Lily Lab

What I Want to Read and Write When It Comes to Disabilities and Related Subjects

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Before I get things started, I like to talk about a small and otherwise inconsequential scene from a visual novel I recently finished, 俺たちに翼はないOretachi ni Tsubasa wa Nai -- specifically, Miyako's Prelude.

In that chapter, we follow Miyako as she goes through depressive and manic phases. She tries to push people away and would rather sleep in her room or party hard in a livehouse. Her mental health has never been great, but she's grateful for anyone who chooses to listen.

One day, after her regular check-up with her therapist, she meets a side character on the way out. The identity of that character is not particularly relevant, though he has appeared many times throughout the game. He's not the type one "expects" to go to counseling. That's probably why he feels a bit ashamed. Both characters have an awkward conversation about the clinic and it turns out he's considering visiting there. Miyako brings up that it is quite common for students to visit this place and he feels relieved. And Miyako says that she won't spill the beans of him visiting here to school and he thanks her. Then, they part ways.

The scene never gets revisited or expanded. We don't know why he goes there and there's nothing in the game that suggests a need to visit a counselor. But that's not really a mystery for us to probe into: he has his own reasons that just happen to be hidden from the rest of us.

The game respects his privacy and it reminds me that we should get better at treating mental health as a real normal thing to care about.

A screenshot of Oretachi ni Tsubasa wa Nai, with the textbox reading, in Japanese: 'We aren't in the Showa era anymore, so it's not that unusual to visit a therapist these days.'
"We aren't in the Showa era anymore, so it's not that unusual to visit a therapist these days."

Titles like おれつばOreTsuba, The Caligula Effect 2, and SeaBed have spurred my interest in how we talk about disabilities, mental health, minorities, and really anything we try to "hide" from and adapt to in society. Even though the world is full of disabled people and their loved ones, we don't really see that much fiction that explores their lived experiences.

Instead, we either get stories full of abled people or receive caricatured explanations of disabled people that cater to the sympathies of abled people. Many best-selling works, especially those that are shown in high schools, fulfill that latter niche. We get lists of symptoms, scenes that focus on extremely particular traits, and characters who "feel special" due to their disabilities. I'm sure a good chunk of us has the unfortunate experience consuming a work that has a neurodivergent (especially autistic) character who's really good at mathematics and science. It's a cringeworthy, dehumanizing stereotype that narrows lived experiences into a checklist. This is what unfortunately sells: tragedies written by people who consulted Wikipedia and nothing else for the sake of "educating" the abled public.

I get the feeling that this phenomena has exacerbated our thoughts on disabilities and similar subjects for the worse. If someone doesn't conform to the "textbook standard" of disabilities, then they don't "count". What's worse: they're probably trying to be treated as someone special. In this respect, disabilities become invisible, alienating, and just plain negative.

But I don't think it has to be that way. We should strive to show that the world is diverse and complex as much as we can. It doesn't have to be anything major or be The Theme per se. Indeed, OreTsuba isn't exploring mental health as a major theme, but it does have a few scenes like the above-mentioned because it's a grounded work exploring the multiple lives of people in a bustling city. It talks about disabilities at appropriate moments because it has to -- these characters are fully realized and have their own goals and flaws. The game doesn't preach nor lecture; instead, it invites us to listen to everyone's stories and how they figure their way around things. That's the kind of writing I seriously admire.

We can also directly explore and discuss things that actually affect people's lives. In this regard, 雨夜の月Amayo no Tsuki by Kuzushiro, a yuri manga about an abled lesbian who has a massive crush on a character with hearing disabilities, stands out. The work has citations and annotated explanations that compare and contrast well with the fictionalized depictions of disabled people and their loved ones. Likewise, the work follows an abled person who is struggling to disentangle her feelings of romantic attraction with her desire to be an ally. She doesn't understand every action the deaf character has and she's worried constantly about upsetting her whenever she says the "wrong things". As a result, there's some genuinely uncomfortable scenes that the work makes readers (especially those who are abled and want to be allies) think about their own actions and knowledge.

Amayo no Tsuki is definitely more explicit than OreTsuba, but the idea is still the same: it respects the particularized moments of struggles and joy of people with disabilities and their family and friends. You don't ever get the impression that the deaf character is just The Deaf Character; she has her own dorky aspirations and flaws, her hearing disability being merely one component of what makes her an interesting person to read about. I am truly impressed by this ongoing work and will like to read more.

So really, there's so many ways to talk about disabilities, minorities, and et cetera without being Another Explainer for abled people. You can add a few scenes that show that, yes, people "different" from the majority exist: ぬきたし2Nukitashi 2 has a small trans affirming scene where a character counts a trans woman as a woman without any hesitation and the trans woman feels extremely validated; Melody Lyrik Idol Magick has a cute autistic side character who gets excited by the protagonists performing a pop song for her; Swan Song has a character who is friendly with kids and the autistic character there and she sympathizes with the autistic character over the loneliness of not getting the antics of abled people -- scenes like that are genuinely helpful, even if they are very small.

And for people who are a bit more daring, they can pose hard-hitting questions like Caligula 2 where a character gets extremely dysphoric about their gender and asks the player if they'll behave differently if said character is of a different gender -- the answer that most people may instinctively choose is "gender doesn't matter", but that's an insensitive, hurtful comment: it's actually better to profess ignorance because there's no good and rational approach to subjects like gender.

There's so many works of fiction that try to capture the universal human condition or something, but I think they fail to even include an acknowledgement that minorities do exist and interact with the majorities. I'm glad there's examples like what I've outlined above fighting this depressing trend, but I feel there's never enough.

So, I think about questions like representation and all that. I don't exactly have an answer on what counts as "good" representation, but I will like to see people talk about the messier things in life. Whether they're small scenes like Oretsuba's or in-depth explorations like Amayo no Tsuki's, I find all these works valuable in contributing to a more well-rounded understanding of what it means to live on this earth.

I want to learn about other people who have entirely different experiences from me and explore what we share and differ. That's perhaps why I write scenarios about people who have barely appeared in the picture. If I can include little scenes that affirm such differences and similarities and help people feel more grounded in their lives, I will think of it as a success.

It's a cliche goal, but it'd be nice to write something that is actually inclusive and embracing of diversity. Like that little, inconsequential scene in OreTsuba. I know that if I was younger, I would have missed the point entirely. But as an adult who's experienced a bit of the world, I'm glad that such a scene exists to remind me that everyone has their own "thing" and we should acknowledge that.