Accessible Magic

Welcome to Part 2 of my WorldCon, CoNZealand panel write ups.

The panelists for the titular panel were Petrea Mitchell as moderator, Andi C. Buchanan, and Taiyo Fujii.

How does a person with a speech impediment handle magical incantations? Dyslexic sorcery: scrambling runes a hazard? Is the autism spectrum an advantage if spellcasting requires visualizing complex shapes? Let’s mash mastery of magic and differently abled people together and see what we get.

In a lot of fantasy and science-fiction, they wave their hands and make magic or tech the “solution” to all disabilities. Let’s explore ways to use magic for accessibility and ways differently abled people could be better integrated into these stories.

Things That Are Usually Ignored

There are tons of ways accessibility could be impacted by magic or science. Here are a few:

  • potion allergy
  • inability to focus (ADHD), making magic either a challenge, or so hard that you need to veg for a day or two afterwards.
  • for intuitive magic, what about people who struggle with things that others claim are ‘intuitive’, like people with autism

Bad Tropes

There are tons of ways that people get disability in stories wrong. Tropes that are overdone and trite, and minimize the very real impact and communities that form around a shared bond.

  • Magic compensates for the disability… by erasing it. — i.e. Daredevil. The blind superhero with the superpower of… sight.
    • Note: there’s a different, and healthier vibe if the character purposely sacrifices an ability in order to get something else, like Odin and his eye. Assuming that the sacrifice doesn’t malign people who naturally have that disability.
  • No medical consent — they fix everything the way they believe your body ‘should’ work, without telling you about risks or giving you options
  • Having unhealthy work-arounds for a disability
  • The person who sacrificed themselves for the group — was dying anyway
  • The disability is fixed instantly with magic
    • Can be mitigated by showing the learning stage, the strength building, etc

Remember, when things are designed to be more accessible, they’re often more accessible for everyone, not just the group that the design was focused on. For example, curb cuts, where the sidewalk smoothly thins to meet the level of the road, make things easier for strollers (and bikes), not just wheelchair users.

Underutilized Tropes

Adding the concept of accessibility to your stories isn’t just a list of “things to avoid” and “wouldn’t it be nice”. Here are some ways you might explore different types of abilities.

  • Using magic/science as an adaptive technique, rather than a cure-all
  • Having something that isn’t a disability in this world be one in the story
    • Tone-deaf — if magic is music based
    • Color-blindness — if colors of things is important
    • Morning person — in a world that operates at night
  • Having the ability CAUSE a disability
    • In ‘My Hero Academia’, one of the characters is stronger than his bones can withstand… so he has to modify his fighting style
  • Having accessibility tools give more powers
    • Adaptive arms or an exoskeleton that makes magics possible that weren’t before – because of more digits or hands, etc.
  • For people who are more math focused, and less able to ‘visualize magic’, like so many do — More mathlike magic — working more like a computer program, with ‘if this, then that’ sort of branches

Adding people with different types of abilities and making things accessible to more people is a great way to populate your fictional world look more like the real world, and show ways we could do better.

Suggested Reading

The best way to learn about how differently abled people interact with the world is to read the books they populate. It’s also a great idea to read stories by writers with disabilities — even when that’s not the focus — because getting to know other perspectives is a great way to improve your world-building, your characterizations, plus broaden your own horizons.

“Away With The Wolves” by Sarah Gailey (Uncanny Magazine)

The Outside – by Ada Hoffmann

The Disabled People Destroy Fantasy edition of Uncanny Magazine

The Country Of The Blind – by HG Wells

Geometries of Belonging – By R.B. Lemberg (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Mooncakes – by Suzanne Walker  (Author), Wendy Xu (Illustrator)

First Dates by Elizabeth Kestrel Rogers (Translunar Travelers Lounge)


Do you have any thoughts on things I missed? Any pet peeves you’d like to add? Please do so!

Please let me know if you have any story suggestions.

Thank you for reading, and I’ll be back again next week with more writing tips and writerly musings.

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