Writing the Other is an organization that offers classes and intensive workshops. Their mandate is to teach students how “to write characters very different from you sensitively and convincingly.”
This past month I had the opportunity to attend a workshop taught by Elsa Sjunneson-Henry called Writing Deaf and Blind Characters. Sjunneson-Henry herself is a deaf-blind author, and her insights during this masterclass were amazingly helpful.
Elsa Sjunneson-Henry is a half-blind, half-deaf, half-Scandinavian horror & SFF writer, editor, historian and theatre professional with a BA in Theater & History and an MA in Women’s History from Sarah Lawrence College. She’s the founder of Feminist Sonar, a blog on the intersection of disability issues, gender, sexuality, and politics. Her fiction appears in many tabletop roleplaying games, including Dead Scare and Green Ronin’s Blue Rose. She’s the author of A Place Out of Time and also included in the Ghost in the Cogs anthology. She was an Industry Insider Guest of Honor at GenCon 2015.
Other workshops on the Writing the Other slate included writing asexual characters, developing comics, writing plausible atheist and religions characters, non-binary characters, Native American characters, and a roundtable called How to Stay In your Lane which focuses on the portrayal of characters of color by white authors.
The reason I was able to attend this masterclass was because I benefitted from the Sentient Squid Scholarship. Made available by anonymous donors, Writing the Other grants one free spot per workshop to a person who can’t afford the course fees. I cut it close with my application for the Fall 2016 scholarship, but was lucky to be chosen.
I write according to seasons. I generally have a Spring manuscript and a Fall manuscript. I have the most free time to write after Christmas (the joys of working in retail) and in late summer/early fall. I spend those weeks or months drafting a new story idea or re-drafting an old one, and then I generally don’t touch it again for a while. The idea needs time to rest so I can return to it with fresh perspective.
In 2016 my Spring story idea was a paranormal New Adult novel set in Ireland that heavily incorporates old Irish folklore. The story also included multiple twenty-something Deaf characters. My characters tend to show up fully formed in my mind after a long subconscious incubation period, but the more I learned about Irish Deaf culture, the more I felt I was on the right track with this one.
Irish Deaf culture is unique in that for generations, there were only two places in the whole country for deaf kids to receive an education: St. Mary’s School for girls and St. Joseph’s for boys, both in Dublin. The Deaf community wasn’t just linguistically isolated (Irish Sign Language has more in common with French Sign Language than British Sign Language, to compound matters), but geographically centralized as well. That situation is ridiculously unique, and it influenced the development of Irish Deaf culture, humor, arts, etc.
St. Mary’s and St. Joseph’s aren’t the only places for D/deaf kids in Ireland to attend school anymore. Many public schools have the resources to integrate kids with hearing issues into mainstream classes, and as cochlear implants (covered by the public health system) become more prevalent, Deaf culture is changing in many ways.
The more I learned, the more I began to consider parallels between the folklore/paranormal cultures I was drawing from and the evolution of Irish Deaf culture, and how my understanding of one could inform the other to lend dimension to the story. I began to feel like I could make this WIP something more than “just another paranormal novel.”
What I Learned in the Masterclass
The class covered topics general to disability, like institutionalized ableism, identity, person-first language vs. identity-first language, and tropes like the “blind warrior.” We talked about why it’s not okay to dodge the word “disabled” by applying alternatives that deny identity (e.g. differently abled, handicapable, etc.), and why intersectionality in representation is so important.
We also got into the sensationalism of disability in popular media. Only 10% of blind Americans are totally blind. The vast majority of blind people are either congenitally blind, or gradually lose their sight as the result of a medical condition. Yet the majority of blind characters in fiction are totally blind and became that way as the result of an accident.
Characters going deaf as the result of explosions happens a lot in fiction. Not sure why, since there are many ways to become deaf and profound ear trauma is a super rare one. We also talked about the myth that all deaf people want to be cured, and the cultural divide between what it means to be deaf and Deaf.
The masterclass ended with some genre-specific advice. Science fiction and cyberpunk have a tendency to erase disability, or to water it down by “fixing” everyone through augmentation. If things like prosthetics exist, they often function like seamless pieces of medical machinery. Urban fantasy often includes fictional races (fairies, gnomes, etc.), yet disability disappears.
Historical fiction has the most potential for realistically portraying disability, especially if writing about a time period where large portions of the population would have acquired disabilities at war.
And lastly, horror — the genre that has a tendency to make the disability the scary thing to fear or use disability to make a character useless.
If you can attend a masterclass, do
This two-hour workshop was the single most useful webinar I’ve attended to date. It’s clear that the instructors and staff are passionate about what they do, and are well prepared for the lectures they deliver. Writing the Other uses GoToMeeting, so there’s a chat component for talking with other students, and asking questions of the instructors. There were also question periods throughout, not just at the end of the lesson, which was excellent.
I highly recommend checking out Writing the Other’s upcoming masterclass curriculum. Whatever classes you take, you won’t be disappointed.