Whenever I talk about steampunk, I usually wander around to the issue of race (you may have noticed this; it’s kind of a thing). Sometimes I use the term “person of colour,” or “steampunk of colour,” or “visible minority.”
I was thinking of the latter term: “visible minorities” and I realized that there has been a subset of people who are definite visible minorities, as well as invisible minorities, that aren’t often thought about.
The terms are various, according to region: people with disabilities, disabled person. Each term has its own socio-political implications. A bit like how steampunk means something vastly different to various people, heh. I'll be alternating between the two in this article, because I find pros and cons in both terms.
Before I move on to how this intersects with steampunk, I’d like you to take a minute or two to read about the Spoon Theory and the Social Model of Disability. The former offers a metaphor for able-bodied people to understand their privilege in relation to those suffering from disabilities. The latter is a model which offers a mindset with which to understand the social structures in place which continue to hinder people with disabilities. It will also enable you to understand the purpose of writing this article in the first place.
Steampunk, as we all are aware, draws its inspiration from the Victorian era, which, for all its accomplishments, wasn’t very good to people with disabilities. Halifax, where I live, has a few Heritage Houses, many of which were built during the era, and it doesn't take much to see that most of them are wheelchair-inaccessible. By and large, disability issues fall off the steampunk radar. That doesn't mean there aren't any steampunks with disabilities. Out of curiousity, I put out feelers on Brass Goggles.
In fact, there are quite a few, and disabilities don’t really stop anybdy — Mark F. has been living with chronic muscle and join pain for 30 years (plus osteoarthritis; we should note that for many, it's never just one illness, but a whole clusterfuck of problems which exacerbate each other), and yet has managed to refurbish an entire work cubicle, among other projects. Many other steampunks with disabilities also involve themselves with the physical side of steampunk: DIY, costuming, conventioneering.
One might think that disability issues would be fairly straightforward in steampunk — wheelchair-bound? Build steampunk contraptions around mobility devices. “I typically use a cane to walk,” MarkF said, “but a plain one just screams tediousness.” So he built himself a Sherlock Holmes-themed umbrella-cane, with weaponized ice-tips:
This is one walking stick you do NOT want to mess with.
Which only goes to show — improvements are the order of the day, not a return to the olden days, as another BG member, Thistlewaite, notes, “I used to own an antique wheelchair, wicker seats, made of oak, ornate metal appointments, etc. When my lady became disabled, I invested in an excellent, modern folding wheelchair, made of nylon and space-age materials, not motorized (power by Thistlewaite, don’t y’know) but the best chair I could find.” Everything else in the Thistlewaite household, however, is decorated according to their own steampunk tastes.
Among other challenges are costumes that can be worn even when the wearer is wheelchair-bound. “I have to build costumes that will hold up to my collapsing to the ground at any moment,” Jordan, or Dr. Oliver Cross on the Brass Goggles forum, tells me. He also admits, “it is mildly frustrating to see people inventing incredibly impressive contraptions built around mobility devices and adaptation devices, although in my case, what frustrates me about them isn't that they're being built, but that I wasn't the one who invented them!”
Functional steampunk'd motorized wheelchair at Dragon*Con, photo by Michael Eades
So what improvements can be made at steampunk gatherings and conventions? In order to answer that adequately, we have to figure out the nature of the disability first, and some of the answers are, of course, obvious. Miss Groves, suffering from myalgic encephalomyelitis, also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and depression stemming from CFS, points out that being limited in movement means she cannot get out to gatherings, which leads to her feeling out of the loop. In the event she does manage to get out, she loses energy quickly, so being able to sit down quickly becomes an issue.
Just being able to have plenty of spaces to sit down immediately available is a wishlist across the board, alongside other “regular” problems:
parking availability close to entrances
gentle slopes (stairs can be a trial), and
walking distances between locations.
Claire Bradley told me, “what prevented me from attending the Asylum gathering was that the accomodation was too far away.” In January, Claire suffered from bronchitis, which led to post-viral fatigue and then escalated into ME/CFS. “[If the accommodation had been closer], I could go to the gathering for an hour or so, sleep/recover for a bit, then go out again, but i can't manage a whole day without lots of breaks in between.”
But these are problems which anybody with disabilities would have. Steampunk-wise, there are some problems which can be rather surprising. Dr. Oliver Cross suffers from a slew of conditions: epilepsy, fibromyalgia, asthma, synesthetic with Asperger's syndrome, deteriorating audial and optic nerves, and two rebuilt ankles. As an epileptic, he points out that strobe lights in steampunk inventions and props can trigger a seizure. (I'm fond of strobe lights myself, so this was particularly jarring. I never thought of strobe lights as anything more than entertaining at best, annoying at worse; to be reminded that it is a health hazard for someone else is discomfiting.)
For others, though, steampunk activity is not so much a hindrances, but a help, or a complement. “Neuro-atypical” types (such as those with Asperger's) may find that steampunk accommodates their energies. (I use quotation marks because I don't want to pretend there's a set standard for “neurotypical.”) The creativity in steampunk can be a welcome distraction, a boost for those suffering from depression. To be able to get out of the house, expend energy on projects and having a goal that can be set, worked on, and accomplished, be it a costume, accessory or modification, can be uplifting. (Also, it is, as always, a surprise for people who suffer from depression come out to admit it and find others who have the same trouble. We may all suffer varying levels and forms of depression, but if you're out there, know this: you are not alone. The stigma surrounding mental illness is enormous, and I find most of us suffering from depression are leery of calling it a disability.)
