Disabled Fans Talk Star Trek

Uhura, Kirk and Spock on wheelchairs - fan art

Fan-made T-Shirt designs by RollingMort91 incorporate Uhura, Kirk and Spock into the universal accessibility logo.

That flutter of nerdy excitement you’ve been hearing across the internet is the sound of Trekkies like me geeking out over the tantalizing information we’ve been fed about Star Trek: Discovery, the new Star Trek series coming to CBS in 2017. More Star Trek is always exciting, and this show is especially thrilling because the production team is hinting very clearly that the story will center on a female character—likely a woman of color.

What’s not to love? Last Thursday, disability activists asked that very question on #CripTrek, a Twitter chat (archived here) exploring the representation of disability on past Star Trek series and viewers’ hopes for the latest installment. In an era when “diversity” often feels like it’s a meaningless buzzword, the disability community has been driving conversations large and small changing mainstream narratives about disability in significant ways. Star Trek has been going where no TV has gone before for decades, and disabled people aren’t the only ones eagerly hoping for fresh, accurate, thoughtful representation on Star Trek: Discovery.

I got a chance to talk with the creator of the #CripTrek hashtag, Erin Hawley, also known as @geekygimp, and last week’s #CripTrek chat co-host Alice Wong (@sfdirewolf) about Star Trek, disability nerds, and the state of crips in pop culture and beyond. Both are avid pop culture fans, and they had rather a lot to say (or type, since we corresponded via email).

s.e. smith: Give me Erin and Alice in a box.

ERIN HAWLEY: I’m a crip Latina writer and digital content producer. I mostly blog about the intersection of disability and geekdom, with my favorite topics being Star Trek and tabletop or video gaming. In my day job, I manage Easterseals Thrive, an online community for young disabled women.

ALICE WONG: I am a disabled Asian American nerd who watches too much TV. I’m also a contributor to The Nerds of Color. Folks can read my origin story here. I talk/write quite a bit about representation of disabled and people of color (and of course disabled people of color) in pop culture as well. [Alice is also the creator of the Disability Visibility Project, a StoryCorps collaboration profiling disabled people across the U.S.]

s.e. smith: Was there a specific catalyst that made you decide to start #CripTrek, Erin, or was it a more general response to the Star Trek: Discovery casting and plotting info that’s starting to come out?

ERIN: It wasn’t until social media came around that I realized — wow, there are tons of disabled Trekkers! So I always want to talk about Star Trek and the disability representation therein. I’ve held live Google Hangouts on the topic, and critiqued a few episodes on my blog. With the announcement of the new series, I thought it would be the perfect time to coordinate this tweetstorm. I’m hoping those involved with the show will take note of our voices and hire actually disabled actors, screenwriters, or directors. Heck, I wish we would do the hiring, too.

s.e. smith: It seems like there’s a lot of disability hashtag action on Twitter this year (YAY), especially around pop culture (#MeBeforeEuthanasia, #FilmDis, #CriptheVote for example). What do you think is driving that? Do you see more nondisabled people engaging as well? It’s a bit early to be able to definitively tell, but do you think that makers and arbiters of pop culture are responding to it?  

ERIN: Social media changed how disabled activists engage with each other, and how we get our message out there. While not perfect, it is a more accessible way for many of us to protest. We still need those in the street fighting the good fight, but disabled people can get it done online, too. I do think more abled people are taking notice — at least I hope so. I get a lot of feedback like, “I never thought of it that way,” or “I didn’t know disabled people deal with that kind of stuff.” I see comic writers asking to do sensitivity readings, or board game designers looking into making their games accessible. So there is a positive response on my end, and I know other disabled activists experience the same. It’s hard to focus on the good when ableism wears you down every day, but change is a slow process and we have to keep pushing forward. Even if we only impact one person a day, it’s worth it.

ALICE: To me, the power is seeing us collectively talk about what we love and care about as disabled nerds/geeks/activists/whatever. If Bryan Fuller, showrunner of Star Trek: Discovery, or anyone involved with the show reads the tweets from #CripTrek, that would be icing on the cake. The real pleasure is seeing is us come together and have space where we didn’t before.

s.e. smith: Did you see any big themes emerging during the #CripTrek chat that speak to desires on the part of disabled science fiction fans?

ERIN: There was a lot of discussion on actual disabled actors playing disabled characters. That’s been a problem in Trek and elsewhere for a long time, and it hurts having to bring it up and challenge it over and over. It’s not even just about disability, though. Mainstream Hollywood continues to exclude marginalized actors or filmmakers at an alarming rate — it’s 2016, when will it end?

ALICE: To avoid using disability as a metaphor in any storylines, something that happens and then suddenly disappears due to technology or a cure only to serve as a lesson in morality.

Another theme is the wish for a major character to be played by a disabled actor and for disabled people to work as producers, writers, and behind the camera. It is always great to see the range of disability representation but disabled people are demanding actual representation by actual disabled people.

s.e. smith: Star Trek is pretty well-known for boundary-breaking science fiction (that interracial kiss). Is that one reason you think it’s a strong target for a campaign like this?

ERIN: Trek is perfectly ripe for social justice and disability representation. They’ve already included disability, even when it’s not stated outright; Odo, Spock, or Data may not say they are disabled, but their characterization and plots often align with the disability experience. There’s so much content we can pick apart and examine, and that’s the fun part.

ALICE: There is a lot of love for Star Trek — for many it serves as a source of comfort and is a form of entertainment that they share within different generations in their family. Disabled fans want to let the creators of Star Trek: Discovery know that they’re here and they’re watching. As a trailblazer on so many social and political issues, this campaign is in alignment with disability diversity on the screen.

s.e. smith: What are your personal hopes for Star Trek: Discovery and disability representation therein?

ERIN: I want to see a major disabled character played by a disabled actor. I want stories about disability that span seasons, not just a “very special episode.” I want disabled writers, directors, producers, stage—we need to be on and behind the screen. And most importantly, I want to see a place for us in the future.

This piece originally appeared on Bitch Media on September 7, 2016. Please do not post elsewhere without express permission.

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