Steampunk, Disability, and World Building

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The Steampunk Professor Xavier Wheelchair by Daniel Valdez.

Last week I posted about disability in the Victorian age. This week, by some brilliant stroke of coincidence, I came across the following article on Steampunk Journal:

In 2014, Mina was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia. One of the significant symptoms is a weakness of the muscles which meant she required living aids to assist her with raising her son. “I went into the local mobility shops and was dismayed to see that the limited range of aids were all fashioned towards elderly people or people with little appreciation of the more alternative ways of fashion,” said Mina. “My main issue came when I was invited to a wedding. I had a great outfit but my living aids make it look so ghastly! So I had to go without and suffered, leaving the event early.” It was then that she struck on the idea of modifying them herself. She did the same thing with her wrist and knee supports.

Mina, who runs a Steampunk accessories shop on Etsy, adapted her subculture’s aesthetic to her living aids. The idea took off quickly. After seeing Mina’s own living aids, one of Mina’s customers asked if she could craft a set of steampunk ear and eye protectors, so the customer could enjoy going out to clubs with friends. ‘In the near future she’s looking to customise back braces, adult neckerchiefs, joint supports, ring pens and walking aids’, the article concludes.

© Gothianna and Steampunk Journal
© Gothianna and Steampunk Journal

In the light of last week’s post, which described Victorian attitudes towards the disabled as ‘a combination of fear, pity, discomfort and an idea of divine judgement’, it was encouraging to see that the neo-Victorian update doesn’t share these feelings in any way, shape, or form. The steampunk subculture’s love of crafting has effectively turned disability—often a marker reserved for evil or monstrous characters in popular culture—into a superpower.

It turns out that this topic (like many topics) has been on the steampunk community’s collective mind for a while. Steampunk Tourist talks about why this subculture is a better fit with disability than others:

When it comes to Steampunk […] one isn’t restricted to that sort of rigid rule set. Rather than being a predetermined cast of characters, Steampunk is an artistic style. While it can stand alone, it can also be added to other things to make them Steampunk. You don’t have to be someone else; you can create your own character. What that means to a person with a physical disability who relies on a device is that their device – be it a wheelchair, cane, oxygen tank, leg braces, or even glasses – can be dressed up and blended into a costume, or even made the centerpiece of it. […] Within the world of Steampunk, those things don’t make them stand out as “others”; they’re merely smart, fashionable accessories. And one can easily imagine that were someone brave enough to dress up a prosthetic limb with Steampunk flare, they would most likely find themselves the belle of the ball at any event, and for all the right reasons.

The Steampunk Professor Xavier Wheelchair by Daniel Valdez
The Steampunk Professor Xavier Wheelchair by Daniel Valdez

Talking about a peg-legged character in one of her steampunk novels, Rebecca Diem likewise writes:

Steampunk literature is a disruption of the historical narrative. When I’m creating a universe for my characters, I treat history like the icing on the cake. Or, sometimes, the rosettes. I am creating a world with airships, sky pirates, auto-baubles and appropriated Victorian aesthetics. I pick and choose which parts I borrow from our history and which parts to embellish.

[…]

So, in a steampunk setting, what does accessibility look like?

In the Tales of the Captain Duke, Professor Sewell is the morally-ambiguous Tony Stark figure. She becomes one of the first students at Lovelace University, a school founded by Mary Somerville and funded by the heirs of Ada Lovelace. She pioneers the field of biomechanical engineering with her incredible prosthetics and reshapes the Victorian understanding of disability. The classic image of the crippled, impoverished veteran pushing himself on a scooter is undone, reshaped into a foreman supervising work at a factory on eight-foot legs.  The Professor disrupts society with her inventions, and challenges her peers’ understanding of the possible.

Do you have an example of how steampunk approaches disability? I would love to hear about it!

 

Disability and the Victorians

Scouts at the Guild of the Brave Poor Things. © Brave and Poor Ltd

When we think of ‘the Victorians’, we’re actually often thinking of a very specific group of people.

This is a usually a representational issue. White, upper-class, able-bodied people are the ones we see in most photographs of ‘the Victorians’ (though not all). These are ‘the Victorians’ most often depicted on-screen, or written about in neo-Victorian fiction.

If these are the ‘typical’ Victorians in our view, what was it like to be an atypical Victorian?

In posterity, the Victorians are not known for their kindness towards those who were ‘different’. Freak shows and asylums spring readily to mind—and these were also a part of the equation. The historical reality is (as always) more complicated, however. Looking at the daily lives of the disabled in the Victorian era, Historic England has the following to say:

In 1848 a religious advice pamphlet observed: “Some boys laugh at poor cripples when they see them in the street. Sometimes we meet a man with only one eye, or one arm, or one leg, or who has a humpback. How ought we to feel when we see them? We ought to pity them.”

The writer had a sting in the tail for the jeering boys. While cripples might be made “bright and beautiful” by God on judgement day, wicked able-bodied children who laughed at them could be “burned in a fire that will never be put out”. These were the ambivalent Victorian attitudes towards disability—a combination of fear, pity, discomfort and an idea of divine judgement.

This is not, on the whole, a positive perspective.

In practice the situation was a bit more optimistic. The Victorian era was, after all, the birth of the British welfare state:

There were charitable bodies for the blind, the ‘deaf and dumb’, ‘lunatics’, ‘idiots’, ‘epileptics’ and ‘the deformed’. They offered education (Association for the Oral Instruction of the Dumb), work (Liverpool Workshops and Home Teaching Society for the Blind), hospital treatment (National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic) and many other services.

 

Making hay to at the back of the Worcester College for the Blind, courtesy of New College Worcester Archives.

Some societies even turned to their own Victorian propaganda machines:

Many disabled people simply lived their lives purposefully in their communities. In 1894 the first branch of the Guild of the Brave Poor Things (motto: ‘Happy in My Lot’) was formed as a self-help group for people with physical disabilities. They described themselves as a group to “make life sweet for the blind and crippled folk of all ages”.

Conveying a sense of pride and solidarity, they used popular military imagery of the period to create positive feelings about their disabilities, referring to themselves as “a great army of suffering ones”. Their annual report in 1902 described how they “go out daily into a battle-field, where pain is the enemy to be met and overcome”.

If you’re interested in reading more about disability in the Victorian age, The Victorian Web has several resources and reviews on the topic.