets, do stupid things and suffer the consequences. They write books about people who become hooked on drugs and turn to prostitution. They write books about painkillers and weakness.

This has always been the case, and there’s a good reason - no one wants to read a book about me taking my tablets and having a lay down with season three of The Legend of Korra on DVD. And that’s fine - books are important educators, but only when they don’t send people to sleep.

The problem is that, in the UK at least, there has been a political shift which echoes time and again the phrase ‘Hard Working’. The only good person is a hard working one. And I’ll let you into a very personal secret - the one piece of praise I crave more than any other is being told that I’ve worked hard at something. It gives me a massive glow of happiness. But the problem is that the ways in which I do work hard are not the ways politicians mean it. And scarily, their definition has seeped into the bedrock of society. Indeed, there are times when it seeps into my brain.

As such, not only is the story of me taking my tablets terribly boring, it has become morally incompatible.

Last year Deb and I got our own bungalow together. It is, without a doubt, the best thing that’s ever happened to us. We’re very happy here and everything in the garden is lovely. However, the physical and emotional tolls the move extracted from me left me in quite a poor state. I had already progressed from Co-codamol onto Dihydrocodeine. But talking to The Most Lovely Doctor in the World ™, I was presented with the option of morphine.

In my mind, Morphine had been akin to my childhood imaginings of whiskey. I had wished for it in the nights. I knew that it was not good for you, but it was effective, mesmeric and addictive. Being a classicist, I knew all about Morpheus, the god of sleep. Being a fan of a good Western, I knew about Laudanum and the opium dens of the past. I knew that this substance carried the weight of many cultures. For some reason, it should have been a much bigger step.

But by this point, it really didn’t seem it. As a child I would never have dreamed of snaffling a snifter of some spirit hidden in the back of a cupboard. I’ve never smoked or taken illegal drugs. Now, though, the idea of just trying something to see how it goes makes absolute and perfect sense.

What’s more, I have learnt that, by taking my morphine, I heal more quickly from my worst bouts. I am able to sleep properly, I can relax and breathe. Deborah has to expend less energy in her care of me. It is all wonderful.

If I were ‘Hard Working’, I would achieve much less, suffer more and so I would also take more of Deborah’s already limited time and energy resulting in her also achieving less. “Hard working” is one of the biggest lies told to us by politicians. Balance is the thing we should aim for. But balance is the boring story. The problem is, it’s also the only way anything great and sustainable can ever happen.