The panel was one of those that itself spun off happily at a variety of tangents. Right from the start we debated why it is that villains are more likely to be living with a disability than are heroes. As someone that likes writing protagonists (be they heroes, anti-heroes, heroines or simply lead characters) who themselves have a disability, I felt compelled to stand up for the rights of my own characters.
It could be argued that traditionally the character with a disability is the villain or antagonist because that both makes them 'different' from the perceived audience, and because it gives them a reason to hate the protagonist and sometimes also humanity. For me, those are both erroneous assumptions by the characters' creators. Considering the size of our panel's audience, many of whom were prepared to identify as having a disability, there's no reason to assume that only the (currently) able-bodied want to identify with SF&F protagonists (most of our audience wanted to see more 'people like me' in their media consumption).
Likewise, hating anyone because they can be blamed for a disability seems a bit lazy to me. My characters have far more complex reasons for any less than warm and fuzzy feelings they may have towards their antagonist (and remember most villains see themselves as the heroes of their own story). They're also far more likely to dislike the antagonist over divergent values or methods used to propagate those values, while blaming their disability (if acquired in the course of their journey) on bad luck, or poor judgement on their own part.
Of course a lot of the villains in SF&F aren't actually that 'disabled' by their disability: it was suggested that we talk about impairments rather than disabilities, since most characters seem to gain useful technological or magical means by which their injury (and it is usually an acquired disability) doesn't actually prevent them carrying out their evil plans.
I've tried to get around that in my writing by considering the wider implications of a character's adaptations. A character that's lost one or more limbs might have futuristic technology to work prostheses, but they may still feel pain from the joints that were damaged but salvageable. They may feel phantom pain in the limb that has been replaced by a prosthesis. They may suffer chronic fatigue or other illness related to having to work their technology. Considering that a lot of these 'damaged' characters are heroes, anti-heroes or others involved in war or law enforcement, they may feel guilt that they survived an incident that killed colleagues, or PTSD over the circumstances of that incident.
And where's the realistic treatment of mental health issues anyway?
Going back to the issue of characters with disabilities looking different to the perceived audience, it was noted that some publishers try to avoid characters with disabilities, who actually look 'disabled'. One example given was how Oracle (the former Batgirl) was not allowed to have atrophied leg muscles as a result of being a long-term user of a wheelchair. Another example (again from graphic novels) was the rejection of pictures where the author in an autobiographical piece showed himself getting into the bath.
In regard to that same story, we were told how the author was dissuaded from writing a happy ending, even though he was happy at the time of writing, because that wasn't what the public were looking for. That led on to discussion of my story, 'The Monitors', in which characters with disabilities not only get a happy ending, but also get to have sex with each other. I must thank Noble Romance Publishing yet again at this point for supporting my story, and for using an excerpt from it (which mentions the characters' disabilities) to publicise the anthology in which it appears.
Our overall conclusion from the panel? Portrayals of disabilities might be becoming more varied, and encompass a wider selection of the cast of characters, but there's still a long way to go.
What do you think? What are good or bad portrayals of disability in SF and Fantasy? What are the pitfalls and cliches? What gets overlooked?