Where does disability come from?: Hynerian dominars and the social model

Image: Rygel, a grey alien with a tiny nose, pointy hairy ears, a big mouth, and a mustache, wears the robes of Hynerian royalty.

Meet Dominar Rygel XVI, just your average deposed monarch from the illustrious Hynerian empire. What’s a Hynerian, you ask. If you want to be crude about it, to use the words of the Human John Crichton, “a two-foot green slug” (“Won’t Get Fooled Again). Imagine if you will, then, a palace full of Hynerians (that is, with the exception of their Banik slaves, who, as Rygel would assure you, don’t really count). What would the architecture look like in such a palace? The furniture would be smaller and lower to the ground. If the palace had luxurious high ceilings, they’d be about seven feet high. The whole built environment would cater to people about the size of Rygel (and, if we’re being honest here, the whole built environment would cater to Rygel specifically). You’d have a bunch of Hynerians moving about in a world built for them (and a bunch of Baniks crouched over like John Cusack on floor 7 1/2 in Being John Malkovich).

But what happens if a Hynerian leaves that environment? Say, if their cousin Bishan deposes them in their sleep. What happens if they end up in a world made for much taller species? What then?

They’d become disabled. I don’t mean that, you know, the microt they ventured out of Hynerian territory, they’d get hit by a transport pod or get their corneas burnt off in a solar flare. No, no. I’m venturing into more theoretical ground than that. You see, I subscribe to a somewhat modified form of the social model of disability. What the frell does that mean? Okay, most people in my neck of the woods see a person who uses a wheelchair struggling to enter an inaccessible building and think, “Oh, how sad. If only an operation could cure them.” Disability is seen as a tragedy to be fixed by medical professionals. That’s what we call the medical model.

Now, the social model sees wheelchair users as people disabled by their social and physical environments. Under that model, the previously mentioned hypothetical wheelchair user can’t enter that building because it doesn’t have a ramp, not because our wheelchair user has a spinal cord injury. The spinal cord injury (the impairment) is a biological fact, but the problems in getting around in the world and doing things (the disability), like getting into the building, are a result of society. Society built the building and generally holds the belief that everyone should be able to walk. This model has been embraced by the international disability rights movement.

So what’s my problem with it? Mainly, the idea that impairment is an objective, biological fact outside of social and cultural beliefs. Really, though, what physical conditions are labeled impairment and what they are labeled is based on culture. Roughly speaking, an impairment is something that is not working in the body. This depends largely on what the culture sees as the normal way a body should work. As weeping adolescents have been told by their parents, there is no normal. Normal is a lie we made up.

And that’s how we get back to Rygel. Now a prisoner of the Peacekeepers, Ryg is surrounded by tall aliens. Well, he sees them as tall. The Peacekeepers considers themselves to be normal-sized and Rygel to be really short. It’s not just the xenophobic, space Nazi Peacekeepers who see Rygel as deviating from the norm. The Human John Crichton roughly equates Rygel with a person of short stature (that is, a little person or, pejoratively, “midget”) in a hallucination. If you recall, in “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” a Scarran tries to torture wormhole information out of Crichton by giving him a very vivid and frustrating hallucination. Crichton hallucinates that he is back on Earth. Sounds good, no? Here’s the thing: all of Crichton’s alien friends are on Earth, too, living as Humans. No one, least of all his alien friends, realizes that they are aliens.

Image: Rygel, wearing a business suit and holding a cigar, sits on a scooter behind a desk covered in papers.

Crichton tries to explain this to his father after a business meeting with financier Douglas Logan–Rygel’s Human identity. “The guy’s a two-foot slug on a golf cart!” John yells. Papa Crichton is taken aback by his son’s insensitivity. “What does a man’s disability have to do with anything?”

You see, from Crichton’s perspective, in Human terms, Rygel has a disability. He’s short (there’s the impairment) and he needs an assistive mobility device to get around. That carries over back into the real world outside of the hallucination. To get around on Moya, Rygel uses his throne sled, basically a hovering wheelchair.

Image: Rygel, clad in his royal robes and carrying a scepter, floats four feet in the air on a silver throne.

Nothing changes about Rygel’s body when he goes from ruling in Hyneria to running from the Peacekeepers. That is, nothing about Rygel’s body changes except for society’s perception of it. His height was once a normal characteristic but now it is an impairment. This impairment plus living in tall people world gives Rygel a disability. He might be a completely able-bodied Hynerian, but he’s disabled on Moya.

Rygel’s not the only one. Everyone on Moya has something specific to their species that prevents them from doing certain things and going to certain places. They’re all disabled. D’Argo has terrible allergies due to his keen Luxan sense of smell. Aeryn, like all Sebaceans, can’t be in extreme heat without falling into a permanent coma. And Crichton? Pilot put it best:

I’m only judging on my experience with you – but I’ve never seen such a deficient species… How do humans make it through a cycle – even half a cycle – without killing each other?… You have no special abilities. You’re not particularly smart, can hardly smell, can barely see, and you’re not even vaguely physically or spiritually imposing. Is there anything you do well?

You see, the multispecies environment of Moya (you’ve got Luxans, Delvians, Hynerian, Sebaceans, Humans, Pilots, Leviathans, Baniks, Nebari, Luxan-Sebacean hybrids, Interons, Traskans, Kalish, Scarran-Sebacean hybrids–and nary two of the same species present at one time) means that there are multiple understandings of what a “normal” body should be all rattling around in the same space. Moya’s passengers (and Moya herself) define normal in terms of their own species. Not being able to starburst or photogasm or warp metal by screaming or shift one’s center of gravity constitutes a disability.

What I’m trying to say: disability and impairment are dependent on the company you keep and where you hang your hat. And on Farscape…

Image: a screencap of Woody and Buzz from Toy Story. Buzz gestures off into the distance smiling hopefully, while Woody looks anxiously where Buzz is pointing. Above their heads a caption reads, "SPACE CRIPS," while below them a caption reads, "SPACE CRIPS EVERYWHERE"

This entry is adapted from my senior thesis, “In the Uncharted Territories, Everyone’s Disabled and No One’s as Straight as They Think.”

2 Responses to “Where does disability come from?: Hynerian dominars and the social model”

  1. 1 carraque
    April 18, 2012 at 6:31 am

    This… is pretty freaking awesome. I love that no matter how much I read about Farscape, someone can come along with a totally new perspective on something I hadn’t even considered.

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Space Crip

People with disabilities? In my sci-fi? It's more likely than you think.

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