Author’s note: As an autistic person with chronic depression I do consider myself to be disabled, however it’s worth noting that I am not physically disabled in the ways discussed in this piece. In places I draw on the lived experiences physically disabled people have shared with me (either publicly or personally), but I do not seek to present myself as an expert on these experiences.
Disability is a topic rarely touched on by Star Trek. In some ways this makes sense – in a universe with such advanced medical technology, injuries or diseases which would be life ending or life changing are inconveniences dealt with in a single scene or episode. There are also countless species with different capabilities, shaped by the various worlds they evolved in. And that poses the question of what disability means when ability is so varied – that’s what the DS9 episode “Melora” explores.
The episode follows Melora, the first Elaysian Starfleet officer, as she visits Deep Space Nine. Her species evolved in a low gravity environment, and while in Earth gravity she uses a wheelchair and other mobility aids to get around. Through the course of the episode we watch her struggle with chronic pain, accessibility issues, and the attitudes of her fellow Starfleet officers.
There are elements of modern ableism still on display in the 24th century. The Cardassian infrastructure incorporates steps, raised thresholds on doors, and other forms of architecture which make areas of the station inaccessible to Melora (to be fair to the Cardassians – wheelchairs were mostly made redundant centuries before the station was built; modern architects have no such excuse!) There’s a concept in disability activism that mobility aids (such as wheelchairs or canes) should be thought of and treated as a part of their user’s body – for example you shouldn’t start pushing someone else’s chair around without being asked any more than you should grab someone by the legs and lift them over your shoulder. When Dr Bashir takes it upon himself to redesign Melora’s wheelchair without talking to her first, that can be read as a violation of her bodily autonomy.
And this fits into a pattern throughout the episode, one which reflects the treatment of disability in the real world. Melora is treated at first as a curiosity, and then has to deal with being medicalised and infantilised by the crew of Deep Space Nine. Her capabilities are questioned, and decisions are made on her behalf without her input or agreement; and the way that she responds to this is really interesting. Rather than being super grateful, or providing an inspiring story of the indomitability of the human (/Vulcan/Klingon/Elaysian/Cardassian/Bajoran/Ferengi/Trill …) spirit, she’s mostly irritated. Frustrated by her physical limitations and annoyed by the additional restrictions placed on her by others – she is shown as a character just trying to get on with her life and wanting to be seen as more than just her disability. There’s an honesty to that response which is often lacking in stories about disability.
As a story about disability this episode is flawed. The parallel with real world disability breaks down as she chooses the more alien aspects of her culture (such as flying around in low gravity) over gaining the ability to walk as other species do. Less believable than that is the idea that everyone on Deep Space Nine actually has her best interests at heart. Perhaps it’s unsurprising they were shown sympathetically in this way given that these are the heroes of the show, but it was disappointing. Her mistrust is shown to be misplaced, her defensiveness is shown as a problem to be fixed rather than a healthy skepticism which helps keep her safe.
What the episode does do really well is illustrate the social model of disability. Simply put, this is the idea that disability exists within the context of the environment. A real world example – I need glasses in order to see clearly. This could technically be classed as a disability, but we don’t tend to think of it as such, because we have technology to address this issue and a culture which accommodates people wearing glasses in day-to-day life. Melora grew up in low gravity and was well adapted to that environment; when she left her homeworld to join Starfleet nothing about her physical capabilities changed. But (as we see several times during the episode) when the context she exists in changes, she shifts between being able-bodied and being disabled.
The social model of disability can be hard to get your head around, but it can be incredibly powerful. It treats disability as a result of the attitudes and systems of our society, rather than something which is inherent in disabled people themselves. That is an important shift in perspective that needs to be more widely understood, and I love the way this episode explores that concept – whether or not it was what the writers intended.