Like racial diversity, representations of people with disabilities are far and few in between. There is only one major character with disabilities in the steampunk canon: Dr. Miguelito Quixote Loveless, from Wild Wild West (Dr. Arliss Loveless in the movie remake). “[T]he first Dr. Loveless is doubly frustrating,” Oliver Cross told me, “as he was originally introduced as a sympathetic, if somewhat delusional, character, only to be transformed into a lunatic megalomaniac by the end of the series.“ MarkF reminded me that disabilities simply did not factor into 1800s science fiction literature, since technological workarounds weren't available. As such, there's very little to draw on for inspiration from typical steampunk canon, besides Dr. Loveless' steam-powered chair. Seeing as most disabilities are not visible, he continues to point out to me, there's really very little motivation on the part of most steampunks to consider disability issues.
Sounds rather depressing, doesn't it? I asked MarkF if he thinks there should be more representation of disability issues in steampunk, and he surprised me by saying, “actually, disabilities are addressed extensively throughout Brass Goggles.”
“They're just not called as such,” he explained. And then he continued to explain, and I shall just copy-paste the entire thing here because I don't know if I could even word it better: “Because steampunk is a mix of Victorian era sci-fi, much of the literature, clothing, and props require its members to build/write these things from scratch, since there are essentially none of these items available commercially. BUT — does the greater steampunk community think of these creations in terms of overcoming real disabilities? No, or rarely so. Why? Because steampunkers have the mindset of Victorian sci-fi — using post-industrial technology (which never actually existed) to enhance the ‘normal’ human condition. They create mechanical devices to enhance strength, vision, hearing, etc, of normal people, but of course they don't think in terms of the disabled except that normal folks are themselves disabled compared to steampunkers enhanced by Victorian gadgetry. But in fact much of the steampunk paraphernalia are simply neo-Victorian disability aids. Even the one true steampunk symbol, goggles, are vision enhancers” (emphasis mine).
Steampunk'd Bluetooth device by Nicrosin.
It's a prop, but it looks like it could be a hearing aid. Yoinked from Slippery Brick
So, there are alternate narratives for people with disabilities after all. The wishful thinking of your average, able-bodied (or temporarily able-bodied, since we'll all grow old eventually and gain all the joy of ill health that Father Time bestows) (or “disability-impaired”) person to build devices that will make them stronger is the same wishful thinking of a disabled person who wants to be, well, “normal.” Yet, even as most of our stories hash out the issues of the disadvantaged, especially of the poor, why don't we consider the disadvantages of people with disabilities? If anything, our stories would only be all the more richer for the inclusion of such characters, just as our stories would be richer with racial diversity. We don't because for most people, disabilities just aren't something we think about, and we usually expect those with disabilities to work hard just to keep up with us normies.
I could go on about general attitudes towards disability issues, the assumption of “normalcy” that affects how we treat those with disabilities, and other things which affect a disabled person's right to live with the same dignity as everybody else, but that would make for a long, tedious, un-steampunky post, so if you want to educate yourself, there are plenty of resources online.
This isn't a post designed to make you feel guilty about the privilege you have in being able to move unhindered, or to have infinite spoons at your disposal. A few years ago, I was close friends with a dude who had (and still has) muscular dystrophy disorder, which meant that he was wheelchair-bound. It didn't stop him from making the best of life in his motorized wheelchair, and he was much more interesting than I ever will be, but occasionally, I would say, “this place is so awesome! We should go!” and he would point out, “I can't go there. It's not wheelchair-accessible.” I would feel rotten, both for having forgotten this very crucial point, and for not being able to do anything to make places more wheelchair-accessible for him. But we both moved on, and found other things to do together that were accessible to us both.
Disability issues are real, even if we use steampunk as a form of escapism — it's a human rights issue and it stands to reason that at a steampunk convention or gathering, we would want everyone to have as much fun as possible. Steampunks with disabilities are part of that everyone, and while it may seem, at first glance, to be a huge use of resources accommodating their immediate needs, remember that what's good for one subsection of the community can be extended to all other subsections of the community. Making a place accessible, even if no one we know who is coming has disabilities, is only smart thinking, since in case shit happens, at least we were prepared, and no one has to stay stuck at home. Toning down on our strobe-light usage can't possibly take that much effort (seriously, surely aesthetics don't override another person's health?) and making space to someone who has mobility issues is just a sign of consideration.
Anyways, I think that's enough thinky for the day, so, I'll just end with a general conclusion: we may not be able to cure diseases, nor make actual steam-powered prosthetic limbs, nor wish away the disabilities faced by our fellows, but we can always do our little bit to make sure that everyone is afforded the right to mobility, dignity and consideration. Disabilities are disadvantages only in the face of an able-ist world, after all.
And no, I personally don't need a steam-powered prosthetic arm. You should totally invent one, though, just in case someone needs it.
Jaymee Goh is a freelancer living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She likes writing to promote diversity and draw attention to intersectionality.